Last year, students at Jefferson and elsewhere demonstrated for International Women’s Day, March 8. This year, a number of events are planned for Berkley High. Photo: Alison Leaf

Years before the recent wave of #MeToo and #Time’sUp revelations brought to the fore the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, Berkeley High School students were sounding the alarm on their own campus.

On Thursday, March 8, International Women’s Day, the BHS Stop Harassing club members will continue their advocacy, joining the other student groups, teachers and staff who are putting on a series of events to raise awareness and celebrate the accomplishments of women on campus and beyond.

“People mistake this as new stuff that’s happening,” said junior Madison Lease, 17, about the #metoo movement. “We’re just talking about it for the first time. It’s definitely a more well-known subject at Berkeley High, but there’s obviously still a lot more to be done.”

Lease is part of the Women’s Student Union, which is helping create a historical timeline of women’s contributions on a wall at Berkeley High, with art by female students hung around campus as well. The group will also hold a bake sale during lunch Thursday, where students can decorate feminist and vagina-shaped cookies. Some of the Women’s Student Union members participated in the recent Berkeley High performance of the Vagina Monologues, and the cast is organizing an open mic Thursday. Teachers can choose to bring their classes to the event, where cast members will perform an abridged version of the show and others can share their own pieces.

“I think it’s very important to celebrate the strength and power of women,” Lease said. “To appreciate the  amazing things women are doing and give them the credit they don’t get every other day. And from an education standpoint, women are oppressed everywhere, and it’s important to stay updated” on the issues, at home and internationally, she said.

The celebration of International Women’s Day is a deep-rooted, if inconsistent, tradition in Berkeley schools. The district used to shut down in observance of the holiday, which has socialist origins, and Berkeley High became home to the country’s first high-school women’s studies department from 1972-79. Last year, many schools throughout the system held rallies in the morning before classes began.

Math teacher Masha Albrecht said she was impressed to learn how well-organized and knowledgeable the students already were when she began planning this year’s Women’s Day events with them.

“I didn’t realize how deep it was until I started to work with them,” she said. Albrecht herself generally feels strongly about keeping activism and teaching separate, but that principle has recently been “eroded” somewhat, with obvious overlap between social issues and students’ experiences in class, she said.

‘Things just come up at school. You can’t pretend that issues of sexual harassment or issues of gender identity or violence don’t matter in a classroom,” Albrecht said.

One of the teacher’s contributions to the jam-packed Thursday is a video to be shown in connection with screenings of Hidden Figures. The movie tells the story of the African American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s and were responsible for critical mathematical advances, despite dealing with rampant racism and sexism in and outside the workplace. In a climactic scene, mathematician Katherine Johnson  solves a vexing problem. The math itself isn’t explained thoroughly on the screen, so Albrecht and a colleague took it upon themselves to make a video explaining it for Women’s Day.

Posters announcing the Women’s Day events are plastered around the Berkeley High campus. Photo: Josh Austin

While there is still a day left before the events take place, Albrecht said the organizers have already accomplished something special — a rare collaboration between students, certified teachers and classified staff. The organizing meetings took place in the all-staff lounge, allowing for that kind cooperation and leadership from non-teaching employees, she said.

Linnette Robinson, an instructional aide at Berkeley High, said the goal with the Women’s Day events is to foster “a non-confrontational unity.” But Robinson, who has been in classified staff union leadership positions and considers herself a fierce advocate for employee rights, said she was discouraged to see that a lot of her colleagues seemed fearful to participate in the advocacy Thursday.

“I applauded the students because they had more courage than a lot of these adults.”

Robinson is helping organize a group photo at lunch, where staff and others will hold up red Women’s Day signs.

“The day someone decides to stand up for whatever reason, they’ll feel the presence of the unity they were a part of and will be able to speak out,” she said. “To me, that’s more important than anything. For someone to feel the presence of the unity, that power, that energy.”

After school, Albrecht and special education teacher Josh Austin are organizing a rally in Civic Center Park, hoping to bring together a group of staff, teachers and students.

Among additional events happening during the school day include a lunchtime staff gathering with Miriam Stahl, art teacher and author of the Rad Women series, and Kate Schatz, who illustrated the books.

Though there have been Women’s Day celebrations on campus in the past, Austin, who has taught at Berkeley High for eight years, said he has seen nothing like the range of performances, rallies, screenings and sales slated for Thursday.

Correction: This article initially said Linnette Robinson was organizing the after-school rally. Masha Albrecht and Josh Austin are organizing the event.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...