On April 6, 1960, a special session of the California State Legislature convened to pass the Donahoe Higher Education Act. Also known as the California Master Plan for Higher Education, its provisions organized the state’s UC, CSU and community college systems to ensure the people of California had guaranteed access to higher education.
The story of how this bill came into existence started many years earlier when the Bakersfield High School registrar decided to run for state assembly in 1952.
Dorothy M. Donahoe was a well-liked and respected member of the community. She was born in 1911 and at 10 months old, she contracted polio, resulting in a limp. She was also asthmatic and often suffered attacks. These physical challenges never once stopped her from working hard and advocating for others.
In 1952, she ran as a Democratic candidate for state Assembly, 38th District, on the campaign promise that she “believes in only one "ism" ... AMERICANISM.” She won the election with the overwhelming support of the California Federation of Business and Women’s Clubs behind her.
She had a drive and determination that earned her a reputation as a highly qualified and respected state representative in an assembly that only had two women serving. During her term, she authored over 25 bills for the benefit of the blind, deaf, and mentally and physically challenged. She also pushed for education programs for the gifted.
In 1959, the Los Angeles Times named her Times Woman of the Year. She was called the voice of humanity in legislature.
She stated to the paper on Dec. 29, 1959, “I guess I’ve always been a champion of people who have no one else to fight for them.”
Donahoe was, above all else, a dedicated champion of education.
It was of no surprise to her colleagues when, in 1959, she led the assembly committee to draft a plan to make higher education accessible to the people of California.
In an interview for the California State Archives Oral History Program, Sen. Walter W. Stiern stated: “She had a zeal for education. She had a zeal for something she never had, which was higher education. She wanted that for everybody. She wanted it fairly. She wanted dollars well spent, and she wanted the dollars to be worth a dollar for a dollar that you spent.”
The plan was truly a labor of love for her. She worked tirelessly as she consulted educators and other experts for advice. She was known to put in 14-hour days, even when her health was poor.
On April 3, 1960, she attended a hearing on the plan, even though she was not feeling well. The next day, she passed away due to complications from pneumonia.
On April 6, 1960, the California State Senate passed SB 33 and in her honor, included within the bill that it “shall be known and may be cited as the Donahoe Higher Education Act.”
Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown signed it into law on April 26, 1960.
A woman who never received a higher education made sure others could and in doing so, Donahoe left behind a great legacy.