When Carol McPhee attended Mission School in San Luis Obispo in the 1940s and ’50s, “boys went first in lines,” “had first rights on the playground” and only boys were altar servers — “The nuns explained that boys had special privileges in the eyes of God,” she wrote.
Those passages come from McPhee’s new book, a highly readable account of her journey from being a shy mother of three daughters to activism in “A Small-Town Women’s Movement: A Memoir,” published by Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay.
In the book, McPhee details the struggles women faced during that time.
She writes about being “outraged when the head of the English department at Hancock College … told me before I applied for a job that he wondered who would take care of my children while I was at work.”
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McPhee’s daughter, Noelle Norton, now dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Diego, wrote an eighth-grade paper dealing with women’s issues. Her teacher wrote on the paper, “Women should stay home and be good mothers.”
That was essentially the view of McPhee’s father, Julian McPhee, president of Cal Poly from 1933 to 1966.
In 1973, she writes about, a large group of women held a “Women’s Forum on Rape” at Laguna Junior High. Several rapes and attempted rapes had taken place at apartments on or near California Boulevard. The modus operandi of the rapist(s) was to ring the doorbell of a potential victim. The San Luis Obispo police refused to give details to the press.
The detective in charge of the case defended the department’s silence. The police didn’t want a bunch of “hysterical women” calling the station every time a man rang their doorbell.
The “Women’s Forum on Rape” eventually moved to the newly established Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay. Two young women, Janet Brown, a former Benedictine nun, and Linna Thomas opened Coalesce in a single-story house on an otherwise empty lot on Harbor Street.
The meetings addressed issues of inequality and the urgency of the apparent rape crisis and the way in which law enforcement treated it.
The Coalesce meetings angered some police. Rumors of wild orgies involving marijuana began to spread.
SLO’s Chief of Police summoned a number of women who had attended the meetings. They were interrogated over the “particularly lesbian slaying” of a young woman who had attended a meeting at the bookstore.
Shortly after, the perpetrator — a man related to both the victim and a police officer — was caught. The “usual suspects” target list of police departments everywhere, based purely on gender prejudice, was clearly one of many reasons for having a County Commission on the Status of Women.
The women in support of the commission often met in the adobe home of Mary Gail Black, an often-sarcastic newspaper writer. Black had a strong, leader-centered approach to the women’s movement. McPhee recounts in the book her difficult and ultimate successful battle with Black to make the women’s movement more inclusive.
McPhee and Black heard Elinor Grant, secretary to the warden at San Luis Men’s Colony, testify about unfairness in certain job classifications within the state civil service.
They heard California-born Rose Alma Smith, a senior at UC Berkeley, say she had to pay out of state tuition after marrying a Navy man from another state. So much work to be done!
The struggle was clearly a prelude to San Luis Obispo’s joyful Women’s March of Jan. 21. Approximately 10,000 women, men and children from many races, churches and backgrounds marched through SLO in a drenching rain.
Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.