Rosanne Rennie Holliday ’61 on Women Supporting Women

By Emily Glory Peters

In the early hours of January 1974, Rosanne Rennie Holliday kissed her young son William goodbye, climbed into her VW Bug, and headed out with her newborn daughter, Katherine, in tow. The tenured professor was excited to return to teaching child development at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, where she had founded the Child Development Center. She was especially looking forward to modeling the importance of breastfeeding and infant attachment behavior for her students—but just three months later, her world came tumbling down.


On April 1, in a four-to-one vote with the only woman member voting against, Southwestern’s board of trustees banned employees from having children on campus while on duty. The policy, later known as the “April Fool’s” ruling, passed chiefly due to the college president’s opposition to Holliday having Katherine on campus so she could bond and breastfeed between classes.


“This was the most difficult period for me. I thought I could do it all: two children, a new home, and a job I loved. I soon learned there were deeply held attitudes by the men in power at the college that were somehow threatened by what I was doing,” she says.


Not considering herself to be a rulebreaker, Holliday arranged for a nanny to drive Katherine to the gas station across the street from Southwestern. She would dash out of class, run across campus, and breastfeed in the nanny’s car. After three days, she realized that she had no choice but to break the April Fool’s policy. 


Holliday quickly became embroiled in a workplace battle over gender discrimination, triggering a local media whirlwind that went national when the story was picked up by the New York Times. A salient quote from Holliday in the piece struck at the heart of the matter: “What they really objected to was the idea that a woman could be a good teacher and a good mother,” she said. “They still believe that a woman’s place, particularly if she nurses her child, is in the home.”


I soon learned there were deeply held attitudes by the men in power at the college that were somehow threatened by what I was doing.


Charged with “unprofessional conduct” and threatened with suspension without pay, Holliday gained the support of nearly the entire campus. Others joined her fight for equality, including women’s groups in San Diego, the American Federation of Teachers, and even the World Health Organization, which wrote her an unequivocal line of encouragement: “We need models like you.” 


The conflict reached its fever pitch in a hearing that Holliday, represented by an attorney from the American Federation of Teachers, requested to address the charge. In the end, the state hearing officer found that she indeed had been professional and the threat of suspension was overturned. In fact, Holliday pointedly notes, she didn’t miss a single day of work during the controversy and went on to enjoy nearly three decades at Southwestern: “longer than many presidents and administrations.” In time, the notorious April Fool’s policy would become a “non-issue,” largely ignored by peers emboldened by her stance.


In retrospect, the ordeal was a leadership turning point for Holliday—but it was one that had its roots at Scripps.


From First-Generation Scripps College Student to Champion of Child Development


The theme of women supporting women was an unintentional outcome of the April Fool’s policy, but had been a common thread in Holliday’s life even before her arrival at Scripps in 1957.


“I knew Mary Kimberly Shirk, a local philanthropist who was also Scripps’ first interim woman president, because she had created an organization, ‘Kimberly Juniors,’ which supported high school girls in the Redlands area,” she says. Holliday, who had been a member as a teen, ultimately became student president of that organization, and credits the experience for planting the seed for her future heart for nonprofits. 


Deciding to visit Scripps during her senior year, Holliday was sold on the warm welcome she received from campus tour leader Mimi Ottey Goity ’60, whom she fondly remembers as the mentor who helped her transition to college life. Through Goity, Holliday first glimpsed student leadership and how peer-to-peer support shaped Scripps’ pro-women culture. “They didn’t have the term ‘first- generation’ back then, but I was one of them,” she says. “When I got to Scripps, women were so kind to one another—they made it wonderful for me.”


Though Holliday intended to major in philosophy of religion—she had grown up serving in the YWCA and considered becoming a Christian educator—encounters with Professors of Psychology Margaret Faust and Molly Mason Jones recalibrated what would become her life’s work. 


“Those two women were amazing. There is no question of them being huge role models for me,” says Holliday. “Both were mothers, both were conducting research—it was hard in those days, and it’s still hard. But it really hit me that you could have an incredible career and be a mother.”


Both Faust and Mason Jones embodied what it looked like when women uplift one another and shape new systems of support in male-dominated fields—including higher education. Studying under them, Holliday strengthened her understanding of breastfeeding, non-medicated childbirth, and child development. 


When I got to Scripps, women were so kind to one another—they made it wonderful for me.


Before long, Holliday had switched her major to psychology and sank elbow-deep into issues relating to women and motherhood. Holliday was especially fascinated by Faust’s seminars in child psychology and Mason Jones’s leadership directing the Mary B. Eyre Children’s School in Claremont, now the Children’s School at Claremont McKenna College, where many faculty from The Claremont Colleges sent their children. 


She watched, learned, and retained. Later, she used the same philosophical principles and operational standards from the Children’s School to help establish not one, but four nursery schools—including one at San Diego’s Rady Children’s Hospital, which today is a thriving early education program offered in two locations. Building on her Scripps experiences, these projects represent just a portion of what would become a lasting devotion to helping women, mothers, and children thrive.


A Candid Leadership Approach: Give, Go for it, and Get Others On Board


By the 1990s, Holliday was winding down her teaching career—but her involvement in women and children’s causes exploded. 


A longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood—they provided her with the pregnancy test that confirmed the coming of Katherine—Holliday served as board chair for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest for two years in the mid-1980s. She served again between 2001 and 2007 and chaired an effort that raised more than $16 million to establish and renovate 14 medical centers in the area. She also formerly served on Scripps College’s Board of Trustees.


But Holliday never lobbied to be viewed as a leader—and still equivocates on describing herself as one. Still, there are certain characteristics that, for anyone who desires to lead and spark change, she recommends cultivating.


“In a lot of the causes I’ve cared about there’s been no shortage of passion,” she says. “But working with nonprofits, it didn’t take me long to figure out that money can be the real challenge.” 


Leading through giving is one such characteristic Holliday encountered at Scripps. She didn’t grow up wealthy, and recalls how concerned her family was about how they’d pay for her time there. Working multiple jobs during her four years, she found herself on the receiving end of generosity when Mary Kimberly Shirk herself intervened to loan her money to cover her room and board for her final semester at Scripps. When newly married a few years later, Holliday and husband Joel sent a check to Shirk to repay the debt—only to receive it back in pieces with a note: “Consider it a wedding present.” 


Holliday never forgot the role that generosity—from women, for women—plays in leadership development. In 1999, she supported the founding of the San Diego Women’s Foundation (SDWF), which today has attracted more than 200 members who leverage their collective giving power to award grants to changemaking organizations in the area. Seeing how philanthropy had impacted the success of SDWF, Holliday went on to co-found Women Give San Diego, another mutual aid giving circle that partners with nonprofits to build long-term success for under-resourced women and girls. Holliday and her husband—she counts her marriage among the three most important decisions she’s ever made, including attending Scripps—also have a charitable family foundation of their own.


In a lot of the causes I’ve cared about there’s been no shortage of passion. Working with nonprofits, it didn’t take me long to figure out that money can be the real challenge.

From left to right: Katherine Sohn (Holliday’s daughter), Rosanne Rennie Holliday ’61, and Nicole Holliday (Holliday’s daughter-in-law) present a check from the Holliday Family Foundation to Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest. Photo submitted by Rosanne Rennie Holliday


“I’ve been president of several nonprofits. Sometimes it just seems like I’m asked to do things and I went for it,” she says, laughing. “I think that [openness to try] comes down to my enthusiasm, because a lot of leadership is talking to others about what you believe in, your values, and being an ambassador about your concerns.”


For Holliday, this has involved abandoning outdated notions of dominance and allowing her actions to rouse others to act—just as she did when she stood apart as a lone rulebreaker in 1974. That battle for acceptance as a working mother revealed depths of sexism she had yet to encounter. Yet, Holliday says the support she received from her Scripps peers and faculty and the remarkable women’s leadership she witnessed equipped her for the challenge. 


It would be impossible to assign a figure to the number of women who have benefited from Holliday and others’ bold decisions. For her, that leadership was nurtured by the many friendships, partnerships, and initiatives she has had a hand in creating with women, for women.


“I think that to inspire others to work hard, raise money, and commit to a cause, you have to lead by example,” she says. “If I learned anything from Scripps, it’s that women need to support women—in whatever way they can.”