“Women have done a lot to enact change at Berkeley High, and that’s something that deserves more recognition,” said Lindsey Chou, a junior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS) and the treasurer of the Women’s Student Union (WSU). By standing in solidarity with sexual assault survivors, pioneering programs to integrate women’s history into everyday curriculum, as well as uplifting perspectives on the intersection of gender and other power structures, students at Berkeley High School (BHS) have been instrumental in the wider women’s activism movement.
Feminism at Berkeley High isn’t a recent phenomenon. In 1972, Susan Groves led the Women’s Task Force in launching the first Women’s Studies Program at the high school level in the country. After examining the omnipresent role sexism plays in the classroom, Groves and others on the task force introduced a curriculum that counteracts stereotypical instruction. Even with limited resources, no existing feminist curriculum models, and a small budget, Groves and other leaders in the community were able to develop an extensive resource base that changed the face of feminism in the classroom.
One of these leaders is Carolyn Reese, a past resource teacher with the now-disbanded Women’s Studies Program. Reese is also the director of several federally funded Women’s Educational Equity grants, as well as a key figure in the development of women-oriented curriculum and workshops. Much of her work was centered around bringing stories of the day-to-day lives and contributions of women to light. As Reese explained, “It’s important that students know about Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth, but it’s also important to explore places where women have power on a broader scale,” she said. “Half of the people in our world are women, so why isn’t half of our history?”
After observing classroom dynamics with her self-designed evaluation workshops, Reese noticed that gender discrepancies begin to emerge at a young age. “Even in nursery school, it was very clear that the boys would go to the blocks. They would have the entire playground, but the girls would have one corner with a jump rope,” she said.
To address these problems, Reese focused on designing curriculum to empower women through representation. “The idea was to bring role models in and explore non-traditional roles. We had women carpenters and men would come in to teach the cooking classes,” she explained. “That was the whole thing. We had to broaden what was culturally acceptable for a girl to be.”
Although the Women’s Studies Program was disbanded in 1979, it was key in promoting inclusive curriculum for generations to come. Maize Cline, a junior in Academic Choice (AC) and the secretary of the WSU, saw value in reestablishing the program. However, she also saw more importance in considering the underlying message of this aspect of BHS’ history. Cline explained, “I think the program sounds fantastic, but it’s also really important to make women’s studies a higher priority within the structures that currently exist.”
Cline identified one way sexism is ingrained in our current structures: “In Freshman year, we didn’t read a single book with a female main character, and that shouldn’t be happening.” This lack of representation isn’t a new problem. As Reese mentioned earlier, she and her colleagues were confronted with male-oriented curriculum in the 1970s, and once again, women at BHS are demanding change.
According to Ava Nemeth, AC junior and president of the WSU, the best way to integrate marginalized perspectives into mainstream curriculum is by diversifying the content of history classes. “If our curriculum were to focus more on the female experience, it would have a huge impact on the understanding of feminism at Berkeley High,” she said. “I would like to see more space for students to develop their own critical thinking in regards to feminism and the relationships between gender and sexuality.”
WSU Vice President and AC junior Neva Zamil highlighted the need for interdisciplinary change — especially in certain fields like STEM. “We always learn about the male scientists and the male mathematicians, but there were so many women who were instrumentally involved in all of those discoveries. Some teachers go out of their way to highlight that, but they shouldn’t have to go out of their way. It should just be a part of how we teach science.”
The triumphs of women at BHS extend beyond the era of the Women’s Studies Program, with the WSU emerging as a leading activist group within the student body. In 2018, the WSU worked to disband the BHS Barbecue Club, illuminating how it promoted misogyny and elitism. “I’m really proud that we were involved with that as a club, and that it’s a part of our history,” Cline said.
Later that year, the WSU amplified student dissent around the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh during a week of protest. To show support for the women that accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault and harassment, the WSU filmed a video emphasizing the importance of listening to survivors.
In 2019, the WSU focused their attention on reforming bathroom pass policies. Believing the policies to be discriminatory against students who menstruate, they worked with administration to remove them entirely.
Even amidst the pandemic and setbacks of distance learning, these student leaders are still champions of change. In October, the WSU collected hygiene products to donate to a local organization that provides free services to the community. Nemeth explained, “One of our biggest accomplishments this year was our tampons and toiletries drive. We got so many donations!”