How the Women's Building Came To Be

Historical Essay

by Sushawn Robb Excerpted with permission from Mothering the Movement, the Story of the San Francisco Women’s Building (Outskirts Press: 2012)


The "Maestrapeace" mural on the Women's Building in the Mission.


If you looked at the San Francisco Women’s Building today, you would see a traditional nonprofit organization with a small staff, a volunteer board, and an annual budget of about one million dollars. The only thing that stands out is that they own the building, valued at $7-8 million. The programs of the Women’s Building are relatively modest – information and referral, educational services relating to jobs, taxes and legal rights, and low rent office space for emerging organizations.

But there is nothing modest about the contributions of the scores of organizations that have been housed at the building and incubated over the years through the sponsored project program. A list of these groups, probably incomplete, can be found in appendix 1. It reads like a virtual Who’s Who of the organizations that make up the San Francisco Bay Area women’s movement. In terms of size, public visibility and impact on public policy, many of these groups far surpass The Women’s Building. And as a good mother, The Women’s Building is content with her contribution. Participants may at times chafe over the lack of recognition, but there has been no serious impulse to mortgage the building in order to launch a big glamorous, and expensive program that would grow the organization.

This modest stance is no accident. It started at the beginning, with the very purposeful formation in 1970 of the San Francisco Women’s Centers. The milieu a spirit of egalitarianism, borne of the 1960’s. Among the radical feminists who formed the group, competition was out. Cooperation despite differences was the goal. This spirit stood in stark contrast to the sectarianism and dogmatism that was so prevalent in the broader socialist/left movement of the time. It probably also reflected the internalized sexism of women who habitually undervalued their own work. In any case, the idea was to exist in the plural, providing a pool that would support a multitude of efforts, each with their own center to direct their own work.

The San Francisco Women's Centers was formed during a time of societal upheaval. Across the country, the 1960s were going out with a bang. People were regularly out on the streets, expressing their difference with all forms of the status quo and challenging the current dominant institutions. The San Francisco Bay Area was one of the nation’s centers of activity. Blockades at the Oakland army base by antiwar protesters, the student strikes in San Francisco and Berkeley, demanding ethnic studies programs, and activities of the Black Panther Party were among the nationally publicized struggles, and many more were taking place under the radar of the national mainstream media.

By the early 1970s, an energetic and chaotic “anti-establishment” attitude was making its mark on U.S. society as a whole. The civil rights movement had laid the foundation for other social movements arising from many sectors of the population and addressing a variety of societal inequalities. On a national scale, the dominant voices challenging the status quo, whether on behalf of race, gender, or working conditions, were asking for a fairer share of the current system.

At the local level, much of the organizing was carried out by collectives and organizations that offered a more radical critique of the establishment and its underlying economic system. The student and antiwar movements of the sixties were evolving into a myriad of revolutionary organizations.1 Other revolutionary organizations were formed within many communities of color, drawing inspiration from the role the Black Panther Party had played before it was decimated by agents of the U.S. government.2 The Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 brought the homosexual rights movement into the public eye and gave birth to the radical gay liberation movement, adding yet another dimension to the left-wing politics of the day.

Up until 1973 and the formal “end” of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, opposition to the war had been the one common point of agreement among all these diverse groups. As this reference point became obscured, organizers became more ensconced in specific communities or in work around single issues, and the “movement” became as segregated as broader U.S. society. And within each of these segregated movements, there were often dozens of different organizations, focused on different issues and/or bringing different ideological perspectives to the work.

The Women’s Movement

The women’s movement was also comprised of many organizations, addressing many different issues and operating from varied analyses of the root source of sexism. Hundreds of organizations and collectives took on the wide range of “women’s” issues - domestic violence, rape, and other misogynist violence, the range of reproductive concerns, media and cultural representations of women and girls, employment issues, education access—the list goes on at length. Lesbians were active in every social movement of the time, but were particularly active around women’s issues. Indeed, almost everything was still very male focused. Forty years later, it’s hard to believe how institutionalized the inferior position of women was. The legal system provided fewer rights to women, who were denied the right to enter into contracts, to pursue certain careers, to access full health care or even to wear the clothes she wanted. By its silence, the judicial system effectively condoned abusive treatment of women by men. Cultural images in entertainment and advertising further underscored the subservient and inferior position of women. Across the country, and across the globe, women were standing up to challenge these assumptions, and by the seventies institutionalized sexism was beginning to be dismantled.

But there were also sexist barriers to institution-building. Some community organizations were able to access the institutional resources of churches and unions to get started. In many cases, however, these institutions were unavailable to advocates of women’s liberation. So short-term campaigns and local community-based organizations often began as informal collectives, with varying degrees of internal structure and regulation. For a group funded largely by its own membership and/or small donations from its base, internal systems of accountability sufficed, with no need to establish a formal relationship to the state. However, once substantial amounts of money became involved, greater accountability was also called for. For any effort hoping to obtain grants from private foundations or public funds or offering tax deductions to large donors, formal corporate status was a necessity. Some groups went through the hoops to obtain, and then maintain, their own nonprofit corporate status with the government; others looked for an existing nonprofit organization with a similar mission to sponsor their efforts. For organizing around women’s issues, this latter was often not an option.


Women's Building 18th Street north facade.

Photo by Adam Fagen, 2013

It was to begin to fill this need that a number of Bay Area women’s organizations met, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), Daughters of Bilitis, and San Francisco Women’s Liberation. In 1969, they applied for and were granted nonprofit status for a new organization, San Francisco Women’s Centers (SFWC). The founders didn’t want yet another organization that would exist for itself. Rather, they wanted an organizational structure, with a governmental recognition as a non-profit, with the goal of supporting existing organizations and helping to nurture new organizing efforts on behalf of women. The 1969 incorporation papers were signed by Jean Crosby, Karen Folger Jacobs, Dorothy Martin, Jennifer Gardner, Brenda Brush, and Pat Condry. With incorporation in place, they wrote a grant proposal and went in search of money.

As a group of feminists, most armed with a radical critique of mainstream society, the SFWC founders found the “male” corporate requirement of officers to be anathema. In fact, traditional corporate structure was representative of what they hoped to change about society. So in order to fill in the blanks for president, secretary, and treasurer of the new corporation, the group drew straws, a symbol of the randomness that those terms would involve for the group. From its inception, the SFWC was to be a collective endeavor, drawing energy and contributions from members of the organizations that were promoting the new group. But it was a lucky stroke of fate that Jean drew the “secretary” straw and held on to the paperwork.

At the time, Crosby was on staff for one of the projects of Glide Memorial Church. Under the leadership of the Reverend Cecil Williams, Glide played a leading role in the civil rights movement in the Bay Area, as well as supporting other progressive efforts of the time. (This is a role it continues to play to this day, with the focus on meeting the needs of the homeless and poor cast off by recurring economic downturns.) In her work at Glide, Jean saw that an established institution could be instrumental in working for radical social change.

The Urban Young Adult Action Center operated under the auspices of Glide Church. Rather than taking on direct organizing efforts itself, the center worked to offer technical support and funds to grassroots organizing efforts. This was the model that inspired the dream of the SFWC. Of course, the center enjoyed some resources that the SFWC lacked, like the resources to hire a staff to work with organizing efforts and a building for meetings and programs. To start, all it had was a bold concept, a few individuals willing to offer considerable time and expertise in pursuit of the dream, and a vibrant community that would rise to the call time and time again in the years to come.

A Long Gestation

The euphoria of starting a new organizing effort soon gave way to a holding pattern. After two years of trying to raise money, the original collective had exhausted its energy. The effort to secure foundation funding hit a wall for several reasons. A study done in the mid-70s by the Funding Feminist Coalition (a project operating under the auspices of SFWC) found that in 1972-74, only one-fifth of 1 percent (that is, two cents out of every one thousand dollars) of foundation grant making went to programs to improve women’s status. It’s not surprising that without a track record, the SFWC didn’t get any of these pennies. Another reason was that a few of the women in the group moved away, and others were busy with existing organizations and campaigns.

However, rather than drop the whole thing, Jean Crosby made a commitment to maintain the SFWC by keeping up with the annual paperwork requirements the State of California required of nonprofit corporations. None of the women involved wanted their initial work of acquiring nonprofit status to go to waste, even though the original idea of a coalition effort by existing organizations unlikely to happen. They started looking for a current organizing effort that could adopt the SFWC articles of incorporation and state non-profit status to their own project.

By now it was 1972, and the women’s liberation movement was beginning to have an impact on broader U.S. society. The historic Roe v. Wade decision would be issued in January 1973, representing a major political advance for women. At the time, the idea of women controlling their own bodies was still new and liberating. Feminist clinics were springing up in many cities, and Our Bodies, Our Selves went quickly into multiple printings (and remains a best seller to this day). Women’s presses and bookstores, usually operated by a collective, were coming to life across the country. Defense committees on behalf of battered women who fought back were bringing the issue of domestic violence to the fore, right next to the battle against rape. The organizations that had initially come together to form the SF Women’s Centers were deeply immersed in their own projects, with no time or money to put into a coalition effort didn’t directly address their issues.

In San Francisco, two women with extensive ties to the world of feminist publishing agreed to join in an effort to get the SFWC project off the ground as a collective of individuals. Barbara Harwood and Jody Safier started by moving the SFWC from Jean’s closet to their apartment. A simple structure for the organization was drawn up to enable various levels of involvement. The highest decision making body was to be a General Assembly, which met monthly and operated with consensus to reach decisions. A Coordinating Council, representing groups and projects working under the SFWC umbrella, would meet more frequently.

The list of issues that made up the initial vision of this Coordinating Council is a good reflection of the base and issues of the center: “feminist counseling, legal counseling, rape counseling, health group, phone hotline, library, liberation school, lesbian office, funding committee, NOW and Off Our Backs [a national radical feminist weekly newspaper]”[July 1972 coordinating committee notes] The final organizational level was an office collective to handle administrative demands.

A lawyer was hired to complete the process of obtaining tax-deductible status from the IRS. In the meantime, the three women, Jean, Barbara and Jody approached Glide Church to request fiscal sponsorship by the Urban Young Adult Action Center. This enabled the SFWC to apply for an employee allowance to VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). A federal program, VISTA was a remnant of the sixties “Great Society,” launched in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Akin to the Peace Corps, its purpose was to provide small subsidies to volunteers who were to take on specific tasks for underfunded nonprofit organizations.

Once this funding came through, the group’s first project was to organize the Woman’s Music Festival, one of the first of its kind in the country. The day-long event featured twenty-two performers and was well attended. The event was also successful in raising about $1,100 to get the organization off the ground.

After 3 years, the vision of forming a group whose purpose was to help develop the organizations that would define the women’s movement was now reality. Though it was no longer a coalition of groups, the women kept the name San Francisco Women’s Centers. In naming the organization, the use of the word “centers”, in the plural, was very deliberate. Roma Guy, who would play a key leadership role in developing The Women’s Building, describes this vision of plurality:

“I was very motivated by the vision and inspiration that “s” in the phrase San Francisco Women’s Centers meant. It wasn’t San Francisco Women’s Center. It was San Francisco Women’s Centers. That it was activist oriented, and it had the idea that it could be a women’s center where women and others who wanted to support women’s rights could drop in and get information and referral and events could be organized there, etc. however small it was… so the approach was to organize and then to let go of those organizations and then they would either become their own 501©3 or join other efforts and broaden out. But we would be the incubator for those ideas, and if we had anything to do with it, we would try to implement it around progressive politics and be broad-based and not just focused on women’s rights per se, but the idea that women’s rights cannot be gained or achieved without broadening out and including other people’s rights. That women’s rights were part of everyone’s rights and part of the general oppression in our society. Without taking that into view and using that to organize ourselves, then as a movement we would be severely limited. At the same time, there are issues that women mobilize around which addressed women clearly as women So for example, reproduction and how were oppressed as it relates to our reproductive rights tends to attract women first and the same thing around battered women had to be focused on very specifically. Not because violence against men doesn’t occur, but we had to bring women’s perspective into the issue of violence. That was what we could do for the larger community, bring our issues in, for example how violence affects women and where the causes are. And then also to join other coalitions like police violence against certain communities of color or around sexuality the lesbian and gay community for example. And obviously women are found in every one of those communities so clearly that was the vehicle we could use because women are everywhere in every class every race every disability or ability. So that was the vision and that was the strategy of the “s” in Women’s Centers and in our community today, the Women’s Building is the most cohered and the most visible of that politic and that strategy. In essence, that’s what it represents. So it has a range of organizations live at The Women’s Building.”

The Women’s Building Project

Superficially at least, the Women’s Building Project of the Bay Area was just another in the series of sponsored projects. But in fact it was very different. Over the years, numerous organizations initially sponsored by the SFWC had evolved into their own distinct institutions. Occasionally, women involved in the core of the SFWC left to become involved with newly formed organizations, but the strength of the Centers’ core was never damaged. To the contrary, its role in helping to jump-start new organizations was what kept the SFWC rejuvenated on a regular basis.

At least twice before in its short life, the SFWC had thrown a substantial amount of its own resources into launching new projects. In the case of the credit union (see chapter one), the Centers worked with women from three other organizations to charter and establish the project, and thereafter the credit union relied on its own resources to hire a staff. As related previously, credit union went through several of its own crises in its five-year life, and as a legal charter member the SFWC stepped forward to participate in resolving the problems, and eventually closing it down. This work, though undoubtedly stressful to the individuals involved, did not seriously strain the functioning of the SFWC’s collective. The other project that drew substantial resources from the SFWC was the 1976 Conference on women and violence. This was also a coalition effort involving half a dozen other organizations and numerous individuals. It was also for a specific event with an end date. Including the follow up work publishing the book of poetry and preparing the video and audio tapes, it was an 18 month project. In the short run, it was an exhausting campaign for virtually all involved, including the core of the SFWC. In the longer term, however, the effort expanded and diversified the community base of the San Francisco Women’s Center. Once the collective rested and regrouped through the work of the Planning Committee, the Women’s Centers entered into a stable couple years. It was during this period of relative stability that the project to buy a building for the women’s community began.

As it turned out, the project to buy a building came to be the defining characteristic of the SF Women’s Centers in the decades to come. In fact, had the SFWC not purchased the building in 1979, it is very likely that the it would have come to an end before the end of the 80’s. Had the women in the collective waited much longer to make the decision to buy, they would have run into rapidly rising real estate prices that probably would have been beyond the capacity of a group already struggling to pay a few hundred dollars per month in rent.

Owning the building often seemed like more of a liability than an asset, but it was also a commitment that couldn’t be easily walked away from. As such it became the anchor that kept the SFWC alive. The Building became the focus of many struggles, from the conflict with the Dovre Club to significant staffing and other internal difficulties. Through these struggles, the SFWC learned to use the building as an asset and as a political tool, and the building was the locus for the maturation of many women in the movement.

A Challenge to Consensus

At the outset, the organizing efforts to buy a building gave a significant boost to the SFWC. Between the coalition of S.F. groups and individuals that came together to actually look for and purchase a building and the ties created with organizations around the greater Bay Area with the Mile-a-thon fundraising event, the public visibility of the SF Women’s Centers reached an all time high.

Yet from the beginning, there was not a consensus within the core collective in support of the Building project. Some of the opposition stemmed from the collective’s organizational limitations, with some women arguing that the SFWC didn’t have the human and financial resources to take on such a big project. Jean Crosby, active since the first days of the Centers, was one of the main voices of caution. This conclusion was supported by the work of a consultant, Nan Parks, who was hired to evaluate the feasibility of the San Francisco Women’s Centers undertaking such a substantial liability. Her final recommendation was that purchasing any building was a risk with a high chance of failure, that failure would destroy the San Francisco Women’s Center and thus the risk should not be taken.

Others in the collective opposed buying a building for political reasons. One line of reasoning argued that the resources it would consume were better used in support of direct organizing. Another concern raised was the specter of the SFWC becoming “another YWCA”, focused only on direct services for individuals and losing its role as part of a political movement. Differences of opinion struck right to the heart of the SFWC collective, with Roma charging off to lead the campaign, while her lover and founder of SFWC, Jean Crosby opposed the idea.

The Women’s Building project committees didn’t address these issues, as their sole purpose was to pursue the purchase of a building. But within the core of the SFWC, there were bitter debates over these questions. By the end of 1978, the project would overwhelm the Centers’ collective nearly to the point of collapse. I’ll return to this in the next chapter, but first it’s important to know what went into the women’s building project.

Gearing Up

The effort to locate a building to purchase for the use by the Bay Area women’s community was underway by mid 1977, along with the initial efforts to raise the substantial funds necessary to make the dream a reality. The following article published in the December 1977 newsletter of the SFWC describes the process up to that point:


Once upon a time there was SF Women’s Centers located at 63 Brady St. Many of you visited with us. It was cozy and wonderfully alive. Over the years it became a center for more and more activity and that energy has spread to many places in SF and in our personal lives. If you have been to SFWC in the last year and a half you probably know that it is no longer cozy. There is no place to talk, read, write or make a phone call; often the rooms are unavailable and very often they are too small. So, in the spring of 1977 some women began to fantasize about moving into a larger building which would accommodate more than two women’s organizations and which could provide “performance” area. Then the fantasy became a vision. And questions and realities were researched and played with. Does a building exist which we can afford, which is accessible by public transportation, be wheelchair accessible and is relatively safe at night??? Will the community support it? Will it become a political monster? Can we raise the money to buy/lease? Can SFWC survive financially if it takes such a time consuming coordination project so soon after the Conference on Violence Against Women?


The talking, researching, reflecting and looking at lots of buildings lead us to the present possibility: there is a building at 160 South Van Ness (Between Mission and 13th); it is 15,200 sq. ft, two floors, and it sells for $300,000.

Buying this building has been researched and supported by a core of about 25 women, most representing organizations which would like to rent space and some women who are interested in the performance area and the women’s building concept. The current organizations interested are: SFWC, SF Women’s Switchboard, Lesbians Organizing, Feminist Writers Guild, SF Women’s Speaker’s Network, Insight Exchange, Women’s Press Project, Every Women’s Art Building, Full Moon Coffeehouse, SF Women Against Rape, Mothertongue Theater. We will not have a “full-house” until we explore more completely the interest of Disabled Women and Third World women. Lots of energy, imagination and money is necessary to realize this possibility. Benefits are already being organized. The Feminist Film Series is scheduled for each Sunday in March and April. Mark your new year’s calendar now for every Sunday afternoon. Many, many tax deductible dollars and pledges to the Building Fund are needed. The first hurdle is $60,000 down payment to buy the building. When this $$$ plus $3,000 for closing costs, plus committed renters, plus political unity has been achieved, 160 South Van Ness will be another “room of our own” in San Francisco. Does this idea make you feel good? It is a huge, super-exciting-challenge for 1978--- and on into forever. If this work would be an energizer for you, come organize, donate, research, and we will found a women’s building in SF --- all women are welcomed. There is an open general meeting every Thursday at 6:30 at SFWC. If you want to donate money or know someone who might let us know or write the check to SFWC and attach a note that says “Building Fund” Suggestions, opinions, questions are important to all of us now, so, write, attend a meeting, call. We need to know what you believe can and should be possible for women in SF.

As it turned out, the location at 160 South Van Ness was not to be because the group was unable to come up with the five thousand dollars needed to keep the property off the market. But it didn’t stop the women. For many, just the experience of looking at and imaging that potential space built a momentum that was not to be derailed. The Film Series benefits were already in place, with five programs. The first, held at McKenna Theater at San Francisco State University featured films about notable women, including Colette, Night’s Darkness, a Day’s Sail (about Virginia Woolf), Anne Sexton, Rainbow Black (about Sarah Webster Fabio) and Gwendowlyn Brooks. The rest of the film series was held at the Roxie Theater, a collectively run independent theater on 16th street near Mission. Each set of films had a theme, with the second and third focused on local female filmmakers, the fourth on films about women activists, and the final set focused on women artists. Titles included Allie Light’s Possum Trot, outtakes from The Word is Out, Angela Davis, Portrait of a Revolutionary and Frida Kahlo. Individual donations were beginning to pour in, and dozens of women and organizations were involved in the project. The SFWC had sought high-profile endorsers to give more legitimacy to the project and to bolster foundation grant proposals. Proclamations in support of the prospective Women’s Building came from the National Organization for Women, Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver Mission Cultural Center and Advocates for Women. Organizations who made tentative or firm commitments to rent space in a new building continued to grow, including the Coalition for the Medical Rights of Women, Union Wage, Women’s Alcohol Coalition, Women Against Violence in Pornography and the Media, Black Women Organized for Action, Lesbian Law Project, Organization of Women Architects and Older Women’s Project.

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Molly Martin, interviewed in February 2019, discusses working on the Women's Building as an electrician, and then the controversy over women entering the SF Police Department as officers, and its relationship to jobs and women's work.

Video: Shaping San Francisco

Mothering-the-Movement cover.jpg
Mothering the Movement, the Story of the San Francisco Women’s Building, by Sushawn Robb Published in 2012 by Outskirts Press. For more details, go to here.

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