In Honor of Women Who Came Before
For Women's History Month, We Celebrate Campus Women Role Models and Women Who Inspired Them
By Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
Each year since 1987, when Congress declared it Women's History Month, March has been a time to remember the contributions of women -- both those in history who opposed slavery, fought for the vote or broke barriers, and those in our own time who have inspired or led the way.
To celebrate close to home, Berkeleyan asked a handful of campus women who have themselves blazed paths to name the women -- on campus or off -- who have inspired them.
Women's History Month, by the way, has a history of its own. From International Women's Day, March 8 -- honored today by Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam and the Berkeley Unified School District as a public holiday -- grew Women's History Week, initiated in 1978 by the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women.
Nine years later, in response to a petition from the National Women's History Project in Sonoma County, Congress set aside the entire month to honor women's contributions.
This week's survey is the first of two on campus women role models.
My other big role model was Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman from the South to be elected to Congress. She reminded me of my mother. I admired her ability to get a point across, her unapologetic strength. And she was very good at bridging differences and commanding respect.
Director, Berkeley Art Museum
I was fortunate to be an art history major at Michigan State University in the late 1960s when she taught there. As a woman who had "done it all" before anyone thought of this concept, Mrs. Holt made it perfectly clear to her students that anything worth having was going to be damn hard work.
Elizabeth Holt was a staunch populist who believed that art history had to democratize, and she was one of the people who instilled in me a belief that, in art, everything and everybody mattered. She was the most impressive person I had ever known and she was a woman.
At the end of her first year of teaching, Mrs. Holt was to deliver an important lecture. She had gussied herself up for the occasion -- her white hair set off by gray eyeliner, silver Mexican earrings, and a gray wool dress. "She's sexy!" whispered the young man sitting next to me.
In 1968, being sexy mattered. When I heard my friend's comment, it dawned on me that a woman could be sexy for what she knew as well as for what she wore. I also realized that art history is a cumulative profession: what you know is the sum total of what you've seen, with a few facts thrown in. Therefore, in theory, the older you are, the better you are because the more you've seen.
Suddenly, I could visualize a future for myself -- she was standing right there in front of me.
I took a political science course she team-taught with Robert Scalapino, who at the time was an advisor to President Kennedy on the Vietnam War. It was wonderful to have that balance, and to see a woman professor standing up for non-violence and peace.
I never had Josephine Miles as a teacher, but reading her poetry was an inspiration.
I was hired in 1960, the second female professor at Boalt, to take her place when she retired. She was very much around as an emerita professor, though. One of my courses was California marital property, which covered a civil law subject I hadn't learned at the University of Chicago law school. Barbara tutored me in the course twice a week just before I taught it my first year at Boalt.
We became close personal friends, too. She was a remarkable woman. She had a PhD in economics and began teaching with a joint appointment at Berkeley in law and social economics. She was instrumental in drafting the Social Security Act and wrote a definitive two-volume work on California family law.
An endowed chair in her honor has been established at the law school, and I was appointed the first holder of that chair. I am delighted to be able to continue my work in her name.