‘A beginning and not an ending’: Project chronicles history of women at UC Berkeley

Sunny Shen/File

Related Posts

Women at UC Berkeley have largely been forgotten in the chronicling of campus history — that is, until 150W History Project chairs Sheila Humphreys and Catherine Gallagher began their project of archiving women’s stories throughout campus history.

The yearlong project was an idea of Chancellor Carol Christ and a committee of campus administration, according to Humphreys, and is a part of the campuswide celebration of the 150-year anniversary of women being admitted to campus. The project, which began in August 2019, is planned to be active until December, although Humphreys said they hope for its effects to last longer.

“The project is important because accurate history is important,” Gallagher said in an email. “We hope the project will inspire many different groups on campus to write the history of this university (especially of its last 50 years) from multiple viewpoints.”

Those currently chronicled in history are mostly men, according to Gallagher, who attributed this to the focus on deans, department chairs, presidents and chancellors — positions that women were barred from for a long time. Gallagher also said the fact that women made up less than 4% of faculty in 1968-70, when the last major UC history chronicling project happened, prevented women’s stories from being told.

Gallagher and Humphreys hope to reverse this trend of leaving women out of historical contexts.

“The History Project on 150 years of women at Berkeley is an attempt to look not just at individual women at the university but at the long sweep and general patterns of women’s participation in university life,” Gallagher said in the email.

The project hopes to chronicle the women of UC Berkeley: both the students and faculty but also the donors, alumni and staff as well. Humphreys said they have built off of the work of other women with this project, specifically Carroll Brentano, who edited “The Chronicle,” a scholarly journal about the impact of women on campus from 1998-2009.  Humphreys said she and Gallagher have been using Brentano’s work as “a Bible” for the project.

Humphreys said one particular challenge they face is chronicling campus staff, as their stories have mostly not been logged or remembered. She added that the people working on the project have reached out to various campus departments but are still exploring ways to fully capture the legacy of the women who worked in them.

“Staff, food service workers, gardeners, janitors, administrative assistants … generally they don’t have the organized history,” Humphreys said.

According to Humphreys, another challenge women across the history of UC Berkeley have faced is balancing their career with marriage and children, which prevented women from being faculty members for a long time. Humphreys told the stories of multiple women — including Phoebe Waterman, a woman with a doctorate in astronomy in the class of 1913, and Annie Dale Biddle Andrews, the first woman to get a doctorate in math from UC Berkeley in 1911 — whose personal lives involving husbands and children prevented them from joining faculty and being promoted.

For those who were faculty, their promotions were also very slow, often taking more than a decade to reach associate professor status, according to Humphreys. She added that restrictions placed on early women, including being prohibited from using the gym; being banned from using scientific equipment such as telescopes; and being hindered from joining faculty altogether, in some cases; were real obstacles in both their professional and personal lives.

“I have to admit that I’m most fascinated by the women in the early years who overcame the limitations they faced … I find these women fascinating and inspiring, and I knew nothing about them before I started this project,” Gallagher said in the email. “I feel connected to these generations of smart, ambitious, and capable women stretching back into the 19th-century.”

Humphreys and Gallagher are encouraging departments to publish pages on their websites noting their female alumni, faculty and students from the past and from the present. As of press time, 27 departments and colleges have published pages commemorating their women, and Humphreys encouraged those who have not to do so. She added that she hopes students will ask their departments to create webpages.

“Within the departments, there’s a lot of knowledge,” Humphreys said.

Individuals can also suggest their own ideas for women to chronicle through a form on the project’s website.

They have also employed more than 40 undergraduate students on 13 Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program projects, according to Humphreys, to chronicle the histories of various departments and demographics on campus.

Humphreys said she hopes researchers and alumni will use the results of the project in the future.

“We hope that we will have compiled and created an archive about the history of women at Cal which is a beginning and not an ending,” Humphreys said. “This can’t be done in one year.”

Kate Finman is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.