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Carbondale’s rich history of women’s activism and protest
March 31, 2023
The year is 1968, and you’re a female student at SIU. You must attempt to wrestle success and financial independence from a male-dominated academic environment only just beginning to give women and people of color the first inches of equal ground. You are also treated differently in school policy itself, which condescends to tell female college students and female college students alone when you must return to their dorms each night, whether or not you are allowed to stay overnight at other places, and when you are allowed to have visitors. Unlike male students, who have no curfews so long as they are over the age of 18, you are required to check in at your dorms every night before 11:30 pm Mondays through Thursdays, and after 2 a.m. Fridays through Saturdays. The only way for you to escape from being tucked away beneath society’s protective underskirts in the ‘60s was to do well in school; attaining a GPA higher than 3.3 as a sophomore or being a junior or senior of good academic standing, and getting permission from your parents (if you are under the age of 21) before being allowed to regulate your own hours.
As women’s history month comes to a close, the rich history of SIU compels us to take a second look at our own efforts at reform, and acknowledge the generation that helped lead us to the freedoms women on campus have today.
Steve Falcone, a young teacher, sent that late ‘60s administration an open letter, pleading for an end to women’s hours: “What you are not paying attention to is that the old clock is broken. Its springs have burst themselves trying to keep up with the shrinking day of industrial America. What is needed is a new generation who will not be clock-oriented […] Be grown men and now consider what freedoms you can grant this new generation under your guidance to cope with the problems of tomorrow. Don’t train them in your lifestyles, they’ve got to live far different lives from the age you grew up in. Free the students to work out a lifestyle which will be meaningful in their futures.”
Although the generation which strove for reform so single mindedly in the ‘70s now occupies most positions of power today, whether they be corporate, academic, or political, their work remains unfinished as the struggle for broad freedoms continues, with same sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights recently reentering the political arena.
Civil rights leader, and professor, Julian Bond spoke in the SIU Arena in May of 1969 at the invitation of student government.
“The oppressed ought to be more than the poor and the black. The oppressed ought to be students whose schools do not teach them, workers whose unions do not represent them, voters who want more than an echo…that ought to be the goal of politics,” he said. “To gather together the oppressed and discover the limits of their endurance. For our young people, those who are currently restructuring the American university, there is a job waiting…outside of the Ivy colored walls of American education.”
The issue of women’s hours, as well as other issues, such as administrative censorship of the Daily Egyptian, administrative discipline of students independently of the student government, and the overall superfluous nature of the student government in campus affairs galvanized students to organize the school’s biggest political movement, know as the Action Party. It quickly became notorious for its propaganda, and relentless political activism without the use of any form of violence, a merit the upcoming riotous war protests of the ‘70s could never lay claim to. It featured its own propaganda production arm, which constantly produced pamphlets and news briefs to be handed out to as many students as could be reached, as well as a host of affiliated student organizations and a contingent of thousands of sympathetic students.
Members of the Action Party, and its precursor, the Student Movement for Rights and Progress (RAF) even had dedicated roles focused on touring SIU’s campus, giving speeches at halls and apartment complexes to anyone who would listen.
Combining this effort with the Women’s Liberation Front (WLF), a feminist student organization which had a strong core of female students organizing the massive protests against women’s hours and negotiating with the administration, the Action Party was responsible for various compromises from the administration.
“This honest and progressive step will better not only the individual in his attempt to educate himself in both his group and personal relationships, but will also enhance the university’s image as a serious academic institution. No university can seriously ask anyone to choose a major field of study, a life philosophy, a vocation, or any other meaningful goal and, at the same time, deny basic daily freedoms of choice,” said a RAF press release in April, 1968.
This statement, pronounced with all the gravity provided in the blazing civil rights movements of the ‘70s, which at one point culminated in a violent shootout between six members of the Black Panthers and Carbondale police, and the smog of riotous retribution and protest kicked up by the Vietnam War, strikes a profound note even through when pulled up through the decades and a deluge of modern issues. War was a leviathan on the scene of SIU’s campus culture, resulting in the 1968 bombing of the Agricultural building, the 1969 burning of the Old Main building, and 1970 riots which grew so intense that 400 students were arrested, and the entire campus was shut down for three weeks. Even up through the ‘90s, protests wracked the strip of Carbondale every Halloween, provoking police use of mace and tear gas, which eventually resulted in police brutality protests resembling those of the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the very beginning of this long avenue of activism and retribution, lies the Action Party. Startlingly and vigorously, the Action Party began to win over seats in student government quickly after its formation as a countermeasure against SIU administration’s somewhat successful attempts to “divide and conquer” RAF, writing its own constitution and holding its own meetings on subjects of importance to students. For perhaps the first time in decades, the issues of students were the subject of more than hallway rumors and disapproving professor reviews as students began to take matters into their own hands.
In one instance, the Action Party even became a detective in the case of a Floyd Crawshaw, a well-connected public official in Carbondale who was reported to have drunkenly knocked a student cyclist into oncoming traffic with his car, killing a person, but was let off after only paying $100. The party used its influence to search for witnesses, asking students to bring evidence directly to the president of the Action Party in an attempt to make up for state evidence which was too sparse for a conviction.
One of the Action Party’s (in 1969 the most dominant of many new copycat parties) most public and transformative issues was that of women’s hours, which it pursued with advice and support from the Women’s Liberation Front, another student organization at the time. According to the Daily Egyptian’s reporting at the time, the Women’s Liberation Front held several enormous rallies, which often attracted more men than women, reaching a 2 to 1 ratio at one memorable protest held on May 9, 1969, during which a massive walkout in protest of the current women’s hour rules was planned.
“The women are scared, it’s the job of every guy here to get the ball rolling!” said Bill George, an observer at the nearly 2000-person event. “Are you going to let the university carry on and treat us like dogs?”
“‘Go get your asses kicked in chicks, we’re right behind you’…you’re damn right you are, about 10 miles behind,” replied George V. Graham, editor of the Big Muddy Gazette, a somewhat infamous left wing paper at the time.
The walkout was to be staged in response to a Student Senate bill which unanimously abolished women’s hours completely, only to be blocked by higher levels of the university administration who argued that the policy kept up appearances for sake of enrollment, and prevented students from being distracted by relationships.
On May 17, 1969, Pat Hadlin, who represented the Women’s Liberation Front, presented to the board of SIU and President Delyte W. Morris along with 14 other students, several of which were from the Big Muddy Gazette, which was currently suing SIU in the U.S. District Court of East St. Louis, asking that the school be prevented from interfering with the paper by revoking its distribution permit. This, after the Big Muddy Gazette printed a nude caricature of President Morris, and a story critical of Chancellor MacVicar.
Yet another massive protest was held on the 20th, drawing 700 women students from their dorms past the allotted women’s hours, as part of a crowd of 1500 thousand total. Students sat on the lawn and listened to speeches and folk songs broadcasted over a loudspeaker. John Taylor, a Black student who helped organize the protest called it “step number one in the liberation of all the students.”
“When we win, the student government will be strong on campus,” said Jane Voget, a WLF leader of the protest.
It was the first of several more protests, which drew reaction from the campus administration in the form of a committee composed of five students and two assistant deans of students. The committee was charged with determining parental and student opinion on the issue, eventually recommending that all students over the age of 18 be allowed to determine their own hours…with female students under the age of 21 still needing to obtain parental permission, much to the chagrin of the Action Party and the Women’s Liberation Front.
This happened despite the facts that a large majority of the female student body expressed clear disapproval of women’s hours, only 9.4% of parents believed their daughters to be too immature to regulate their own hours, and the faculty widely disapproved of the concept of women’s hours.
Although the Women’s Liberation Front was successful at entering some of the trustees’ meetings, despite not being able to get on the agenda, they were widely disregarded by the trustees for not being a registered student organization at the time, and inevitably due to the sexism of the time, for being women, with trustees mainly asking about what the male students thought about the matter. On May 17, before the walkout, President Morris took a tearful Pat Handlin aside, and told her that it “might not be time to press the issue right now.” As is often the case in matters of civil rights, the diminished stature of women left WLF with no choice but to appeal to the rest of the student body and their male supporters, who were taken more seriously by administration.
“We are planning campus walkouts every night until something changes,” said Judy Micheals, a member of the WLF.
After the abolishment of the women’s hours by the Student Senate on May 15, and the walkout on the 20th, came consequences. Female students were threatened with “campusing” an infantilizing disciplinary action forcing women to spend a certain number of hours in their dormitory library or rooms, as well as disciplinary probation, a status which could see them expelled if they continued on to violate the rules in any way. Administration attempted to make assurances to the students, claiming that only women that already had histories of rule breaking would be disciplined for the walkouts, but the student government was having none of it, unwilling to accept any punishments or warnings for the students’ actions, which were not a rule violation under the student government’s bill.
The Student Senate itself staged a sit-in on President Morris’ own lawn in protest of any disciplinary action against female students taking part in the walkouts, approved democratically by its own 15-8 vote, with only the senators who voted in favor participating. Feeling responsible for the women who acted under the shield of the senate’s bill, they agreed to sit on the lawn until women’s hours were abolished and walkouts were granted amnesty, or until the participating members were expelled from the school. This was supported by the WLF, which asked any women experiencing discipline for the walkout to contact the Student Senate. At this point, a local attorney by the name of Julian Bond even considered taking the issue to court, as the school was thought to be in violation of Federal Civil rights laws, and Illinois State law.
When the lawn sit-in happened, not just the Student Senate, but more than 2,000 students showed up, all on President Morris’ lawn, including a hard rock band which played for 3 hours until the police showed up and demanded they stop or be “disbanded.” The band only left when 30 SIU security officers showed up equipped with riot gear and nightsticks.
“Girls, you have no hours,” said Carl Courtnier, a Small Group Housing senator who spoke first at the event. “The senate has already abolished them.”
Students were told by administrative aide Paul Morrill that the sit-in “could have no positive effect, only a negative one” but also that no action would be taken against students unless they violated the law.
Crowds continued visiting Morris’ lawn every night, constructing an effigy of the president and hanging it from his roof on the second night, much to the chagrin of the administration. Meanwhile, the Student Senate was able to convince faculty to discuss the matter with students in official class time, and the measure was endorsed by Chancellor McVickar, who encouraged faculty to discuss the issue formally and informally.
As the nights on Morris’ lawn continued, criticism from administration was levied against the confrontational tactics of the protestors. Some students were persuaded, and requested that the demonstration be moved to SIU’s stadium, but were quickly outvoted by a loyalist core of students.
Lorek addressed the crowd of more than 400 students on Morris’ lawn, claiming to be studying the issue of women’s hours for the WLF. He said that he would present a case against women’s hours to the student board of trustees, and would file a lawsuit if the board proved unreceptive.
On the third day of the Morris lawn sit-in, Courtnier resigned from the student council, and started a hunger strike on Morris’ lawn, to continue until the same demands as those sitting in were met; that women’s hours were abolished and the women participating in the walkouts were granted amnesty. His hunger strike was to be short lived, disrupted by upwelling of radical students at the sit-ins on Morris’ lawn. Students were spotted with molotov cocktails, scaring the student senators and other protest leaders, who had almost lost control of the protest on previous nights. This, paired with a compromise struck between the student body vice president, Pete Rozzell, and Chancellor MacVicar signaled the end to the Morris lawn sit-ins and the hunger strike. Allegedly, MacVicar promised that female students would only receive warning letters.
However, resistance to women’s hours remained very much alive, as some students from the demonstrations continued the protest across the street from Morris’ house as well as in a dome near campus lake for several more days.
Even parents wrote the Daily Egyptian with criticism of women’s hours criticizing the “3 – M company” (Morris, MacVicar, and Moulton) for women’s hours committees’ new, parental-consent centered plan, calling it arbitrary and discriminatory.
“They are playing with the natural reluctance of parents to give up their hold on their children, a reluctance difficult enough to overcome without the interference of self-righteous administrative elitists,” said Glenda and Patrick Engrissei, parents of two female students. “They are using, in fact fostering, divisions between parent and student, when it should be a function of the university to heal these splits. In essence, the proposed plan makes the administration an enemy of both parent and student.”
On June 8, fire broke out in four separate places in the Old Main building, destroying 24 classrooms. The building was found to be unsalvageable, and demolition crews were called in. Later in June, arson was announced to be the cause of the fire. The draft for the Vietnam war had begun to take effect, and the issue of women’s hours was largely forgotten, as the political environment on campus became a blazing inferno to match that of historic Old Main.
However, some scraps of information are still available in the years following the movement. The women hours committee finished its work about a year after its inception, on August 15, finalizing the university’s new policy of allowing all female students in good standing to choose their own hours, with the condition that those under the age of 21 were required to get parental permission. Along the way, a member of the WLF quit the committee, finding it to be ineffective at granting women equality on campus. Over the course of the protests against women’s hours, those who opposed them were often criticized for being uncompromising in their pursuit of equality, but were largely supported by women surveyed by the women’s hours committee. Less than 6% of women chose to stick with the school’s current regulations – the one’s so widely protested by the Action party and the WLF. 30% chose unconditional self regulated hours for all women, bringing them to total equality with male students. 50% choose self regulatory hours for all women students but freshman. The committee did little to address female students’ opposition to requiring parental consent.
Even after this uneasy compromise on women’s hours, men and women were barely permitted to study together. SIU’s own Information Service reported the following incident, which took place early in the spring semester of 1969.. “Seeking further liberalization of hours rulings, students interrupted the February Board of Trustees meeting. Without discussing the issue or giving reasons, the Board vetoed the coeducational study hours proposal. Coed study began despite the veto; it ended with suspension of six members of student government. They were later reinstated and on-campus living areas liberalized open house rules.”
Even when administration began to address this problem in the spring semester of 1970, women’s hours were still very much in effect, with Dean Moulton prescribing “A maximum of four days per week and maximum times from 7 p.m. until one-half hour before women’s hours curfew (11:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday, 2 a.m. Friday, Saturday, midnight, Sunday),” for studying hours in coed spaces. This instigated its own new struggle between students, who had their own coed study rules drawn up, and some of the same administrators that kept women’s hours in place, even as other colleges in the state, such as the University of Illinois, abolished them completely.
Somewhat ironically, given the upcoming circumstances of riotous student action against the Vietnam war, one of the most profound calls to activists today in the whole saga of women’s hours protests lies in a June, 1969 article of the Daily Egyptian, titled, “SIU political history marred by apathy.”
“Student political parties at SIU are too narrowly based. A broader base is necessary if parties are to get the support of the administration,” said Melvin Kahn, an associate professor of Government at the time.
He criticized the political parties of the time, who were little more than temporary movements to get students elected, before immediately disintegrating, leaving their representatives unappraised of the current needs of the student body. “Parties should be a social organization,” Khan said, criticizing the lack of any fun or activities among the student government. There were no debates, social mixers, and no inter party gatherings, despite the fact that the issue of women’s hours crossed the political aisle between Republicans and Democrats.
In short, the student politics of even that highly organized time did not feel lived in. There was not enough compromising among students or bloc building, even with common issues underlying the entire student bodies lives as students.
Today, as students face an all time high in political polarization, a widening class divide, a cold war in danger of reigniting, and debt-inducing tuition rates (with a lawsuit suppressing the Biden administration’s forgiveness of student loans), it’s difficult to believe we are incapable of the same levels of political mobilization as students were in the ‘70s.
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