Consider the local scene, circa 1926.
“Berkeley is an exceptionally well regulated and well governed city with practically no vice nor crime conditions,” future California Governor Earl Warren tells the local League of Women Voters that year. “A better government is always found when women pay attention to civic affairs.”
Fast forward to 2003.
Against the booming, amplified, backdrop of Berkeley’s exuberant outdoor “How Berkeley Can You Be?” celebration, locals gathered at the Berkeley History Center Sunday to help open a new exhibit, “Early Berkeley Women: 1878-1953.”
Curator Phyllis Gale, who organized the exhibit on behalf of the Berkeley Historical Society and the Berkeley Chapter of the American Association of University Women, said she remembered raising her children in Berkeley and “finding out that the girls took everything for granted” about opportunities for women in American society.
“They had no clue what had gone on before.”
What had gone on?
As the exhibit shows, quite a lot.
The exhibit begins in the post-Civil War era, also coincident with the years of Berkeley’s founding, when American women were beginning to realize that political and social reforms they cared about required that they secure the vote.
The women’s suffrage movement was the result, along with a burgeoning array of other causes and activities championed by women.
The history of women in Berkeley “mirrors that time—and it’s here for you to read and see,” Gale told the crowd.
Exhibit sections profile numerous women, grouped by occupation or activity, from health care to politics to architecture.
Want to find out about Berkeley’s first woman dentist?
She’s here, as are several other health care pioneers, teachers, architects, and Berkeley’s first two women City Councilmembers (Carrie Hoyt and Agnes C. Moody, 1923).
In addition to individuals, organizations are profiled, particularly the clubs that served a variety of philanthropic, political and social ends and also constituted almost a “shadow government” in Berkeley, according to Gale.
One powerful organization was the local League of Women Voters that, in the first half of the 20th Century, advocated for proper local sewage disposal, promoted school bonds and good municipal administration and “waged war against rats” to keep Berkeley healthy.
These are the little gems scattered throughout the displays, bringing to life women who sought to change their times in meaningful ways.
For example, take Berkeley’s first policewoman, Elizabeth G. Lossing, trained in social work and hired in 1924 by progressive Chief of Police August Vollmer.
Lossing started the “Children’s Room,” described as an “unofficial probation program” in which she counseled and assisted more than 500 underage offenders referred by the local courts.
Then there’s Mary Hyde who in 1877 “had come West to help lost, mistreated Indians, but could not find any,” in Berkeley at least, according to an account by her daughter.
Undeterred, Hyde opened the first school in the eastern part of Berkeley.
Or consider Theresa Maria Jacquemine who marched into the Alameda County Recorder’s office and demanded she be registered to vote—in 1896.
The exhibit opening featured several costumed figures from Berkeley’s past, including architect Julia Morgan (Betty Marvin), UC Regent and philanthropist Phoebe Hearst (Linda Rosen), and Bishop George Berkeley himself (local artist Stefen), who had also marched in character in the morning’s parade.
“Julia Morgan” spoke to the crowd, describing her life and career in the East Bay, and noting the care she had taken as an architect to design decent quarters and facilities for women in domestic work and those other occupations “that made life tolerable but were not well compensated.”
“I’m sure your time has dealt with these inequalities,” she added, to an amused and appreciative audience.
The exhibit includes art and textiles by local women and some other material objects, the majority of the displays are panels that incorporate both text and photographs. Come prepared to read.
Some visitors may find the amount of text wearying, while others will appreciate the care taken by the exhibit’s organizers to present more than a superficial gloss of history.
Much of the information on individuals in the exhibit came from oral histories. “I can’t tell you how important these oral histories have been. Without them we may have lost their voices,” Gale said.
She also made a plea that local residents search their family records for information on Berkeley women and organizations of yesteryear and donate materials—or copies, at least—to local historical repositories, so part of Berkeley’s cultural history won’t be lost.
“I am convinced that there is more information on Berkeley women in the attics and basements of this town that there is in the Bancroft Library and historical societies,” she added.
Displays on individual women and organizations are supplemented by a wall-length timeline of early Berkeley history prepared by former Historical Society President Linda Rosen.
Gale chose 1953 as a cutoff date for the women and organizations featured in the exhibit. “Most of them have passed away and I don’t have to argue with them. We just put them up on the walls,” she joked.
The exhibit will be augmented in coming weeks by additional display panels, and a future exhibit may be organized to cover local women’s history from the more recent half century.
The Berkeley History Center is typically open 1–4 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The free exhibit continues until early 2004.
Visit www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/histsoc/ for more information, or call 848-0181.
An upcoming event related to the exhibit is an Afternoon Tea on Oct. 12, honoring the Women’s Club movement in Berkeley and featuring Carol O’Hare, speaking on the Suffragette Movement and her book, “Jailed for Freedom.” The event is free. Call 528-3284 to reserve your space.
Steven Finacom is a local historian and a Board member of the Berkeley Historical Society.