101-year-old La Jollan Alice Yee is a ‘change agent’ for life

Alice Yee of La Jolla, shown in her fly fishing gear, has been a longtime advocate for women.
Alice Yee of La Jolla, shown in her fly fishing gear, has been a longtime advocate for women.

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“It never occurred to me that ‘happily ever after’ would not be what one expected it to be,” Alice Yee says.

The 101-year-old La Jolla resident has worked to affect change for women over a lifetime in academia.

Born Alice Oatman on May 3, 1919, in Spokane, Wash., Yee grew up with three siblings in a “very traditional background.” Her mother had no desire to be anything but a housekeeper, Yee said, but she was “intent on education” for Alice.

“It never occurred to me that I would not go to college,” Yee said.

She completed a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from Central Washington University, married her childhood sweetheart, George Low, and had three children.

When her children were 12, 9, and 6, Low died, and Yee supported her family on her community college teacher’s salary.

“Salary for women was much lower than those for men,” Yee said. “We lived one paycheck to the next.”

Yee moved into administration, becoming dean of women at Central Washington University.

“I was hired as a ‘change agent’ at a time when there were changes being made in the treatment of women on campus,” she said.

Citing imbalances such as curfews and dress codes for women that prohibited slacks unless the temperature was well below freezing, Yee said “my job was to ask why. I could not accept that we had always done this and therefore that’s what we should do.”

Six years later, Yee said, “we changed the entire system.”

Her reputation for improving women’s living conditions led to her recruitment to Grinnell College in Iowa.

“I had no desire to go to Iowa. It was a cornfield!” Yee said. But after months of discussions with the college president, she agreed to take the job.

“I was hired again as a change agent, for student life, to change the way they’re living,” Yee said. “They were the hardest years of my life, but the most fun and the most stimulating.”

Alice and Bob Yee are pictured in 2005. Bob died in 2017 after they were married 47 years.

Four years after moving to Grinnell, Yee said, “I did everything I said I would do. The changes occurred.”

In particular, she transitioned the system from “a philosophy of en loco parentis [a school-student relationship similar to that of a parent to a child] to a system of independent college students, where women and men were treated more equally.”

She returned to Washington to marry Bob Yee, whom she’d met more than a decade earlier when she served on an interview panel that hired him to the same community college.

“I’d said I cannot marry again until my kids are out of high school. I can’t work a demanding full-time job, take care of my children and expect a marriage to succeed. So I didn’t,” she said. “I told Bob to find another woman, but … he stayed in the wings for 10 years.”

After marrying Bob, Yee took a year off, enrolled in a few classes and learned to ski. But a dean at Central Washington University wanted her to come “do something for women.”

Yee told the university she’d go if she were allowed to do what she wanted, and the sides agreed.

“It was a wonderful learning experience,” she said. “In that seven years, I learned to write grants; we developed community programs for women, funded by Washington state endowments and Title 9. There was a whole network of people involved in the state. It was the awakening of women in the state of Washington.”

Yee said “one of the most memorable things that happened during that time was International Women’s Year in 1977. Every state held a meeting, the purpose of [which] was to identify the issues facing women in that state and what they would recommend to do about them.”

Delegates from each state then met in Houston in November that year. The federally funded conference, attended by more than 20,000 people, was “a real success,” Yee said. Recommendations from each state were coordinated into an action plan presented to then-President Jimmy Carter.

“The exciting thing is, many of the recommendations in that plan of action have been put into law,” Yee said. “Disability, domestic violence, child care … so many issues that deal with women.

“That whole conference is a wonderful example of what women can do when they’re committed, organized and know what our goals are.”

The Yees moved to La Jolla in 2015 after spending much of the first 20 years of their retirement at Mission Bay’s Campland on the Bay in a trailer they hauled every year to pursue their love of fly fishing.

“We were eager for new adventures,” she said.

The couple lived in an apartment at the Casa de Mañana retirement community for two years before Bob died in 2017 after 47 years of marriage. Alice still lives there.

Yee keeps busy writing bios of new Casa de Mañana residents for a newsletter, walking more than two miles a day, working out and catching up with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Through it all, Yee hasn’t lost her passion for advancing women’s rights.

“I’m a member of the Women of Ancient Wisdom,” Yee said, referring to an offshoot of the Crones Counsel organization, which meets yearly in different U.S. cities for women to connect and share stories.

“The attraction is for older women to celebrate the aging of women and the value of women in their later years,” Yee said. “I’ve never been with a group of women who are so exciting, so stimulating, so non-judgmental and so supportive.”

Yee said she doesn’t see herself slowing down anytime soon.

“I’ve loved life; I’ve had a wonderful time. I’m not quite ready to hang it up yet,” she said. “I want to continue to do the things that are important to me.” ◆