Monday, October 25, 2004

The New Berkeley Woman in the 1960s

Jo Freeman has written a remarkable memoir At Berkeley in the ‘60s that is a wonderful ‘60s autobiography and also a fascinating history of a conflicted decade. Jo’s story is new, because the mass media exploitation of “hippie chicks” obscured what was really new about ‘60s young women. She gives us a New College Woman of the 1960s: one who has intellectual and political passions she follows. Freeman is the equal of any ‘60s young man in her devotion to being an agent of social change.

Freeman grew up in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, raised by her single parent schoolteacher mother, to whom she credits much of her early intellectual and political growth. Her remarkable mother Helen Freeman was an Anglo Southern woman from Alabama who emancipated herself by joining the Women’s Army Corps, settled in Los Angeles to raise her daughter alone, got a M.A. from U.S.C. on the G.I. Bill, and was a fervent Democratic Party volunteer. Helen, a pro-integrationist Southern liberal, took her daughter to Democratic political events for years including the 1960s Democratic convention held in Los Angeles.

Helen also idolized education, encouraging her daughter to do so well in high school that she graduated at fifteen. Helen chose UC Berkeley, the best college she could afford, as the school for her daughter. With Helen’s guidance, Freeman escaped the stifling conformity demanded of Valley Girls where popularity was valued over brains. In part this is a mother-daughter story where the daughter at college slowly escape the influence of her demanding mother to become her own person.

Throughout the book Freeman alternates chapters describing the historical evolution with autobiographical chapters. The historical chapters help set the scene: the 1930s student radical protests, the 1940s red scare that banned all student political activities at UC Berkeley and all campuses nationwide, and then the late 1950s- early 1960s rebirth of the student movement protesting McCarthyism as well as 1950s resurgence of liberal politics of the California Democratic Clubs. Then Freeman tells how as a sixteen-year old freshman in 1961 she explored the smorgasbord of political groups on campus from anti-nuclear to socialist to Young Republican until she chose to join the Young Democrats, still her mother’s daughter.

Freeman reminds us that personal change often happens in tiny steps when she describes how in 1963 as a junior she was influenced by Jacobus ten Broek’s class where she read the classics of free speech—Milton, Mill and Meiklejohn. She has a new identity: “radical civil liberterian.” We forget that the real impetus of the ‘60s was forged in extensive study and debate on civil liberties, civil rights and later the Vietnam War. Freeman tests out her new beliefs by joining SLATE, the main dissident campus group, and with the new campus rule inagurated by UC President Kerr lifting the ban on controversial speakers on campus, she as part of SLATE tested this new freedom by organizing a series of controversial speakers on campus: Communist Miki Lima; black power militant Malcolm X; and Captain Ralph Forbes, an American Nazi Party leader.

Jo’s real break with her mother came like it did in many Democratic families came over the issue of sit-ins. Like many Southerners, her mother had a strong sense of propriety: good people don’t get arrested. As students in the Bay Area began the civil rights sit-ins in 1963, Jo as well as hundreds of others wrestled with their consciences whether or not to sit-in; she reread her political theory and philosophy classics on the issue until she decided she could sit-in. Her mother was apalled. After Jo got arrested twice in civil rights protests, her angry mother cut all financial support, but Jo is now self-supporting at eighteen, working at a minimum wage job for the Democratic Party in Oakland. If you compare Freeman to almost any college girl in American fiction or autobiography from 1900-1960, Freeman is a New College Woman: she has at eighteen assumed the independence of a young man: self-supporting, making her own decisions, determined to finish her degree as well as to make history

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