Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The importance of women's organizations

As an undergraduate here at UC Davis, I was the Historian of the Prytanean (PRIT-nee-an), Women’s Honors Society. This position sparked a fascination with local women’s history. It culminated with a research paper with the thesis that that democracy in the West was rooted in women’s organizations like Prytanean. I recently dug up the paper. I was surprised how relevant I found my thesis (and that local history still really excites me.) I find that history gives context for today’s events. So, I thought I’d share some of the highlights of my paper and hope others also find it inspiring and relevant.
Early historians found roots of American exceptionalism in the Western frontier and its righteous, hardworking, and democratic citizens. (see Fredick Turner’s The Frontier in American History) In response, some historians argued that the West was a place lacking independence and freedom; it was heavily subsidized by the Federal government and full of corrupt politicians. (see, Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West). Other historians found that although the tale of the democratic men going out into the wilderness was false, there was an important sense of community in the West, particularly in small networks of women. (see, Julie Roy Jeffrey Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1880) In my opinion, the women’s organizations were more than that. They gave voice to marginalized people in society, established a community, and built a version of democracy that has largely been ignored by historians.

Founded in 1901 on the UC Berkeley campus by Agnes Frisius and Adele Lewis Grant, Prytanean was the first women’s collegiate honor society in the nation. At a time when women were disenfranchised legally and socially, the founding of Prytanean remarkable.
Adele Lewis Grant, Founder of Prytanean
The idea for Prytanean came when founder Adele Lewis Grant heard of the Golden Bear, an honor society exclusively for senior men to access the new president of the university, Dr. Wheeler. In the oral history of Prytanean, Adele Lewis Grant recalled: “the young men on the staff at the Daily Cal used to talk about Golden Bear quite a bit and how much they got out of it, so I thought, “Why couldn’t we do that for the women?”

Prytanean was founded on the democratic ideal that women should have equal access to voice their concerns and take action when needed. These objectives were achieved. In the oral history of Prytanean, many women mentioned feeling closer to the faculty and president. Adele Lewis Grant noted that “Dr. Wheeler was very much interested in what the students were doing and the students could go to him with their problems of any type that pertained to the University. And he was always most interested and most sympathetic, in my experience.”
Agnes Frisius, Prytanean founder
Prytaneans turned their network into action. First, they established the student health care system. This required getting official approval and raising over $2,000. They raised the money by “serv[ing] coffee and sandwiches at ten cents per service, and in the course of the day [they] accumulated over $50.00, which meant that at least 500 students had patronized [them].” After the Cowell Student Health Center was built, Prytaneans set up a loan fund for women students. The main economic hindrance for women attending college was the income lost during those work years and not being able to afford rent. There was little to no financial aid available to students, and this loan fund helped to cover the cost of living.

Through Prytanean, women students had a voice in the community. Coffee and sandwiches may seem trivial, but such events taught Prytaneans how to organize. They then used these skills for fundraising, mobilizing the student body, or approaching the president of the college with a proposal. It gave them the confidence and skills to execute their dreams for the community.

Prytanean is an example of an exceptional women’s organization laying the foundation for democracy on the frontier. This example is relevant today. Looking at my experience in law school, the King Hall Women’s Law Association (KHWLA) has become the avenue for women law students to learn to organize and have their voices heard. Organizing in law school is difficult. Students are stressed and tired. Bake sales seem trivial. However, KHWLA has given me and other female students the knowledge to organize around many issues here at King Hall. For example, I have been very active in establishing a student advisory committee for the setting of the Professional School Fee here at King Hall. The skills I learned being a board member of KHWLA has been invaluable in organizing around the issue of fees.

Prytanean provided a way for previously marginalized women to learn to organize, network, and raise funds. They set a precedent for democracy and inclusion in the UCs that translated to mobilization outside of the university. Although it is hard and slow work, I hope that one day KHWLA will have such a legacy.


Patricija said...

IT WILL! I still remember when you, Junei and myself got together with our vision. We were three women on a mission. We wanted a strong vibrant women's law organization that addressed issues for all women in our law school. I believe we accomplished just that.

As I rummaged through dusty old boxes of Feminist Forum and Women's Caucus (the earlier iterations of KHWLA), I admit I got a lot discouraged. Women's Caucus was addressing many of the same issues in the 1980s as we are today. But then I stumbled upon the heart of organizations like us. I found pictures of past events. I found stacks of letters written by current law students recommending phenomenal women applicants to be admitted. Every step of the way, organizations like ours remind us that women helping women is incredibly powerful.

As I looked through all the wonderful things these past groups did, I quickly turned to all the amazing things we have accomplished. We continue to have dynamic events that bring informative and inspiring speakers. We are creating a successful mentorship program. We have gone to several influential conferences, increasing our school's visibility and widening our network. We held a successful fundraiser where we collected bras and feminine hygiene products (which are rarely donated and yet greatly needed) for a charity. This past election, we held voter registration tables and mobilized our student body to participate in our political process. And that is just barely scraping the surface of all that we've done. I am so proud of where we have come and how much we have already accomplished.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

I really enjoyed reading this, Heather.

I'm also fascinated by history -- but my focus is usually macroscopic. I tend to look at national or global systems. However, this story is so captivating precisely because of its local ties. I think it's easy to disassociate from global and national history, because I don't feel the direct benefits from the work of women in the past. But, it's very difficult not to connect to the Cowell Student Health Center, or UC Berkeley -- it's impossible not to feel the direct impact on my life of student health and financial aid. I really have so much to thank these women for.

I always have the sense that I'm tied to the history of my neighborhood, but (sadly) I still imagine the pioneers of my neighborhood as having been men.

This piece really touched me. Thanks for sharing.

MC said...

Heather, this post was fascinating. I completed my undergraduate degree at a UC campus, and undoubtedly owe thanks to Adele Lewis Grant and Agnes Frisius for making the collective woman's voice heard at UC Berkeley and subsequent UC campuses.

I appreciate that you characterize Prytanean as an example of an exceptional women’s organization laying the foundation for democracy on the frontier. That is exactly what these women did, and what women like you, and the women of KHWLA continue to do. You offer students like me so many opportunities: forums to discourse with professors, attendance to feminist conferences across the country, access to voter registration, and so much more. Thank you for continuing the Prytanean legacy.

Elizabeth said...

Heather this was great! Thank you so much for posting. I also wrote about local history for my undergrad thesis (about the first political party on campus at Berkeley). I think local history is really interesting and connects us to the past in a special way, particularly when you write about stories that have not been told before.

It was so great to learn about the impact of women at Cal so long ago! Women are very powerful when we organize. I am so proud to be one of the founding ladies of KHWLA. I consider KHWLA one of the most important things I've been a part of in law school. Sisterhood is so powerful when we work together towards a common goal and we can accomplish so many things (as Patricija already listed). I hope to support KHWLA long after we graduate! HUZZAH!

Mo said...

First, I want to take this opportunity to express how impressed I’ve been with KHWLA this past year! Its rebirth has been refreshing and very much needed on our campus, and I thought the tampon/bra/pad drive was particularly wonderful. Not only were you helping out an incredible cause, but you also, I think, helped desensitize people (read: more than a few of our male peers) to these products. I saw so many men squirm and guffaw around the donation boxes at first, it was ridiculous -- like a really bad, ongoing sitcom joke about how awkward husbands feel buying tampons for their wives… ugh. Luckily, though, it seemed to lessen (or perhaps I stopped noticing it as much?) as time went on. In any event, I very much hope that your successors make the drive an annual one.

Second, I have to say that I was very glad to hear that you changed the name of the organization. I decided not to join “Feminist Forum” during my first year of law school largely because of the stigma and judgment the “F” word often carries with it. It’s terrible, I know. And I feel terrible for my apprehension because I know it does absolutely nothing to help my fellow female students… This struggle, I imagine, is something most of us will probably deal with in our lives – that is, the decision whether to keep our own personal experiences and opinions safe, private, and protected even though they could materially benefit the group if made public. I know it’s certainly something I struggle with. But when you are part of an industry that tends to value reputation over actual qualification, is that not justified to some extent?