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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Walk the Walk: Turning theory into action, women's studies alumna Blanca Tavera founded Defensa de Mujeres.

Women's Work

For the past 25 years, UCSC women's studies students have taken feminist theory out of the classroom and into the community

By Jessica Lyons

IN THE FIRST women's studies class offered at UCSC, Nancy Lemon and classmates analyzed Victorian porn, and then published papers on the decidedly unacademic subject in a pamphlet distributed around campus. That was in 1971, when there wasn't a women's studies department at UCSC, or even a major. The country was still shaking off the dust of the 1950s, and liberation was the order of the day.

After taking classes about women's issues from different departments, Lemon and six other pioneering UCSC students decided that women's studies should have a home base--Kresge College--and be made an official major.

In 1974, the seven women finally convinced the predominately male Academic Senate at UCSC to approve a bachelor of arts degree and a student-run collective, the precursor to the women's studies department. Women's studies would not become a full-fledged department until 1997.

As the founding students fought for a women's studies major, another student group, the campus women's club, was hosting racy events that caused a stir among some blushing freshmen. This included activities such as a "Meet Your First Lesbian" discussion and an event at which attendees were given speculums and taught to examine their own cervixes. The club also hosted a women-only dance at which students drank sangria from plastic garbage cans and a few took off their shirts.

"I didn't leave or anything, but I found it pretty shocking," Lemon recalls. "There was a lot of experimenting--a sense of throwing out the rules in terms of nudity and lesbianism and drinking and all those things."

Several women came out as lesbians, Lemon remembers, reinforcing the perception, woefully alive today, that feminism (and by extension women's studies) equaled lesbianism.

Meanwhile, the gay and lesbian, ethnic identity and anti-war movements were all gathering steam nationally. In response, a few liberal universities were introducing new, "alternative" majors. UCSC was one of those schools.

"We saw it as the academic part of the women's movement," says Lemon, now 46, a domestic-violence attorney and lecturer at Boalt Hall School of Law in Berkeley. "Being feminist activists, we were interested in how we could bring the women's movement into the university."

As if the stress of classes, theses and final exams weren't enough, these seven women planned and taught an "Introduction to Feminism" seminar in 1975. They brought feminist thinkers, historians and spiritual leaders onto campus for open lectures--and had to explain and defend their choice of classes on a regular basis to academic traditionalists.

Twenty-five years later, the idea that gender affects power structures and politics in society is no longer a foreign one. When women make up 46.2 percent of the U.S. labor force and only make 74 cents to a man's every dollar (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and when there are 1,500 shelters for battered women nationwide, compared with 3,800 animal shelters (according to the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women), it's easy to see why women's studies are still needed today.

Put bluntly, women's studies departments are not hideouts for lesbians and women of color who couldn't cut it in other disciplines. Women's studies majors do more than sit around reading postmodern feminist theory or deconstructing Freud. But even today, they still battle stereotypes, along with other misconceptions about the "f" word--feminism.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the stereotypes and misconceptions is the graduates themselves, who have combined classroom ideals with sound social activism. Below are the stories of four women, products of the UCSC women's studies program, who have been working for change in the classroom and in the community. They have learned how to translate theory into action.

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Intro to Life: Bettina Aptheker's Introduction to Feminism classes have influenced generations of UCSC students.

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Behind Closed Doors

SANDRA WALTER-LEGALLET, 36, works behind cement walls, chain-link fences and security locks and alarms. She is the senior mental-health client specialist at Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall.

Walter-Legallet grew up an adopted Asian American girl, raised by Caucasian parents in a white suburb of the San Fernando Valley. She graduated in 1986 from UCSC with a bachelor's degree in women's studies and in 1992 from San Jose State University with a master's in social work.

She works part-time at Juvenile Hall and part-time at a private practice, where she offers psychotherapy and counseling services. Her private counseling balances her work with troubled teens, she says. When people call her seeking a counselor, they are asking for help because they want to. The kids at Juvenile Hall, on the other hand, are not there voluntarily.

Walter-Legallet's tiny office snugly fits two desks--and sometimes a teenager, who may be spending the night (or maybe a few years) at Juvenile Hall.

"So much of the work I do here parallels women's studies," she says. "Women's studies gave me a voice, a sense of self as a woman of color. ... A lot of the teens come from abusive homes, or they are involved with gangs or drugs and not going to school. A lot of what I do is help them find a voice, a sense of power and the ability to make healthier choices in their lives."

Like several of her fellow majors, however, Walter-Legallet didn't arrive at UCSC planning to graduate in women's studies. "I kind of fell into it," she admits.

Then, as a sophomore, she took department co-chair Bettina Aptheker's Introduction to Feminism class. "I fell in love with her and in love with the program," Walter-Legallet remembers. "For me, it was a real sense of being able to define who I was as a young woman. Luckily, I found it."

Walter-Legallet still considers Aptheker her mentor. She remembers telling Aptheker that it was because of her she decided to search out her birth parents. In 1989, Walter-Legallet found them, a Chinese-American woman and a Filipino-Russian-German man.

"It gave me a more solid sense of who I was," she says. "I felt a little bit more complete. I had a better idea of who I looked like, what my ethnic culture was and why I was relinquished at birth."

Walter-Legallet's story is one of gradual self-realization and small changes, as are those of most of the kids she counsels daily, like one 14-year-old heroin addict who came to Juvenile Hall a year ago. She had been sexually abused by her stepfather, who is now in jail. The court placed her in a drug and alcohol rehab center for teens.

"Most kids, when they get to that place where they are as out of control as she was, they run away from placements. They keep running and end up back in Juvenile Hall. It's a vicious circle," Walter-Legallet says.

But she didn't run. Although the teen is still at rehab, she's close to graduating and returning home to live with her mother.

"It's not ever anything like perfection, it's 10 steps forward and five steps back," Walter-Legallet explains. "You've got to look at the small changes, the small successes, and remember success doesn't happen overnight."

Self-Help

BLANCA TAVERA SHOWS off her office, which looks onto the courtyard of the Plaza Vigil in Watsonville. "This is my space," says the 45-year-old Latina with warm brown eyes and large Peruvian silver earrings.

Three bookshelves stacked with self-help books and audio tapes line Tavera's walls ("I am the queen of self-help," she jokes), along with her diplomas from UCSC and San Jose State University, a painting of Latina women in a flower field and an image of the Virgin Mary.

Blanca offers me the couch and pulls up a chair. She sits across from me, cross-legged, wearing socks but no shoes. She describes the woman she was 20 years ago.

"I was angry, militant, belligerent," she says. "My needs were secondary to everyone else--the stranger on the road, my family, anybody. I didn't live for myself. I lived for anybody and everybody else.

"For me, accommodating people was second nature, I just didn't give it a second thought. If someone asked me to do something, I didn't have a choice. It was just 'Yes.' "

Until she stumbled--quite literally--into Aptheker's class.

Tripping as she walked in the doorway, she quickly found an empty seat near the front of the classroom. Then the loneliness set in.

"You have to understand, I was a product of my upbringing, my community, but at that moment, all my homophobia rushed to the surface," Tavera remembers. "I sat there feeling very alone. In reality, I was in a very safe, women-centered space, but the way it translated to me was, 'Oh, my God, I'm in a room full of lesbians.' "

She wanted to leave, but she stayed because of a gut feeling, she says. Or possibly because she knew that leaving would draw more attention to herself.

"My life was transformed on that day," she says.

Tavera took several other classes from Aptheker, graduating in 1986 with a degree in women's studies. But sometimes the childhood ghosts still haunted her. Tavera's parents were migrant workers, traveling from Texas to California every year with the berry crops. When she was 9, the family settled in Watsonville.

"I was abused as a kid. I grew up in a pretty harsh environment," she says. "All along I was thinking that I was fooling people, that I was pulling a fast one over on them. The wonderful thing about Bettina, as I was trying to figure out all the things in my life, she was supportive of me and amazed at my brilliance."

Tavera says women's studies gave her a voice. She tries to do the same for other women, starting with her work at Defensa de Mujeres, a bilingual women's crisis center. When she first was introduced to Defensa, it was a project of Fenix Services, a Watsonville-based Latino counseling center. On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in 1991, Tavera got the go-ahead to make Defensa an autonomous nonprofit organization.

Tavera says she ran into a fork in the academic road when she was at UCSC, wanting to study both Chicano and women's studies. She solved the problem by writing her thesis on Chicana feminism. She took a similar approach to Defensa.

She touches her forefingers together and points to two invisible locations. "Here's a Latino agency, and here's a women's agency--and then here's Blanca," she says, motioning to a spot in the middle of the two. "It's an agency by Latinas for Latinas. To run it successfully, you have to know the history, you have to know the culture. Otherwise you end up making the women fit the service instead of the services fit the women."

Three years ago, she founded Matrix Consulting Institute, a consulting and training center for business and community organizers. The day before our interview, the small private company hosted its first all-day seminar, for women, by women.

"Someone at the workshop asked me if they could take notes, and it reminded me of an ancient Chinese proverb," Tavera says. "The proverb says, if you learn or receive something and you benefit from it, it is your obligation to share it. Similarly, the Chinese character for obligation is coming home. I feel this is my obligation not in an oppressive way, but that I'm coming home. I've come full circle. Now I live for everybody, but in a different way. By taking care of myself and my family. It's a choice, when I didn't have a choice before."

Helping Hands

SARAH MARK, 21, pulls a three-ring binder out of her purple backpack and flips it open to a piece of paper with a large circle drawn in the center. She points with a ring-adorned finger to the words "Violence at Home" written underneath the circle.

The paper is an art activity, called a mandala, Mark explains. In two weeks, a group of children and teens--the "Kids" half of the Walnut Avenue Women's Center's Moms and Kids Club--will receive similar pieces of paper as part of the weekly meeting activities.

"They can draw or write whatever they want," says Mark, an intern with the club. The program helps abused women develop their parenting skills and cope with emotional concerns associated with domestic violence. The kids work on increasing self-esteem and problem-solving without violence.

"We did the same activities at the beginning of our intern training," Mark says. "Usually kids will start talking while they are playing, not when you sit them down and say, 'Let's talk about violence at home.' But one of the effects of domestic violence on kids is that they have a shorter attention span, so you can't be upset if things don't go as planned."

Kathleen Hart, 23, also volunteers at the Walnut Avenue Women's Center. She's a volunteer advocate (the Women's Center only has one full-time advocate on staff), and her 10-plus hours a week are spent filing restraining orders, completing paperwork for lawyers and the courts, researching GED programs for the clients and making referrals to homeless shelters, tutors, counselors and lawyers.


Photograph by George Sakkestad

A Woman's Job: An advocate at the Walnut Avenue Women's Center, UCSC senior Kathleen Hart helps domestic-violence victims wade through the legal system.

"One woman who came in here needed a driver's license," Hart says. "It can be as simple as that, calling the DMV, driving her to her appointment. A lot of the women are completely isolated from society. It may seem like a simple task to you or me, but they need the support."

Both women are interns at the center, a converted YWCA that offers a variety of programs for victims of domestic violence. Both are also women's studies majors at UCSC, although neither entered the university with that degree in mind.

Mark was a psychology major when she came to UCSC as a freshman. Hart, an ex-history major, transferred to UCSC her junior year.

Mark says she never would have called herself a feminist before taking Introduction to Feminism at UCSC, although the topics the classes covered--body image, eating disorders and violence against women--have always struck a chord with her.

"I was always affected by those subjects, I just didn't have the language to describe my interest."

"Women's studies teaches you a new way of seeing the world and critiquing it," Hart says. "It teaches you not to take things at face value, but to ask why. It demands you examine race, class, gender and sexuality, and when you realize how [complex] they are, it gives you a real sense of urgency. Now I need to do something to use my skills and put them to work and share them. It doesn't do any good just to hold onto them."

After graduation in June, Hart says she wants to work as a professional advocate for a couple of years, then go to law school.

Mark isn't quite sure what she will do after graduation in a year and a half, but she says she wants to continue to volunteer at crisis centers long-term.

She shows me the "Anger" mandala she drew during the Women's Center training. Green words like "body image," "media," "violence" and "hypocrisy" spiral into a red devil in the center of the circle. She says this is her favorite.

"It was great, venting and releasing that anger. We talked about what kind of things in our lives we were angry about, what things we can change, and what things we can't change and have to deal with. For the kids in the program, it's different. It's hitting and violence--that's the only answer they know."


UCSC Women's Studies Founders Day events include a roundtable discussion with a panel of founding faculty and alumnae. The event takes place Sunday (April 16) at 3:30pm at Kresge Town Hall, UCSC. The discussion and subsequent reception are free and open to the public. (495.4324 or 459.2781)

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From the April 12-19, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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