Campus Activism: A Brief History
By: Halle Dray
Photos by: Madeline Melragon
Katherine Jellison, Ph.D., is a U.S. and social history, and women and gender studies expert, who teaches at Ohio University. Jellison is a veteran of academia; she grew up as the daughter of a university administrator and has been surrounded by a collegiate atmosphere since childhood. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and immediately became a professor. Jellison has intensively studied and experienced various social movements, and when asked about their patterns on college campuses throughout her lifetime, she provided the following insight:
Q: How did people on college campuses, with common beliefs, organize themselves together and form protests, pre-internet?
A: “I assume the way that, back then in the 60s, was still the way we were doing it in the 80s: old-fashioned leafleting going around and putting up leaflets that said, ‘Here’s the protest, here’s the time it’s happening, here’s the location!’ Just taping things up on walls and putting them in the residence hall mailboxes … (graduate) student mailboxes. It has always been important and always a good strategy to get graduate students as well as undergraduates involved. Also, I remember people just getting out there with blow horns and saying, ‘Are you angry about such and so?’ and drawing people who were walking between classes at the time.”
Q: Considering all generations of students, what are the most common tactics students use for reaching higher-up university officials?
A: “Well, in terms of how effective any of them are, [there’s] the old ‘march around the campus, boycott classes,’ in which no students go to classes at this certain hour and we just leave the classrooms empty. That hopefully sends a message to administrators’ teachings. It all goes back to the 1960s. Faculty and students have also organized to have evening teach-ins, where they come together in an empty classroom and share information about the issue. I think a little bit of that happened here during the first year of the Trump administration with abortion policy. What probably gets administrators’ attention is that students and faculty are working together to become more informed about these issues.”
Q: It’s common to think of iconic leaders regarding social movements, but on the microcosm of a college campus, have you observed that they are typically led by a collective whole or have you seen more individual spokespeople for groups?
A: I think that what’s most effective is that people approach these things as a coalition. What works best is a united front that crosses these boundaries of who’s a student, who’s a faculty member and who’s a staff member. There may be individuals who might have a particular upfront speaking role, but I think, unless they are backed by their constituencies in large numbers, it’s not that effective. If we looked at the iconic movements, say of the 1960s, on certain individual campuses, we might gravitate toward individuals who were seen as various effective spokespersons…There may be one or two spokespersons who stood up on the roof of a car and said something that was amazing, and everyone rallied behind that person. The movement, however, was so much more than that person… on a college campus. No matter how charismatic and articulate [the leader] is, it has to be more co-leadership.”
Q: As far as ongoing movements go, such as Black Lives Matter and abortion rights, what are some patterns that can be seen in the ebbs and flows?
A: “Well, unfortunately, it usually takes a dramatic event; one that’s getting either local attention in a dramatic way or, obviously, national attention like George Floyd. It’s good to recognize that the movement continues even when it is not in the headlines. In terms of women’s issues in general … Donald Trump’s inauguration was one day, and there’s the March on Washington the next day, and after that it seemed to be one thing after another. The Harvey Weinstein cases and the ‘Me too’ movement have kept the women’s movement in the headlines over the last five years or so. I think we’re probably coming to another one of those headline moments depending on what happens as a result of this situation in Texas.”
Q: Particularly in the women’s rights movement, what has male participation looked like in the past? Over the years how has it changed, if at all?
A: “That is still something that divides the movement. On every campus I’ve ever been on, a debate on an annual basis was the Take Back the Night March. ‘Are we going to allow men to be part of the march or not?’ Even on [Ohio University’s] campus, some say, ‘let’s have male allies’ and others say, ‘no, we don’t want male allies.’ I think the LGBT movement has helped make the women’s movement more inclusive, and caused more people who do identify, now or in the past, as men, to feel maybe more invested in things.”
Q: Finally, what has the integration and prioritization of racial intersectionality in the women’s movement looked like over time?
A: “Well, that was a criticism all along … one person who I can give as an example is Mary Terrell-Church, who was always talking about her own intersectionality as a Black woman, and that she couldn’t separate Black voting rights from women’s voting rights. She couldn’t say ‘I’m playing this side of my identity or that side of my identity’ because they’re both central. One person’s voting rights are as important as anyone else’s … if anyone’s voting rights or rights of citizenship was trampled on, then everyone’s was. By the time we came to second wave feminist movement … everyone started to allow Black women to be right at the center of the action, which I’d argue they always were … but now they are getting publicity.”
Dr. Jellison concluded the conversation by recommending the book Vanguard by Martha S. Jones for anyone interested in learning about patterns and developments in intersectional feminism through the story of Black women’s fight for voting rights.