Mills students and alumnae commemorate a victory for women-only education


Twenty years ago, they made educational history. The students at Mills College in Oakland revolted against the administration’s decision to go coed. The women chanted, they blockaded buildings, they argued their case on television talk shows and they helped produce financial plans for the school’s future.

And then, surprising even themselves, they won. Sixteen days after the students’ strike began, Mills officials reversed course and declared that the undergraduate program would remain just for women — a decision that went against a national trend but is now being commemorated as a wise, if risky, move.

“It was a pretty incredible experience for a group of women to do what we did. And for it to have a positive outcome too, that was key,” recalled Lisa Bach, a 1990 Mills graduate who was active in the strike and is now a publishing executive. “We left college feeling empowered, and that’s what Mills was about at that time.”

Bach and the other women involved in those heady days are being honored this week at the 158-year-old school in the east Oakland hills. Events culminate with a May 15 commencement address by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), herself a graduate of a women-only college.

The presence of the alumnae is a chance for some heroine worship by current undergraduates and an opportunity for the 1,510-student campus to explain how it continues to buck the trend of coeducation.

In 1960 there were 298 women’s colleges in the United States. That number had dropped to 94 by 1990, after many formerly all-male schools went coed and many women’s colleges followed suit, merged with men’s schools or closed. Now, only about 50 campuses survive as primarily women-only schools, according to the Women’s College Coalition, a Hartford, Conn.-based group. That decline “is a harsh reflection of the economic realities in which higher education operates,” said Susan E. Lennon, the coalition’s president.

But since deciding to stay single-sex in 1990, Mills has successfully maintained both its mission and its financial health, Lennon said. “They’ve changed with the times and are really a good example of a school that is thriving today,” she said, noting that the only other women’s colleges on the West Coast are Mount St. Mary’s in Los Angeles and Scripps, which is part of the otherwise coed Claremont Colleges.

Even fervent supporters of women’s colleges agree that they do not appeal to most young women. But they say the option should be preserved for those who want to avoid the possibility of male students dominating classrooms, playing fields and student government.

Karri Donahue, a 1990 graduate who is now a sales director in the food industry, said she at one point wanted to leave Mills for a bigger coed college but changed her mind after she attended an overseas program in which teachers appeared to favor men. So she returned to Mills, convinced of “how lucky I’d been to have the all-women’s environment.”

Early media coverage of the May 1990 protests focused on students’ sobbing reactions and provocative banners proclaiming “Better Dead than Coed.” Then, Donahue helped arrange an appearance by herself and other Mills students on Phil Donahue’s (no relation) popular talk show. That helped generate more sympathetic coverage, pressuring Mills trustees to consider financial alternatives being offered by students, faculty and alumnae.

The strike “was probably the one thing in my life I’ve felt incredibly sure of. I knew it was the right thing,” Donahue recalled at a recent campus reception honoring the protesters. “I think it’s good to commemorate it so people don’t become complacent and know that every person can make a difference.”

By many measures, Mills is a stronger place than it was 20 years ago when enrollment and financial problems mounted. And it is more stable, having been led since 1991 by President Janet L. Holmgren, who recently announced that she will step down next year.

Mills has aggressively recruited older, commuter and part-time students and now enrolls about 930 undergraduates, compared to 777 in 1990. Its graduate-degree population has more than doubled to 584 students including those in education, management, music and creative writing. Graduate classes always have been open to men, and about 122 are now enrolled.

Mills’ endowment is about $176 million, up from $71 million in 1990. The lushly landscaped school recently constructed new buildings for natural science, the graduate school of business and graduate student apartments.

But Mills has not reached the 1,000-undergraduate student target negotiated in the 1990 reversal plan. Though it’s more competitive now, Mills offers admission to about 60% of applicants, a much higher rate than at more elite women’s colleges such as Smith and Wellesley, both in Massachusetts. And while it is more racially and economically diverse than in 1990, the school faces constant pressure to provide financial aid to help cover its $47,000 price tag for tuition, fees, room and board.

In 1990, “the notion that an institution could be powerful and prosper and thrive as a women’s college was not yet well established,” Holmgren said in an interview. Since then, the possibility of turning coed has never been seriously considered, she said. The college, she said, “has decided to celebrate its strengths and move forward on its strengths.”

Symbolizing that, Holmgren later led the reception crowd of about 100 in an enthusiastic rendition of the protesters’ favorite chant, which has become a Mills anthem: “Strong Women, Proud Women, All Women, Mills Women!”

Sophomore Anna Moreno said she wanted to thank the 1990 protesters. “It’s admirable to fight for something you believe in, something you know has value. And women’s education has value,” said the 20-year-old history major.