History of AAUW in a Capsule

An essay from our 2021 Programs Director…

In 1881 a group of young college educated women joined together to form the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, later renamed the American Association of University Women (AAUW). They did so in order to dispel stereotypes about educated women and to improve women’s opportunities for advanced education. They also wanted to ensure that women received workplace opportunities appropriate for their education and skills. At the time, popular and so-called scientific opinion held that women lacked the intelligence, vigor, and temperaments to pursue advanced education or to assume leadership in public life. Moreover, many Americans believed that women went to college not to pursue knowledge, but to pursue immoral relationships with men. Clearly, the ACA/AAUW faced substantial challenges.

It would be wonderful to report that our organization had by 2021 achieved all its goals. Clearly, that is not the case. It is useful, however, to examine AAUW’s strategies, successes, and failures in order to celebrate our collective achievements and learn from our setbacks. Such a review also illuminates the ongoing policies and practices that characterize the modern AAUW.

In the early years, the ACA was based on strong friendships, shared concern about the detrimental effects of sex discrimination on women and on society, and on self-interest. In short, AAUW reflected the priorities, values, and contributions of its members. As broadly educated women, its leaders and members had a strong faith in the utility of scientific studies to dispel stereotypes and in the need for strong ties to other women’s organizations to advance a shared agenda.

The admission of women to higher education had provoked a firestorm of criticism. One of the most notable opponents of women’s education was Harvard Medical School professor Edward Y. Clarke. In 1873 he published Sex in Education: Or a Fair Chance for the Girls, an evidence free polemic that received widespread attention. He predicted reproductive disorders, sterility, poor health, insanity, and even death for women who ignored his warnings against the pursuit of higher education. So, what did the ACA do? In 1885 it published a scientific study which concluded that “…it is sufficient to say that female graduates…do not seem to show, …any marked difference in general health [from] the average health … of women engaged in other kinds of work, or in fact, of women generally….”

At present, AAUW continues its research focus on girls and women in education. AAUW has produced milestones in the documentation of issues central to this cause. In 1993 it published a study of sexual harassment in the schools entitled Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America’s Schools. A 1992 study of the differential treatment of girls and boys in America’s classrooms, How Schools Shortchange Girls, generated widespread comment and efforts at change. Today, sexual harassment remains a focus, given the rise of bullying in the schools, much of it focused on gender and sexual identity. Finally, AAUW remains committed to the goal of ending the epidemic of sexual violence on America’s college campuses.

Because so many colleges and universities in the United States discriminated against women in admissions, especially at the graduate and professional levels, the ACA began raising funds for scholarships for women to attend European universities in order to receive advanced training. Scholarships remain a crucial priority for AAUW, whose branches raise large amounts of money to support college scholarships for young women and whose national scholarships support advanced training for American and international students attending American universities. At present, AAUW raises more funds for women college students than any other organization. In the state of Washington, AAUW has implemented and funded a highly successful program of STEM camps for middle school girls to support its efforts to prepare them for higher paying careers and to increase the influence of women in STEM fields.

Over time, AAUW has worked with other groups to eliminate discrimination against women in education at all levels and in America’s workplaces. Indeed, it issued its first report about the pay gap between women and men in 1894! In the modern era, AAUW’s lobbying and legislative efforts have enabled the passage of important milestones for women, from the 1963 Equal Pay Act (which took 17 years to pass) to Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in higher education, to the Lily Ledbetter Act of 2009. The latter reversed a Supreme Court decision that started the legal clock on pay discrimination with the first discriminatory paycheck instead of with the last one. That decision made it all but impossible for women to prove sex discrimination in pay. Because employers work so hard to hide discriminatory wage scales and to obstruct women’s efforts to seek redress to inequitable pay, further legislation, including the Paycheck Fairness Act, remain important to AAUW, its state organizations, and other feminist organizations. Moreover, they have faced staunch opposition as employer organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have worked hard for a very long time to lobby and litigate against women’s ability to address sex discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay.

AAUW has achieved its greatest successes when it worked to build coalitions with other groups in order to pass legislation that makes it harder for institutions to discriminate and when it has issued reports that educators and other institutional leaders take seriously. Its goals have been most hampered by the opposition of business and other groups opposed to government regulation of employers’ personnel and other practices and by the difficulty of achieving systematic change without substantial levels of voluntary compliance with laws against discrimination. The focus on laws has sometimes come at the expense of other forms of institutional pressure to treat girls and women fairly.

I am proud to be a member of AAUW and to support its continuing efforts to secure equal opportunity and equitable treatment in all institutions and endeavors. Please let us know your priorities and ideas for our organization and join me by giving generously of your time and money so that together we can work successfully to make the future brighter for women and girls in the state of Washington and the nation.