Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination

Academic, writer, and activist Merle Woo twice filed suit against the University of California, Berkeley, after her contract as a lecturer at the university was not renewed. She argued that Berkeley failed to renew her teaching contracts in 1982 and in 1986, partly because of her radical politics, race, and gender. She won her first case and was reinstated in 1984. In 1986, again without a renewed contract, she filed suit once more but dropped the case in 1991 for health reasons.

Summary of Event

Merle Woo, a Korean-Chinese American lesbian, is a respected writer and social activist whose teaching contracts with the University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley, discrimination lawsuit against
Berkeley, University of California, and discrimination lawsuit against were not renewed, first in 1982 and again in 1986. Woo contended she was targeted by a conservative university administration for her radical views and her support of various student protests and causes. In 1984, she filed suit against the university in an unfair labor practice action, and was represented in court by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). American Federation of Teachers
[kw]Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination (1982-1991)
[kw]Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination, Lesbian (1982-1991)
[kw]Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination, Lesbian Academic and (1982-1991)
[kw]Sues University of California for Discrimination, Lesbian Academic and Activist (1982-1991)
[kw]University of California for Discrimination, Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues (1982-1991)
Colleges and universities;faculty dismissals
Discrimination;in academia[academia]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1982-1991: Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination[1520]
[c]Civil rights;1982-1991: Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination[1520]
[c]Race and ethnicity;1982-1991: Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination[1520]
[c]Feminism;1982-1991: Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination[1520]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1982-1991: Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination[1520]
Woo, Merle

Woo then spent much of the 1980’s in a series of protracted legal proceedings over whether the university, on two occasions, had violated her free speech rights and discriminated against her on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and political ideology. Woo eventually won the unfair labor practices case in 1984, received an out-of-court settlement, and negotiated a union arbitration deal with Berkeley, brokered by the AFT. However, in 1986, the university failed to renew her contract once again, and she filed a lawsuit, again for unfair labor practices. The case was still in the courts in 1991, but Woo dropped the suit after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Woo had been a Marxist and lesbian-feminist critic teaching courses in Asian American studies, women’s studies, and queer studies at Berkeley. Before Berkeley, she taught at San Francisco State University. Also, she was a leader of the group Radical Women and with the Freedom Socialist Party during an increasingly conservative decade in national politics.

On November 4, 1980, in a stunning upset of incumbent President Jimmy Carter, former California governor Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States by 50.7 percent of the electorate to Carter’s 41 percent. Reagan had run on a decidedly conservative platform of supply-side economics, tax cuts, abortion opposition, small government, and a strong military.

The so-called Reagan revolution was embraced and celebrated by the grassroots political efforts of the Christian Right and by conservative activists such as Richard Viguerie, who had founded the Conservative Digest in 1975. The Moral Majority, established by the Reverend Jerry Falwell in 1979, was instrumental in grassroots activism on behalf of conservative causes, especially among Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. Conservatives, and conservative Christians, had a major part in Reagan’s election.

To radical academics and social activists, the 1980 election marked a watershed year. Reagan’s provocative, conservative rhetoric on nuclear weapons, relations with the Soviet Union, abortion, welfare, and government spending was antithetical to radical causes. It was within this changed, conservative context that Woo, while at Berkeley, found herself studying sexist images of Asian American women as demure, invisible, silent, and subordinate model minorities. Woo’s work and writings examined the ways that distortions around difference and identity caused enlightened individuals to make generalizations about diversity that lead to discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping.

If Woo hoped to expose the cultural and social constructions that supported oppression, conservatives, and particularly Reagan, were exacerbating such distortions. In his second term as governor of California (1971-1975), Reagan had introduced a series of welfare reforms that tightened eligibility requirements for welfare benefits and required the able-bodied to work rather than collect general assistance.

In the 1980’s, Reaganomics—the White House’s economic policy of tax cuts and domestic spending cuts—gutted social programs aimed primarily at helping the mentally ill, disabled, unemployed, urban poor, and working classes. In one speech, Reagan infamously noted the case of a Chicago “welfare queen” caught driving a Cadillac paid for with $150,000 ripped off from the government using aliases, false addresses, fake social security cards, and fictional dead husbands. The story had been a fabrication; but it made an indelible impression on public sentiment.

While the Republican right wing was seen as demonizing and denigrating the poor and disadvantaged, Woo was advocating for increasing child support, demonstrating against legislation to slash affirmative action, and shaming the medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry so that they would support research and treatment for breast cancer victims. Woo’s criticism of the widening gap between the rich and poor, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the clampdown on free speech rights placed her at odds with conservative university administrators; they considered her a threat. Here again, her activism and ideology collided with the political agenda of California’s governing hierarchy. (As governor of California from 1967 to 1975, Reagan had raised student fees at state colleges and universities and then sent state police to campuses to monitor and contain student protests.) Colleges and universities;faculty dismissals
Discrimination;in academia[academia]


Merle Woo ultimately won her first discrimination case, and the message the University of California, Berkeley, sent to free thinkers, radical academics, and social critics was clear: The state was willing to invest its vast resources, time, and wealth in quieting criticism and silencing dissent.

Woo’s resiliency and perseverance serve as models of academic freedom and campus free speech. In the 1990’s, she became active in organizing lecturers and students in support of student democracy and maintaining a focus on lesbians and women of color in the women’s studies department at San Francisco State University.

Woo is a socialist, feminist author, and teacher who remains focused on the project of developing multi-issue alliances to expose and escape the distortions around difference and identity. She has also taught women’s studies at San Jose State University and remains an important radical voice in American academia. Her teaching philosophy is based on the celebration of the unique gifts that each student, “men and women/brown black yellow jewish white/gay and straight” brings to the learning experience. Her pedagogical approach seeks to kindle the natural, creative spark that gives voice to individual students. Woo encourages her students “[t]o take flight/using the words/that give us wings.” She asks,

What is language after allbut the touching and upliftingone to the others:scenespoemsdreamsour own natural imagery . . .

Further Reading

  • Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn, ed. American Women Activists’ Writings: An Anthology, 1637-2002. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002.
  • Thompson, Becky. “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism.” Feminist Studies 28, no. 2 (2002).
  • Wang, L. Ling-chi, Henry Yiheng Zhao, and Carrie L. Waara, eds. Chinese American Poetry: An Anthology. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Asian American Voices, 1991.
  • Wong, Nellie, Merle Woo, and Mitsuye Yamada. Three Asian American Writers Speak Out on Feminism. San Francisco, Calif.: SF Radical Women, 1993.
  • Woo, Merle. “Forging the Future, Remembering Our Roots: Building Multicultural, Feminist, Lesbian, and Gay Studies.” In Tilting the Tower: Lesbians, Teaching, Queer Subjects, edited by Linda Garber. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • _______. “Letter to Ma.” In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe L. Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa. 3d ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 2001.
  • _______.“Three Decades of Class Struggle on Campus: A Personal History.” In Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America, edited by Fred Ho, et al. San Francisco, Calif.: AK Press, 2000.
  • _______. Yellow Woman Speaks: Selected Poems. Expanded ed. Seattle, Wash.: Radical Women, 2003.

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