Forty years of local women who transformed activism, law, academia, and more
Four months ago I stopped shaving my armpits. I’d always been lazy about it (do you even know how much time and money this genre of grooming demands?) and even during my years at UCSC, among the happily hairy hippies, I never felt quite confident enough to just let myself grow—something inherently feminine, although not by cultural standards.
But when I returned to the smallish, wealthy, semi-suburb community where I grew up, I realized there’s something unique about Santa Cruz that only a 50-minute drive east could unveil: women here have a lot of freedom. Freedom to reclaim femininity in whatever way we see fit—with pumps or Birkenstocks, lipstick or septum piercings, pencil skirts or birdwatcher pants, waxed legs or hairy ones.
No matter how small or subtle, the multitude of ways in which we are openly allowed to express ourselves is a testament to the city’s robust history of women who transformed academia, career fields, artistic niches and physical spaces in ways often taken for granted.
1975 saw the first class to graduate in Women’s Studies at UCSC, but at that time it wasn’t a sanctioned degree, since it was still a student-faculty collective. What is now called Feminist Studies had an arduous journey to becoming a full-fledged department, despite the fact that, in the heat of second-wave feminism, many found it unacceptable that there was no curriculum focused on women’s issues.
“Certain administrators were very resistant to allowing Women’s Studies to become a bonafide department; it took until 1996 to become a department—it was simply sexism, it was just a prejudice,” says Bettina Aptheker, one of the most renowned professors for spearheading the Feminist Studies department.
Those early years depended greatly on faculty members from various departments and students to keep classes afloat, says Aptheker. Today, the department has 10 full-time faculty members and the classes are packed. In 2013 the first Ph.D. cohort in the department began its inaugural session, and during the 10 years faculty pushed for its approval, the department was granting a “designated emphasis” in Feminist Studies—meaning more than 100 doctoral students have already graduated with a double degree, just not one in the department they wanted.
“Reproductive rights, violence against women, issues around child rearing, the family, race and class, gender, sexuality, lesbian identity, gay identity—these were all major political issues that were being argued on a much broader political scale,” says Aptheker.
History (and most other fields) were taught by the victors (men), so students demanded a gender-balanced education—one that included both sides of the story.
Aptheker began teaching “Intro to Women’s Studies” in 1980 and became the first hire on a tenure track in 1987 when the then-“program” became a “committee.” She’d already made a name for herself in the Communist Party and Free Speech Movement in Berkeley and worked for the defense in Angela Davis’s high-profile trial in the early ’70s.
Since Aptheker arrived at UCSC, the student population has more than doubled, but she says that it’s been other changes, like the inclusion of cultural and ethnic studies, that have diversified the feminist landscape.
“When Women’s Studies and women’s liberation was first founded, the mainstream movement was very white, largely middle class—but at the same time that the media was giving all this attention to the women’s movement, there were black feminists who were organizing in 1970, and Chicano Latino women at the same time,” she says.
After the vocal highpoint of the women’s movement, many channeled their feminist perspective into other struggles against inequality. When the Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS) department was founded at UCSC, it was a huge step, says Aptheker, and there’s a lot of overlap between the departments because of that shared perspective.
But the transformation took time, and for some activists a white-washed movement wasn’t attractive to all women.
Roberta Valdez was the director for the UCSC Women’s Center from 2000 to 2008, and she says that before she took the job, she didn’t identify as a feminist.
“I’m Chicana—that was my primary identity; I did things through my involvement and activism that certainly made me a feminist, but the transformation was subtle in many ways,” says Valdez. “But I left my job at the university knowing that I was a feminist. I was grateful to the students for their education of me.”
Valdez came to Santa Cruz from Mendocino, and she agrees that there is something unique about how women were able to claim their education, organizations and careers: “There’s an openness for women here—there isn’t the kind of overarching identity of feminism in other places as there is here,” she says.
This is a city where many men aren’t afraid to call themselves feminists, says Valdez, and they actively strive to advocate for both genders.
Ultimately, it has to do with the networks that men and women built to raise women up—networks that were not present 40 years ago.
Laying Down the Law
In 1974 Sara Clarenbach came to Santa Cruz by way of Berkeley. Clarenbach had just finished at Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley, and what she found shocked her: there were only five other practicing women attorneys in Santa Cruz County: Hermia Kaplan, Nancy Kepple, Mary Osgood Kester, Marilyn Liddicoat, and Marsha Shanle.
Sure, in 1974, Santa Cruz County only had 149,830 people in it, which by today has more than doubled according to the most recent census data. But even so, five female lawyers for the whole county didn’t capitalize on the available talent pool.
Clarenbach went about changing that. She founded the Women Lawyers of Santa Cruz County organization in 1975—and today, membership of the CA State Bar for the county is about 231 females, according to a 2013 article Clarenbach wrote. She notes that they do not keep membership records by gender, but that in the last 40 years, women lawyers have come a long way.
While certain institutions like Feminist Studies did meet resistance, Clarenbach says that established male lawyers in the county were welcoming and supportive—which, she says, definitely had something to do with the women’s movement and its prior successes.
“We have four women judges out of our 11 Superior Court judges, two women Superior Court commissioners … the District Attorney was a woman, women lawyers have served on the Board of Supervisors and the City Council,” Clarenbach says. “In respect to the civic participation of women, and women lawyers in particular, it’s not the community that it was when I first came here at all, which is a good thing.”
The growing curriculum and organizations for women in Santa Cruz opened up doors in ways never seen before, but in some fields the line between the sexes remains prominent.
One Foot In, One Foot Out
Constance Kreemer applied for a dance teaching position at UCSC in 1989 while pregnant with her first child. The university told her after she applied that they’d postponed the search for that position, but that she was sure to get a job in a year—they did hire her husband, Mel Wong. A year later, Kreemer reapplied, and, after having been on a tenure track at University of Colorado, Boulder, was hired to a lecturer position that paid 40 percent of what her husband received.
After turning down jobs to be here, it was certainly a downgrade, says Kreemer.
“Fear of nepotism,” they told her. “I had no benefits, I had no power, no vote and I had to reapply for the same position every two years,” Kreemer remembers.
Being a dancer and all, Kreemer didn’t take that sitting down—so she led a campus strike in 1990 and secured a contract for continuous employment, but she still didn’t get benefits or a paycheck to match her husband’s.
It was less about the pay gap than it was about what this discrepancy said about women and men in dance: Kreemer had founded the Society of Dance History Scholars with Selma Jeanne Cohen in 1978—now the most internationally recognized scholarly organization of its kind—and went on to publish books and papers on race, politics, gender, and the social environment of modern dance in New York City.
But, the conception that since dance is often female-dominated, it’s a feminist art-form, is false, says Kreemer. The hierarchy is still intact, she says.
Kreemer taught classes at UCSC like “Dance and Gender” and “The History of Dance, Sex and Rock ’n’ Roll,” for that exact reason—to show that men are mostly the company owners and choreographers, whereas women are the dancers.
When it comes to gender equity, says Kreemer, it’s basically a dance—one foot forward, one foot back.
Still, the right to bare (hairy) arms, among other rights, rests on the struggle of countless women throughout this city’s history. Like Ann Simonton, who notoriously made headlines with her famous meat dress in 1982—the same year that Ms. Magazine dubbed Santa Cruz a “feminist utopia.” Activists like Simonton and Nikki Craft were responsible for getting the media’s attention, but other women in Santa Cruz also made enormous strides for the movement in far less obvious ways.
Lorette Wood was elected the first female mayor in 1971; Mardi Wormhoudt followed in her footsteps and lead Santa Cruz through the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, later becoming County Supervisor; Helene Moglen was the first female dean of Humanities and championed for the Women’s Center as did famed lecturer emerita Marge Frantz; Hermia Kaplan was one of five women lawyers in town who helped guide the founding of the WLSCC; Claire Delano Thompson, Carol Girvetz and Suzanne Paizis, among others, fronted the local chapter of the National Organization for Women; Bell Hooks completed her Ph.D. in Literature at UCSC a few years before Angela Davis headed the African American Studies and Feminist Studies departments there; and, most recently, a local computer programmer named Kathleen Tuite created the Feminist Hacker Barbie website.
It’s not a utopia (even Simonton renounced that title) but 40 years of fierce vocal women fought to pave the path for future generations—like mine, who can raise our unshaven arms in celebration of their legacy.
Like the former Women’s Center Director Valdez says: “That’s why it’s called a movement, it helps these transitions over hard places, it gets things out in the open—gets people talking about them, and problem solving, working together,” Valdez says. “It’s all moving things in a more just direction.”
Top photo caption: Left to right: Roberta Valdez, Bettina Aptheker and bell hooks all had a huge impact on the feminist movement in Santa Cruz.