For a brief respite from the present era of posturing machismo in politics and public life, as well as a thoughtful tour through California’s past, a new exhibit, “Our Collective Voice: The Extraordinary Work of Women in California,” is well worth visiting on the University of California campus.
The exhibit is up through June 4 in the Bernice Layne Brown Gallery at Doe Library, but there’s also a special opening reception today (Friday) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the North Terrace of the library.
Reception and exhibit are free. Today’s event features a panel of, and readings by, several notable local women, including Sylvia McLaughin and Marian Diamond, as well as musical entertainment by the women of the California Golden Overtones.
The exhibit organizers and designers, a group of talented librarians, historians, and others at the university too numerous to name here, drew on the amazingly varied and rich archives of the Bancroft Library to create a complex and rewarding display.
Dozens of women from California pre-history to the modern era are profiled. Most come across as capable and courageous individuals who made waves, questioned convention or the commandments of men, or just simply worked for the public good.
The scope extends from Kathleen Norris, the early 20th century novelist, to Kathleen Cleaver, the late 20th century Black Panther spokeswoman, to native American women whose names are lost to history.
Marble columns in the exhibit gallery—which doubles as the main entrance hall to the library—are posted with photographs and biographical descriptions of women. Life-sized photo enlargements of women from the exhibit stand about the hall.
Glass exhibit cases are thematically divided, and cleverly titled, from “Sisterhood and Social Reform” to “Literary Lionesses”, “Be-mused” (women in the arts, including Ina Coolbrith and Joan Brown) and “Designing Women”, the latter featuring Julia Morgan and other women architects and planners such as housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster.
The exhibit curators and designers organized a lively, appealing, mix of images, objects, and text. There are evocative items such as a teapot owned by Gertrude Stein and filled with rose petals from her garden, drawings by Berkeley architect Lillian Bridgeman, baskets woven by native American women, and a number of diaries, journals, and other handwritten records.
There are deeply moving stories here, including the accounts of Japanese-American women interned during World War II and native and Spanish-Mexican Californios who saw their cultures submerged in the rapid influx of Gold Rush Americans.
I especially enjoyed the case on “Wilderness Watchers” including Berkeley’s own Marian Randall Parsons, Caroline LeConte, whose 1898 journal is on display, and Sierra Club leader Peggy Wayburn, whose amusing list of “Don’ts for returning Sierrans” is included.
The selection of quotes and arrangement of items is incisive and exciting. Gems lie scattered throughout the exhibit.
For example, there’s this delicious quote from 19th century author and ornithologist Florence Merrian Baily: “What injustice! Here an innocent creature with an olive-green back and yellowish breast has to go about all her days known as the black-throated blue warbler, just because that happens to describe the dress of her spouse!”
University history is evoked with several great items, including a beautiful color rendering of the 1917 version of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Plan for the Berkeley campus, the typescript of a famous speech by Joan Didion about Berkeley, and Jane Sather’s handwritten letter to University officials trenchantly defining “the difference in nude and naked” in reference to classical carvings installed on Sather Gate.
Other fascinating campus items on display in the “Cal Grrrls” case include the handwritten 1920s impressions of a first day on campus written by a newly arrived student, and co-ed Elsie McCormick’s ironic “women’s etiquette” essay from 1916, in which she skewered that era’s widespread male student chauvinism.
“If a man speaks to you, always preface your answer by ‘Tee-hee’ “ she writes, and “Do not be the only women in the College of Mechanics. To know anything about the anatomy of an automobile is immodest.”
Many of the visual vignettes provide accounts of historical events in the still uncomfortably recent past such as the experiences of Vera Schultz, the first woman County Supervisor in Northern California, elected in 1952.
Schultz, the exhibit relates, once arrived for an official gathering of regional office holders to find a “No Women Allowed” sign. Advised to sedately go to lunch with the wives of her fellow elected officials, she tore up the sign and took a seat at the right meeting.
The lengthy and heated early 20th century campaign for women’s suffrage, both nationally and in California, garners considerable attention in the exhibit, with a display of creative and provocative ephemera. There are campaign ribbons, meeting announcements, and even postcards with pro-suffrage poems.
One of the most interesting items is a letter from Susan B. Anthony to activist Mary McHenry Keith, dubbed Berkeley’s “Mother of Suffrage” and also the first woman to earn a law degree from Hastings Law School in San Francisco.
“When women come to write their books out of their hearts and consciences, instead of writing just what will sell on the market, we shall have some truths told that men have never yet heard, but when the time will come that women will be free, and speak their full thought, I hardly know.”
Once you view this exhibit you'll realize, at least in part, that time is now.
For more information on the exhibit, call 643-0397 or see www.lib.berkeley.edu/news_events/exhibits/women.html.