The roles of women within U.S. society have dramatically changed, opening many opportunities for American women during the last century. Women in the second half of the twentieth century transitioned from traditional roles in the private sphere to important roles in the public sphere. Access to a college education has proven an important stepping stone for many middle-class activists working to bridge the equality gap with men. Annette Mills, who has been an active voice within politics and her community, offers an illuminating example of women’s growing access to education and political voice.
Born in Palo Alto, California in February 1949, Annette McDonald grew up during a time of immense change for women in the United States. Her activism within The League of Women Voters and the communities she has lived in was largely shaped by the positive and progressive influence of her parents and an immense drive to help the world and people around her.
While growing up in what most would call a traditional household, Annette gave credit to her parents for her drive for community involvement. Her mother worked quite a few jobs before marrying at the age of 29 and becoming a housewife and a stay-at-home mother of four girls. Her father worked was director of guidance at a high school and then, after earning his PhD at Stanford, a professor at California State University of Los Angeles. Both of her parents were very active within their community. Their political engagement strongly influenced her views and future path. Her earliest memory of politics was in 1956 when, at the age of seven, she watched televised news reports of the presidential election. Political conversation was a constant in the home, often around the dinner table as she grew up. Mills felt that she knew more about national politics as a child than she does now at the age of 65. Her father was a very progressive thinker and often had various political newsletters and magazines around. By the time she had reached high school, her father’s activism included involvement in a local controversy involving book banning in Southern California. He also won a seat on the school board. Annette remembers fondly campaigning door to door as a high school student for her father during his run for the school board. Mills learned about the League of Women Voters through her mother’s membership. Despite the fact that she herself did not join the league until later in her life, her experience as a child greatly influenced her decisions as an adult to become active within local politics and her community.
Her father’s progressive thinking was not limited to his political views, but also shaped his views about people in general. As a man and head of his household, he was a very gentle although very opinionated man. He was an early member of the NAACP and highly valued diversity throughout his life. He also encouraged all four of his daughters to become strong women, telling them that they could do whatever they wanted to do in their lives. All of this was during a time in U.S. history where women, although beginning to break more into the public sphere, were generally expected to keep the home and not necessarily become educated and form individualized opinions about politics. These actions greatly influenced his daughter’s life, forming her into the progressive and active community member she is today.
Annette attended college at Stanford, in the very progressive Bay Area, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, and Women’s Liberation Movement. In college she focused primarily on her studies, but she sympathized with antiwar and civil rights activism, read up on the movements, and made an effort to educate herself on what was going on. Like many college students, she became involved politically during the 1968 Presidential Election by campaigning for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy.
After graduating from Stanford with a degree in history, Mills decided to join a national service group as a VISTA Volunteer. Started in the 1965, the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program was the product President Kennedy’s commitment to assisting Americans living in poverty. As a VISTA volunteer, Mills traveled to a small rural community in Oklahoma to work with a predominately African American population. A remarkably different environment from the progressive Bay Area in California, the experience opened her eyes to the great inequality among races. Her time working as a VISTA volunteer in Oklahoma inspired her to go back to school to gain a teaching credential in the hopes of making a difference by means of education. Her drive to become an educator was not driven by the idea that teaching was a typical female profession, but stemmed instead from her reaction against the the way students were treated in that rural community. She came back to California, earned her credential, and began teaching, giving “150 percent” to her job and working to provide a personalized educational environment for her students.
When she moved with her husband and young daughter to Falls Church, Virginia in 1988, Mills’ efforts to make a better world took a new direction. She took a part-time position as a recycling and litter prevention coordinator with the city and soon expanded the job into a full-time position as environmental programs specialist, taking on crucial environmental concerns including watershed protection and environmental education. She took this work into the League of Women Voters when she helped conduct a two-year study on sustainability and convince the League to to take a position supporting sustainability in the early 1990’s. Although there was quite a bit of interest from other chapters, Mills believes that the study was simply too early for its time; the Falls City chapter did not vote to support the position.
While sustainability may have taken a backseat in the early 1990’s, Mills’ efforts built a strong foundation for future efforts. By the time she and her husband moved back to the west coast in the twenty-first century, sustainability had become an important and popular topic across the country. Just two months after moving to Corvallis, Oregon, Annette helped to found the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition which the Corvallis chapter of The League of Women Voters was quick to support and which she still continues to lead.
Shannon Rice, Patrick Long, and Carrie Nies, HST 363, Oregon State University, Fall 2014