Opening doors for women to come: A history of female achievements at UC Berkeley

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“Behind every strong woman is another strong woman.”

It’s a cheesy line we all throw around every once in a while — a “stacking doll”-like concept that each and every powerful woman was first influenced by another woman who came before her.

Throughout my time at UC Berkeley, I have met an endless amount of strong women who are passionate, driven and kind. And I think most would agree that over the course of 150 years, women at UC Berkeley have built layers upon layers of achievements, recognition and possibilities. 

So, maybe a cliche-ridden, overused line, such as this one, is key to understanding the complex history of gender, defiance, bias and most importantly, possibilities for women at UC Berkeley. 

Here are some of our favorite women throughout history who’ve fought against social norms to open doors for the rest of us at UC Berkeley.

Defying social norms for the pursuit of education

Rosa Scrivner was the first woman to graduate from UC Berkeley in 1874, earning a degree in agriculture. Twenty-four years later, Milicent Washburn Shinn earned her doctorate, becoming the first woman to do so at UC Berkeley, in education, focusing on childhood development, which eventually led her to publish her dissertation, “Notes on the Development of a Child.” Shortly after Shinn, Jessica Blanche Peixotto became the second woman to earn a doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1900 and would later become the first female professor and department head in social economics in 1918.

In 1920, there were 17 Black students on UC Berkeley’s campus. Ida Louise Jackson was among the eight women, finding herself often isolated on a campus that was dominantly white. This didn’t stop Jackson from becoming the first Black woman to be a certified teacher in California or from co-founding UC Berkeley’s first Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Jackson would go on to write in the mid-1960s, “I am more than ever convinced that education is the greatest factor in the upward climb of any person or people. My theme song has been: learn, study, read — continuously.”

At the time, women such as Jackson, Scrivner, Peixotto and Shinn focused on the value of their education, but they had no idea that they’d be rewriting history and opening doors for women at UC Berkeley for decades to come. 

Rewriting educational departments

Barbara Christian was central in establishing UC Berkeley’s African American studies department in 1972. Most known for her groundbreaking study “Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition,” which analyzes Black female novelists and the definition of their role in U.S. society and literature, Christian became the first Black woman to receive regular faculty appointment, to receive tenure and to become a department chair. 

Fast forward 46 years to July 2018, when Tsu-Jae King Liu became the College of Engineering’s first ever female dean. First joining UC Berkeley’s faculty in electrical engineering and computer sciences in 1996, Liu had various roles in the EECS department. For example, she became the first female chair of the department in 2014. In a Q&A piece in the fall 2018 Berkeley Engineer magazine, Liu said her goal is “to elevate Berkeley Engineering to a higher level of excellence and impact by fostering an inclusive community so that all members can thrive and reach their full potential.”  

Women like Christian and Liu have proven that women can lead, create and run traditionally male-dominated positions.  

Discovering a tomorrow

Avideh Zakhor is the first female professor of electrical engineering at UC Berkeley and the first female ever to be hired directly into the EECS department. An immigrant from Iran, Zakhor was essential in the development of technologies for Google Earth and Street View.

Since 1988, Nancy Lemon has taught a domestic violence seminar at the UC Berkeley School of Law, the first class of this topic in a law school. In 1994, Lemon developed the spousal rape law, which makes it a felony to rape one’s spouse in California. 

Finally, one of the most recent female accomplishments was by Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Professor in Biomedical and Health Jennifer Doudna, who has been a leading figure in the CRISPR revolution, heading the development of the gene-editing tool.

Women like Zakhor, Lemon and Doudna have motivated us to think outside of the box and to combine our interests and creativity to make a better world around us. 

An ongoing history

For decades, women at UC Berkeley, acknowledged or unacknowledged, have pioneered their way through majors, studies and titles. They’ve tackled some of the most pressing issues of their times in male-dominated spaces and been instrumental in shaping how the campus values itself, its alumni and its students to come. These women have taught us that pursuing whatever we believe in most is always worth it — even if it seems against the odds.

Contact Emily Denny at [email protected] .