On International Women’s Day 2017, various groups celebrated in different ways all around the globe, acknowledging women and their achievements throughout history and in the present. The organizers of January’s massively successful “Women’s March on Washington” planned the “Day Without a Woman” women’s strike. Although it is not expected to capture as much attention as the march that was its inspiration, March 8th is a day set aside to celebrate the accomplishments and successes of women everywhere.
Indeed, many women chose to participate in the women’s strike in a variety of ways. If they couldn’t take the day off work, they opted out of spending money, taking public transportation, or they are showed their solidarity with other women by wearing the color red. While strikes are usually thought of in the context of labor resistance, striking as an act of resistance to social or political change is nothing new.
In March 1937, about 400 women at Asheville Normal and Teachers College staged their
very own sit-in strike. It was an act of resistance that caught national attention and ultimately won them exactly what they were after; spring break. At noon on March 4, 1937, the female students, studying to become educators, congregated in the school’s chapel and refused to leave. By the next day, the after further negotiations with school administration, the demands of the strike had increased to the request of further social privileges. By the time the strike ended almost five days later, the 400 students eventually came to some terms with the school and the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church and won a short spring break the social demands of their strike effective immediately.
It all began when a group of six student representatives, two each from the freshman, sophomore, and junior classes (seniors were all away student teaching during the strike) approached Dr. John Calfee, the school president, and requested the school grant them a spring holiday. By this time, many schools around North Carolina were allowing students to return home for Easter, and the women studying at the Presbyterian institution in Asheville believed they should have similar schedules to other surrounding training colleges for teachers. The young women were at once refused their request despite the fact that they had enjoyed a break the year before because the school was worried the girls would bring back the flu to campus after visiting family in various regions of the state.
Immediately, the young women went to work. They organized a sit-down strike in the school chapel, created paper buttons that read “SPRING HOLIDAYS” and laid out the term of their strike: They would sit in the chapel until their demands were met, skipping class, refusing to go to their rooms, and refusing to eat. This sent the cooperative and usually highly conservative school into a tizzy, to say the least. The girls were important to keeping many of the facilities running as they worked to prepare food, clean buildings and more.
Hours later, Dr. Calfee and other members of the executive board of the school attempted to negotiate and speak with the students, alas their efforts were fruitless. One after one they were booed off the stage. The young women remained in the chapel all day singing songs, united together, demanding the executive board meet their request. Dr. Calfee returned several times throughout the day, at one point telling the girls that their demonstration was a “Youthful outburst,” and that “if their beaus could see them now they’d say ‘I don’t want that one.’”
The following day the six student representatives, Dora Sue, Mary Sue, Louise, Margaret, Sara, and Karene, met with the executive board. Calfee’s comments must have struck a chord because this time there was more on the table. The students requested more social privileges. They wanted more freedom to go out with boys in their cars as they pleased (and whatever boys, not just the one’s approved by their parents), the opportunity to buy sodas in the canteen, a longer window of time for visitors on campus, and the ability to have radios in their dorm rooms (although they were flexible on that issue).
After two days of negotiations and sit-ins, the girls had the attention of the national press, the sympathy of the public and their teachers, and had put college benefactors and the administration on edge with their highly unbecoming “youthful outbursts.” Dr. Calfee
and the executive board had to compromise. After negotiations on March 7th, 1937, the Executive Board agreed to give the students a weekend for spring break and to consider their other grievances knowing the school faculty was on the students’ side and tensions with the students were still high. They finally agreed to the social demands of the students (even the radios!) and forwarded the request to the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in New York City for final approval. Some were on edge, saying that this had “damaged the school’s reputation,” but the students were hopeful.
On March 24, the school received a letter that their demands were met. The Board of National Missions letter stated that because they felt they, “Must first give consideration to the maintenance of the reputation of the college,” and ensure benefactors’ confidence in the “immediate return of normal and efficient functioning,” that they would with great hesitance grant the requests of the students.
The students’ strike tactics worked. Through strong, united, collective action, 400 young women stood up (or rather, sat down) and said, “We want spring holidays!” After being dismissed as childish and told their tactics made them undesirable to men, they demanded even more, and their demands met. On International Women’s Day, and every day let’s remember these strong young women and all women who have stood up for themselves, each other, their education, their families, and will continue to do so in the future.
“Normal Students Strike For Spring Holidays” The Asheville Citizen, March 5, 1937.
“Students Present Their Grievances to Faculty” The Asheville Citizen, March 6, 1937.
“Normal Students Will Resume Work Tuesday” The Asheville Citizen, March 8, 1937.
“Presbyterian Board Approves Privileges Granted To Students” The Asheville Citizen, March 24, 1937.