International Women’s Day has special resonance for Berkeley schools

The Women’s Studies program at Berkeley High School was the first of its kind in the country. Photo: Courtesy Nancy Rubin

International Women’s Day on March 8, part of Women’s History Month, has taken on an added significance this year as it has been harnessed by groups nationwide as a way of showing resistance to President Trump and his policies and attitudes towards women.

The Women’s March organization, which spearheaded the biggest protest the country has ever seen the day after Trump’s inauguration, is calling for women to strike on Wednesday to show the world what it is like to have #ADayWithoutWomen (in the same spirit as #ADayWithoutImmigrants on Feb. 16). The organization also recommends avoiding shopping for the day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses), and to wear red to show solidarity.

In Berkeley, International Women’s Day has deep historical roots, specifically within the public school system. BUSD used to celebrate International Women’s Day as a district-wide holiday and Berkeley High School was the first high school in the country to have a Women’s Studies department. Many of the city’s schools have planned events for Wednesday — scroll down to see a list.

For local resident Susan Groves, the day has particular resonance as she was instrumental in launching the Women’s Studies program at Berkeley High and incorporating women into the curriculum across the district. Groves went into teaching as a mission rather than a career, she told Berkeleyside, after earning her graduate degree at Cal. She worked within Oakland Unified before becoming a history teacher at Berkeley High, all the while being politically engaged in both the civil-rights’ and women’s movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Groves said strides had been made with civil rights in the school district, with African-Americans running for the School Board and the establishment of the Martin Luther King holiday. But, despite the work of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the women’s consciousness movement, “there was nothing statistically about how girls were being treated within schools.”


In addition, the curriculum was heavily skewed towards men and gender stereotypes. “You would go into history class and assign students to write biographies about ten historical figures and they would all choose men — probably all white men,” said Groves. The school library had few books by women, and the first-grade classroom would still be basing its learning on the “Dick and Jane-style” nuclear family, she added.

The then BUSD Superintendent Richard Foster agreed to allow the formation of a Women’s Task Force, led by Groves, to study the issue and make recommendations. The result was an overhauled curriculum — which included units, said Groves, such as “Black women poets” for fourth graders, and carpentry for girls and knitting for boys in third grade — and the launch, in 1972, of the country’s first high-school Women’s Studies program.

Three friends who were instrumental in launching the pioneering Women’s Studies program at Berkeley High: (l to r): Susan Groves, Kuniko Soga and Lyn Reese. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The task force also recommended that BUSD institute a holiday in recognition of women, and the result was the Susan B. Anthony Day in February. However the holiday quickly ran into opposition, Groves recalled, not least among women, who complained about the inconvenience of having to find childcare for another day when children weren’t at school.

“There was also opposition because, although our curriculum was now multicultural, the holiday was celebrating another another white woman,” said Groves.

The next year the switch was made to celebrating International Women’s Day in March. The holiday has its roots in the socialist movement and, in particular, in the textile industry in New York. The earliest Women’s Day observance was held on Feb. 28, 1909, in New York and organized by the Socialist Party of America.


The Women’s Studies program at Berkeley High was disbanded in 1979, and Groves went back to the history department where she continued to teach a women’s students unit. She remembers the class as being transformational for many of the students who took it. She recalls in particular a trip the students took to the United Nation’s World Congress on Women in Beijing in 1995.

“They saw Hillary Clinton and heard from Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said. “This was formative for many young women in the Bay Area who met young women from all around the world while they were there. It was spectacular.”

Before moves were made to change it in the 1970s, the BUSD curriculum was heavily skewed towards men and gender stereotypes, said Susan Groves who was instrumental in changing it. Photo: Courtesy Nancy Rubin

Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day events planned at Berkeley Unified schools

Malcolm X Elementary School Staff and families at Malcolm X plan to hold a rally before school in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8. “We’ll have large banners and posters. We plan to gather along Ashby Av. between Ellis and King,” Cynthia Allman tells us. The plan is to have a “brief, positive, family-friendly rally to show the meaning of the school motto, Together We Can, and to demonstrate the school’s unity with women across the country and around the world.”

Oxford Elementary School is having two events to mark Women’s History Month. The first is a celebration, The Emmy Orth Contest: Strong Women of the World, in which students create projects sharing information regarding strong women in their world. The projects are currently on display in the hallway at school. And the school held an assembly last week in celebration of women with guest Kate Schatz, author of Rad American Women A-Z.

Washington Elementary School For International Women’s Day, teachers plan to wear red and carry signs in a demonstration on Wednesday before school, 7:45 a.m.-8:10 a.m. They hope to have a presence on both the MLK Jr. Way and McKinley Avenue school entrances.


Thousand Oaks Elementary School  is celebrating Women’s History Month through this year’s fifth-grade play Fearless Women Sheroes, which is based on Rad American Women A-Z, and takes place on March 29-30

Cragmont Elementary School The school plans to rally before school on Wednesday for International Women’s Day with participants wearing red, holding signs and greeting everyone they see.

Willard Middle School For International Women’s Day, teachers are planning a “mini-action” with signs in front of the school on Telegraph at 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday, entering the school together at the Stuart Street entrance at 8:30 a.m. There will also be a breakfast put on by Willard men for women at the school on March 9 to mark Women’s History Month.

At least one local business is also marking International Women’s Day. Homemade Café on Sacramento Street will be donating 10% of its sales to Planned Parenthood on March 8.

If you know of other events in Berkeley being planned for International Women’s Day, drop us a note at editors@berkeleyside.com and we will aim to include them here.