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For women in the movement, a dual struggle

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Former Managing Editor

OCTOBER 10, 2014

One afternoon in 1964, the calls of “Join us, join us” from the balconies of Sproul Hall caught Lynn Hollander Savio’s attention.

After recognizing the voice of Mario Savio — a leader of the student movement she later married — she was spurred to enter Sproul Hall and join the protesters, establishing her faith in the Free Speech Movement. In becoming “one of the troops” for the FSM, however, Savio assumed a limited leadership role paralleling the experiences of many female activists at the time.

Women such as Savio may have been welcomed into the movement, where they attended rallies and sit-ins and passed out thousands of leaflets, but whether they could voice their opinions and be taken seriously was a different question. In a time before the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s had really taken off, the FSM was more concerned with defending the First Amendment than women’s rights, according to some veterans.

“Looking back, there was only one woman in the leadership for a dozen males,” Savio said about the gender inequality. “But our consciousness was not raised yet.”

Three years after protesters surrounded a police car in the early days of the movement, terms such as “women’s work,” used to refer to tasks like stuffing envelopes, were still in use, according to campus history professor David Hollinger, reflecting the at-times glacial rate of change.

“Some of us, male and female, understood that this was an inappropriate thing to say,” Hollinger said in an email. “But that it was still being said as late as 1967 on the Berkeley campus by very progressive men tells you something about the pace and scope of change.”

Most of the grudge work for the FSM was done by women. Women staffed the offices, which were usually just student apartments; they made the Kool-Aid and sandwiches for demonstrations; they typed; they handed out materials and manned the phones. Although they participated in the protests, women were arrested in far fewer numbers than men: About 280 women were arrested Dec. 3, 1964, the day of a huge Sproul Hall sit-in, according to Barbara Stack, who has been archiving records from the Free Speech Movement. On that date, the only one for which Stack has a record, about 470 men were arrested.

According to FSM veteran and former state Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg, the movement’s meetings were especially illustrative testaments to the era’s gender inequality. About 20 minutes after a woman would propose an idea, Goldberg said, the exact same thought might be suggested by a man — only this time, instead of being dismissed, it would receive praise: “What a great idea!”

The women who were involved in the movement’s executive committee, which consisted of two members from every organization on campus that wanted to affiliate with the FSM, and the 12-member steering committee elected by the executive committee, included Bettina Aptheker, Goldberg and Suzanne Goldberg, among others. They weren’t necessarily “one of the girls” who were making Kool-Aid and manning the offices — but they also weren’t “one of the boys,” either, who were becoming celebrities as the movement took off, according to Goldberg.

Savio recalled that the steering committee itself, which was constantly changing in composition, had women on it such as Goldberg and Aptheker — although Goldberg said she was later “purged,” as she termed it, in part over her concerns about the safety of the protesters.

Other women, too, played important roles: Mona Hutchins represented the Young Republicans on the steering committee, and Myra Jehlen helped lead campus graduate students. But Savio said that although these voices were respected, it was more difficult for women to have their opinions heard.

“You still (had) to fight for air time in a room full of men,” Savio said about the FSM. “You (had) to be very pushy if you’re trying to get to say things if you’re a woman.”

Savio served mostly as just another presence at rallies and sit-ins, although she helped edit a report refuting the campuses claim to liberal policies. Savio reported that she never felt oppressed at the time, nor was she really aware of sexism as an issue — consciousness about women’s issues had not been raised yet, she said.

While many male activists gained experience from joining groups such as the Freedom Riders, who challenged Jim Crow laws by riding segregated buses in the South, the culture was less permissive about letting females set off alone, according to Oregon State University professor emeritus Jean Moule, a veteran of the movement. As a result, many came into FSM and other activist movements lacking the organizing skills gained from such participation, leaving them less prepared from the start and making it harder for their voices to be heard at meetings.

“It was a reflection of the times that there were mostly men doing the talking,” Moule said. “A single male had an advantage to make those kinds of decisions and get that kind of experience.”

Many veterans recalled that the media itself helped to perpetuate a sense of gender inequality, misrepresenting the FSM.

Aptheker said the hallmark of the movement was participatory democracy, in which there is no real leader and contributions from all participants are welcome. She noted that the media’s efforts to turn Jack Weinberg and Mario Savio, who “eschewed any kind of leadership role,” into the head of the movement reflected a certain sexist approach in making men out to be the sole leaders.

“Mario was made the leader mostly by the press, not by us, and I think that was because he had been in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer, and the press was trying to portray him as this outside agitator,” Goldberg said.

In newspaper accounts of the FSM’s activity, Jackie Goldberg became “Art Goldberg’s sister,” Bettina Aptheker became “Herbert Aptheker,” and so on — a trend of “male identification” that contributed to the movement’s characterization as leader-based, according to Goldberg.

It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Free Speech Movement that feminism came into the forefront, but the spirit of activism and independence it instilled helped empower many of the women who swelled the ranks. For many of them who had experienced their first taste of political organizing, it paved the way to involvement in the women’s liberation movement, Aptheker said.

Savio recalled sitting in a Berkeley living room a few years later with women who had taken part in the free speech and anti-war movements, many of whom benefited from the knowledge they had gained about organizing through their activism.

That activism had given them experience in what it takes to run a movement, Savio said, but many also carried with them the personal experiences of being poorly treated by comrades in those movements — of not always being taken seriously by men. This combination of knowledge and political empowerment helped trigger sympathy toward liberation — not just of speech, but of a spectrum of rights.

“We woke up the youth of the country to a sense of youth power,” Savio said.

Fifty years later, that sense of youth power is still alive and well. While Goldberg said society isn’t “out of the woods” yet on the issue of achieving gender parity, she has seen enormous change in female empowerment.

“Women are much more willing to call men out when they’re being less than careful about the way they are listening to and being regarded,” Goldberg said. “No one has raised them to believe that that’s not something women are supposed to do.”

Contact Katy Abbott at 


OCTOBER 10, 2014

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