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Women were the backbone of 1968 strike

November 7, 2018

Women were the backbone of 1968 strike

In 1968, a variety of student activist groups on campus formed the Third World Liberation Front to call on what was then SF State College to create more ethnic diversity in the curriculum as well as more diverse faculty and students.

Although men often took the lead when it came to voicing these demands, women served as the backbone of activism, according to organizers of the time.

“Although we were not the face of the strike — we were not being interviewed by the press much, or on TV that much, or on the speaker’s platform that much — without us, the strike wouldn’t have continued,” said Margaret Leahy, who was then a member of the Students for a Democratic Society.

Before the strike, a bond formed among the various student activist groups seeking the same goal, such as the Black Student Union, Students for a Democratic Society, as well as Asian-American, American Indian and Mexican-American groups.

Both men and women were involved in every group, however women primarily did their organizing in the  background, according to Juanita Tamayo Lott, then a SF State student activist.

“The women are the work horses and the men are the show horses,” Tamayo Lott said. “The women — and this happened similarly in the Civil Rights movement — are pushed to the back. We were taught to keep the men strong. The women are the backbone.”

Women held jobs that helped get the movement started, bailed strikers out of jail and maintained a legal defense fund during the five-month strike.

Before the strike began, many women SF State students were already conducting free after-school tutoring programs for high school students in the diverse neighborhoods of San Francisco. Thanks to the tutors’ encouragement, the youth attending these programs formed an emerging population of students of color at the college. Black Panther Party members and Brown Berets were also among the tutors, alongside Tamayo Lott.

The connection between political groups like these and SF State students established a communal connection that catalyzed an organic banding together when the strike came about.

“We knew each other because we were in the neighborhood together,” Tamayo Lott said. “I think that’s one thing that doesn’t come out as strongly. There was an organic part to the strike.”

Judy Juanita was also an after-school tutor and shared a passion for recruiting students of color along with the Black Panther Party. She and four other women went on to become the first five SF State students to join the Black Panther Party.

While in the Black Panther Party, Juanita and other women’s work consisted of accounting, scheduling, managing the office and running the Black Panther Party newspaper.

“Our connections and intimacy connected brothers from the party with brothers from SF State. The BSU brothers like to talk about supplying BPP with guns and money, but this bridge called my back supplied the people’s army with equal and greater provision,” said Juanita in her book, “Homage to the Black Arts Movement: A Handbook.”

By the time the strike came about, the nation was already in tumultuous times as tens of thousands of people across the country protested the Vietnam War, while also fighting for Civil Rights.

Meanwhile at SF State, politically aware women held important roles among students organizing on campus, according to Dr. James Garrett, president of the Black Student Union in 1966-67. “There was already an activist state going on in San Francisco, there were already women involved in that,” Garrett said. “There were a lot of very strong women, so of course they bring a set of experiences.”

Women were not excluded from the brutality of the police, who were charged with removing the strikers. The strikes resulted in countless arrests and injuries brought on by police and student conflicts.

According to Leahy, the male strikers were shocked at the women’s fierceness as they broke off chair legs in the commons to defend others from the cops and their clubs.

“Cops wanted to arrest certain people, and we would grab them and try to save them,” Leahy said. “When some finally left, some guys came up to us and said, ‘Why did you do that? We could help you.’ We said, ‘We were doing fine without you.’”

Leahy was the main woman tasked with bailing strikers out of jail.

Every day after walking the picket line since 8 a.m., Leahy would go to judges during their after-hours to plead the arrested strikers’ case.

She even kept a set of clothes in her car to make herself more presentable to the type of men she had to appeal to.

“I played upon their sexism. I wore a mini skirt and I walked in and said, ‘Oh, you’re honor, I hate to bother you, but…’ and I always got a bail reduction,” Leahy said.

Leahy sometimes went to extreme lengths to get the job done.

On Jan. 23, 1969, a mass arrest known as the Mass Bust occurred, leading to 435 arrests. Leahy was up for three days straight working on bailing students out. A doctor would come to the bail office every day and give Leahy a pill to keep her awake. Leahy also put her house up as collateral to raise money needed to bail strikers out. Leahy also put a call out on radio stations all over U.S. to get money to bail them out.

Another women’s group, the Legal Defense Fund, begun by Sharon Martinas, was in charge of connecting the released students with attorneys and remembering their court dates.

Tamayo Lott said women today are just as crucial and dedicated as ever — they even risk being too dedicated.

“I’m seeing the strength of the women coming through,” she said. “The women are the ones that keep the institutions going. What I want women to understand is that this is hard, this is really hard. But you also have to take care of yourself, put your health before the movement.”

The Ethnic Studies College has continued to shape diversity in and outside curriculum, with faculty and students who leave the college to impact the world around them. Sonia Sanchez, for example, started the first Black Studies department in the nation and went on to become a poet and founder of the Black Arts Movement. Other women students and faculty resulting from the strike went on to lead lives of activism, like poet Janice Mirikitani and Sharon Martinas.

— With files from Sylvie Sturm

Alexis is a reporter and former photojournalist.
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