Imagine Mills College surrounded by nothing but fields and scattered homes. No major metropolitan cities, no paved road ways, no transportation. There are less than a dozen buildings, under 500 students and you can’t just leave whenever you want. No, I’m not asking you to imagine Mills in the middle of an apocalypse. This was Mills in 1908.
I thought this too until a month into my career at Mills, I found out my great-great aunt attended Mills 100 years before me.
Belle Wright (no relation to the Wright brothers who had just flown the first airplane at this time) began her first year at Mills in fall 1908. A daughter of a sheep farmer in Los Banos, Calif., she decided to leave the family business and leap into academics. She boarded a train to Oakland and didn’t look back.
In a time when women didn’t have the right to vote, going to college seemed to push against the status quo. Women didn’t belong in institutions of higher education. They belonged behind the stove, holding a baby and living life subservient to men.
I’m being a little harsh. White, upper-middle class women’s access to education was actually improving and Mills was a beacon of hope to those who wanted to get away from farm or factory life.
For $250 per semester, Mills women could embark on their own educational journeys, choosing between a Bachelor of Arts degree or a Bachelor of Letters (a degree in literature). One major to choose from was home economics, which included a hygiene class as a requirement — extremely important in times without loofas and pomegranate scented body wash. Others included an array of languages: Latin, Greek or German, and of course Bible and Ethics studies.
Mills was a different place. Instead of being a home mostly for freshwomen, everyone lived on campus, including professors. Only “special” students who lived near campus could live at home.
The campus population was much less diverse as well. And that’s an understatement. When looking at the yearbook in the library, I found no women of color. There was also a lack of diverse hair styles. Short bobs or hideous buns were “in” back then. Yikes.
Since one branch of Mills consisted of a seminary school, students were expected to be on campus during the Sabbath, dress modestly and ask permission if they wanted to leave campus at any time.
What sounds like a prison to me was freedom for Mills women then. Women had little choices for their lives back then. Prolonging marriage and children to be educated must have sounded like heaven. I’m sure Belle Wright was ecstatic to put down the sheep sheers and pick up a textbook.
As I walk around a renovated and modern campus, I think about how far women have come. Knowing that my feet touch the same Mills Hall steps my aunt’s did 100 years before me, I realize how much my presence, along with that of my fellow classmates, honors her audacity. Mills redefined her role as a second-class citizen to a empowered, educated woman.