This project is unique in that it focuses on women in one geographic region in order to get a clearer picture of the breadth of political work women have been doing on the ground and behind the scenes.
Nineteen ninety-two has been dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” a phenomenon in which a wave of women candidates swept local and national races for public office. California led this charge by becoming the first state in American history to be represented by two women senators—Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And since 2016—after a presidential election that provoked heated debate about gender discrimination and sexual harassment—many women stepped up to the challenge of engaging even more visibly in the American political system. Since then, organizations like Emily’s List and She Should Run reported record-breaking numbers of women who wanted to make their voices heard by running for public office.
And yet, 1992 was not the beginning of women’s political activism, but rather the culmination of decades of organization encouraging women to get involved and run for office. For generations, Bay Area women have built the foundations of political activism that span neighborhood organizations to support networks. And their stories inform our present.
In order to document these stories, I am developing the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project to record the history of these local women and their impact on and journeys through politics. The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley continues to preserve stories about California politicians, but this project is unique in that it focuses on women in one geographic region in order to get a clearer picture of the breadth of political work women have been doing on the ground and behind the scenes. Documenting political engagement outside of traditional political venues will capture more stories about women in politics and a more diverse array of stories.
For instance, the pilot interview for this oral history project is with Mary Hughes, a Bay Area political consultant. In her interview, Hughes explained that “in politics and in political consulting, you either win races or you don’t. If you don’t win, no one hires you. If you do win, everybody wants to hire you.” Hughes’s successful career in the Bay Area spans decades and highlights the prominence of women in national politics. And though she does not wish to run for office herself, Hughes sees her role as someone who can best serve her community by managing the election process for political candidates—especially other women. Hughes’s recollections are an example of the kinds of stories that will drive this oral history project.
These long-form oral history interviews survey Bay Area political women’s backgrounds in and passion for political work through self-reflection. This format allows for comparisons between various avenues of political activism—like organizers and elected officials. It also reveals the importance of networks and mentors, and the impact they have had on women in the Bay Area political scene.
As engaged citizens, we need to know more about these women who helped create a space for themselves in Bay Area political life. Who are these women and what are their stories? From neighborhood organizations to national campaigns, what is the range of political activism in which these women engage? How has being a woman been a challenge or an asset to their political involvement? How have these women been working in the background of political life for generations? How does living and working in California affect political opportunities? What kind of political power do these women wield locally and nationally?
As we approach the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, conducting oral histories with women activists and politicians in California’s San Francisco Bay Area will help shape the national narrative about women’s historic, current, and future roles in American political life. Further, gathering firsthand stories will help inspire and instruct a new generation of politically engaged women.
In addition to collecting primary source materials, The Oral History Center shares its collection with the general public through interpretive materials—like podcasts—and educational initiatives. Recording the contributions of these impressive Bay Area women—political fundraisers, organizers, and elected officials—through life history interviews is the first step in developing curriculum for workshops that cultivate young women’s political leadership. These workshops will use oral histories as a tool to foster civic engagement across the political spectrum, as well as to help develop confidence and skills of future women leaders. We also plan to create a podcast, a series of public forums, and a museum exhibit featuring these interviews.
We are currently raising funds for this project, and need your help to undertake the expansion of this ambitious oral history collection. You can support this project by giving to the Oral History Center. Please note under special instructions: “For the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project.” To learn more about this project, please contact Amanda Tewes at email@example.com or 510-666-3687.
Amanda Tewes is an interviewer with The Oral History Center and specializes in California history and political culture.
The Oral History Center is a research program of the University of California, Berkeley. The OHC helps preserve contemporary history by conducting carefully researched video recorded and transcribed interviews. As part of UC Berkeley’s commitment to open access, archival copies of the audio/video and transcripts are placed in The Bancroft Library and are publicly accessible online.
We are delighted to introduce the oral history of our former colleague, Malca Chall: Wage Rate Analyst for the War Labor Board, World War II; East Bay Community Activist; Interviewer/Editor for the Regional Oral History Office, 1967-2000.
Malca is well known in the Oral History Center as a key staff member for thirty-three years. She came to the Regional Oral History Office, as we were then named, in 1967 and soon became an indispensable and respected interviewer, project director, and right-hand woman to director Willa Baum. Over the years she planned and carried out an impressive array of oral histories, most prominently in the fields of California water policy and politics and government. Her final volume of interviews was completed in 2000.
Few of Malca’s colleagues were aware of an earlier chapter in her life: her employment with the National War Labor Board in Seattle during World War II. Once we learned of her work as a wage rate analyst in the Seattle area for the War Labor Board, we realized that her story would add a unique perspective to our Rosie the Riveter / World War II American Home Front Project. Recognizing an opportunity to also document some important history of the Regional Oral History Office, where I was her colleague for many years, I offered to record Malca’s wartime experiences as the first topic in a longer oral history encompassing her career with ROHO. Only after meeting with Malca to plan her oral history did I realize the importance of also discussing her extensive civic activism in the Hayward/Castro Valley area. In many ways, her volunteer activities with the League of Women Voters and other citizen groups, as well as her wartime experiences, informed her pursuits as an interviewer and project director at ROHO.
Malca Kleiner Chall was born in 1920 in Tacoma, Washington, to a family active in business, in civic affairs, and in the Jewish community. Malca graduated from Reed College and received a master’s degree in political science at the University of Iowa.
In 1943, she accepted an offer from George Bernard Noble, her major professor at Reed who had been appointed head of the War Labor Board, Twelfth Region, to join his staff in Seattle. At age twenty-three, with minimal formal training, she stepped into the ticklish job of analyzing requests for wage increases from both labor and industry, as the WLB sought to dampen inflationary pressures in the midst of critical labor shortages. She visited potato fields, apple orchards, and fisheries, as well as banks, aluminum factories, shipping companies, and other work sites, conducting research and making determinations on acceptable wage rates.
In the oral history Malca reflects on the impact of her wartime employment and also discusses social and political life in wartime Seattle for a young professional woman. An amusing highlight of this section is her account of a bike trip with a friend and colleague, during which the two young women spent a night in a jail cell, arranged by the police of Everett, Washington, when the friends found themselves without a safe place to sleep.
Following the war, Malca moved to New York in search of a job in labor relations. She found work instead with the Edward Bernays public relations firm and in time met and married her husband, Harold Chall. After they moved west to California, settling south of Oakland in San Leandro and then Hayward and Castro Valley, Malca launched her second career as a civic activist, or as she puts it, “a pioneer of controversy in the community.” She worked for the Community Welfare Council in Oakland until the birth of the first of her two sons, David and Barry. As a young mother, she joined the League of Women Voters and was soon a leader in its Eden Unit, spearheading a study of the Hayward city government and helping to draft and secure voter approval for substantial charter revisions. She was active in campaigns for local political figures, including March Fong Eu’s election to the State Assembly as the second woman and first Asian American in the California legislature. She was also prominent in numerous battles to counter right-wing-John Birch Society-McCarthyite pressures in the Hayward area and to secure increased funding for local schools.
In 1967, Malca was hired by Willa Baum, long-time director of the Regional Oral History Office. Her background in political issues and personal relationships with East Bay women who had entered the arena of local and statewide government soon led to the development of one of ROHO’s earliest major projects, California Women Political Leaders, focusing on elected officials, political party officers, and community leaders from 1920 to 1970. She documented an era where women in elected offices at the state and federal levels were few and far between, demonstrating how they had nevertheless long been active, if often behind the scenes, in governance of political parties and community organizations, in local government and on school boards. She helped secure project funding for the Women Political Leaders project from multiple sources, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation, honing an essential survival skill in an office that was funded almost solely by grants and gifts. Malca directed the Women Political Leaders project and was eventually tapped to conduct interviews in a variety of other subject areas, from banking to education to health care, even as she became the primary interviewer on California water policy for many years. Her wide-ranging work on water—from sanitary engineers to the founders of Save-the-Bay, from Governor Pat Brown and state water resource managers to the architects of the historic federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act—has made the Oral History Center’s collection an essential source for researchers on California water issues.
Willa Baum soon recognized Malca’s organizational skills, work ethic, and attention to detail and enlisted her for key tasks in office management. In the oral history, Malca describes preparing style and indexing guidelines for her projects, which became templates for many others. She researched average times to complete each aspect of the oral history process, an essential budgeting tool. Most impressive was the multi-paged comprehensive production manual, outlining each task in the oral history process, whose responsibility it was, and in which file drawer each stage of the evolving transcript should be placed, an essential document for an office primarily staffed by a shifting array of part-time workers, as many as thirty people sharing desks in a four-room space. Malca also discusses her contributions to outreach, including performing with Amelia Fry in a play based on ROHO’s interviews with suffragists. Throughout the oral history she recalls many of the ROHO women (almost all staff members were women), and the leadership qualities of Willa Baum, as well as friendships, fun, and challenges of her three-decade career with the Regional Oral History Office.
From January to May 2015, Malca and I met for seven sessions at her Hayward home to record her oral history. After receiving the lightly edited transcript, she undertook her characteristically careful review, did further research to check her facts, and added in names or details she had overlooked. She did not edit her words beyond a few clarifying changes. As we finished the review, Malca was packing up her house for a move to a retirement community nearby. Ever the careful historian, as she sifted through files she gathered historically significant papers and placed them with the Hayward Area Historical Society or the Bancroft Library, as appropriate. Her research files relating to water issues went to the Water Resources Center Archives (now the Water Resources Collections and Archives at UC Riverside) when she retired from ROHO.
Nearly all of the oral histories Malca Chall conducted during her ROHO career are available on line through the Oral History Center website, where also can be found the oral history with former director Willa K. Baum, conducted in part by Malca Chall. The Oral History Center is a division of the Bancroft Library and is under the direction of Martin Meeker. Special thanks are due to David Dunham who directs the World War II American Home Front project; he first tapped Malca as a Rosie interviewee and has shepherded this oral history throughout the process.