“Relax, Beautiful— You’re In”
In the spring of 1974, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau launched a new storyline in his syndicated comic strip. Joanie Caucus, the feminist icon of Doonesbury, decided at age 38 to apply to law school, one of the so-called re-entry women common for the era. Several institutions, including Boalt Hall, sent her application packets, and Trudeau was soon caught up in the surreal world of law-school admissions. Joanie’s quest became a nationwide folie à plusieurs in which art imitated life imitating art. Caucus may have been just a cartoon character, but her file in the Boalt Hall Admissions Office quickly became very real.
On March 14, the completed application arrived at the law school and was officially stamped. We learned that Joan Caucus was born on July 21, 1935, and that she received a B.A. in History of Art from Colorado College in 1956. One of her letters of recom – mendation, from Margot R. Hornblower of the group Uppity Women Unite!, described Joanie as “the embodiment of the searching, independent, curious, uninhibited, intellectually-motivated and liberated woman of our time … wouldn’t Boalt Hall be lucky to have her?”
But things did not go smoothly. In the Doonesbury strip for April 12, readers learned that Berkeley had placed Joanie on the waiting list. To an inquiring child at her daycare center she explained, “It means I might get in if some of those who were accepted turn down the school.” “You mean you’re only offered a spot if someone else doesn’t want it?” “Well, yes, that’s right.” The little girl contemplated the situation for a moment and then observed, “Doesn’t that cheapen it?”
Assistant Dean Charles Goulden read the strip with dismay. Checking with the Admissions Office on the application’s status, he learned that the Caucus file could not be processed because it was lacking a personal statement. Fortunately, in the strip for the very next day, Joanie mentioned the topic of the personal statement she had (theoretically) sent: “It concerns my thesis on Paula Modersohn-Becker, the German Expressionist. I remember feeling that had she been properly represented, she could have finessed those suits with her dealer which plagued her during her celebrated visit to Paris in 1900.” Relieved not to have to actually read that particular personal statement, the Admissions Office clipped the column and added it to her file. That would do.
A more serious obstacle surfaced when it was noticed that Ms. Caucus’s application lacked a Social Security number, necessary to provide each applicant with a unique ID. In a memo to the Admissions Office, Dean Goulden pointed out the “horribles” that might occur if Boalt Hall issued Joanie a fictitious number that might be in use somewhere else in the UC system: “Ms. Caucus easily could find herself an entering freshman (freshperson?) majoring in home economics at UCLA, getting a doctorate in veterinary medicine at Davis, or perhaps ensconced at the White Mountain Research Station studying the effects of high altitude on kangaroo rats.” It was suggested that perhaps the Admissions Office could use 567-68-0515, the number that had recently appeared on the cover of TIME magazine reprinting Richard Nixon’s tax return. The possibility of confusion was slight; the embattled president was unlikely to be applying to Berkeley any time in the near future. Trudeau responded to the suggestion, “Ms. Caucus and I are both somewhat reluctant to accept the Social Security number of a known felon.” He offered his own number instead.
The quota on out-of-state students also posed a problem. With a limit of 25 percent of first-year students drawn from exotic places like New Haven, Connecticut, competition was fierce. Complications continued to mount, a decision on the application was delayed, and Joanie began to freak out.
On April 23, the Daily Cal reported that Joanie Caucus had been denied admission to Boalt Hall; Herb Caen picked up the item and reprinted it in his San Francisco Chronicle column the next day. Both (real) newspapers received (pretend) letters of denial from the (real) law school, along with (real) assurances that the (pretend) application was still pending. The nation held its collective breath. Trudeau found the mania “interesting,” but “a little scary when you think about it.”
Joanie received her acceptance letter from Boalt Hall in the strip published May 30—before a decision had been reached in Berkeley. Trudeau wrote to apologize: “I hope you did not feel it presumptuous of me to have Joanie accepted at the University of California, despite the lack of such acceptance by Boalt Hall. I wrote the whole series long before it was released.”
Unfazed by the cartoonial time warp, the law school decided to perpetuate the fantasy, and began treating Joanie as an admitted student. The U.S. Post Office, however, declined to participate in the collective mania. An envelope from the Admissions Office with information concerning 1L orientation sent to the address on her application was returned— stamped with a purple pointing finger and the legend “Returned to Writer.” No sense of humor. (And no knowledge of the Elvis oeuvre.)
But Ms. Joan [no middle name] Caucus eventually matriculated, and at graduation three years later, Trudeau was the featured speaker. He directed his remarks to the mortarboard placed on a seat between Anne Cathcart and Kevin Chee. “Joanie, I came all the way from New York to be with you today. It was a plane with no movie, and from Chicago on I sat next to a hysterical woman whose poodle had frozen to death in the baggage compartment. The airline people were trying to convince her that the dog had defective fur. I flew here, Joanie, to say how proud I am of you.”
Somehow, everyone in the audience knew that the mortarboard was replying, “TA DA!” — William Benemann, Archivist