A Room of Their Own: Why We Gather at AAUW’s Convention

This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2015 AAUW Outlook magazine.

It was 1945. Bombs were dropping in Dresden and Tokyo, and Germany was on the brink of surrender. In London, the BBC had just announced Adolf Hitler’s death.

Meanwhile, another important broadcast was taking place in Washington, D.C.: the first AAUW Convention without Travel. Freda Kirchwey, the editor and publisher of The Nation, recorded a message urging 75,000 eventual listeners not to take freedom for granted, since “women cannot afford to let democracy go down.”

Kirchwey had prepared a speech on women and democracy for that year’s convention. When fuel sanctions banned Americans from any nonessential wartime travel, AAUW members changed their convention plans — but they didn’t call it off. Instead, they held the organization’s first-ever audio convention, distributing Kirchwey’s address to branches so that they could hold convention at home. “We were doing virtual before ‘virtual’ was even a thing!” quips AAUW Archivist Suzanne Gould.

The 1945 audio convention was, of course, a drastic departure from previous gatherings. For many years, getting to convention was half the fun: In 1915, AAUW brochures advertised a two-week “delightful vacation outing” that would transport members on Pullman sleeper trains from Chicago to Vancouver to the convention site in San Francisco—all for a bargain $40.

Once the travelers arrived, the convention got down to business, with thousands of members discussing the key women’s issues of the day. The archives of these meetings are landmarks of U.S. history, chronicling how women came together to champion some of our nation’s most important advocacy battles, from civil rights to the second wave of feminism.

The Personal Becomes Political

It may not seem radical now, but gathering women into a space where we can talk about our experiences and struggles in education, work, and life has always been invaluable for AAUW members — and still is. There haven’t been many spaces historically where women’s voices are prioritized, but convention is one of the best places to learn about what other women are experiencing and decide how to band together. Some of those decisions have gone on to make history.

Past AAUW President Sharon Schuster, past AAUW Executive Director Anne Bryant, and Maya Angelou posing together at the  1993 convention

From left: past AAUW President Sharon Schuster, past AAUW Executive Director Anne Bryant, and Maya Angelou at the 1993 convention

The first official AAUW meeting took place in 1882, when the founders and friends all stepped into the same room for the first time as AAUW members. Of course, we weren’t called AAUW then — the Association of Collegiate Alumnae held annual meetings every year until 1922, when the organization adopted our current name and shifted to a biennial convention format.

In 1923, the recently introduced Equal Rights Amendment was a contentious subject at convention, and members could not come to a consensus — they would continue to disagree on the issue until 1971, when delegates voted to support equal rights for all women under the law at the convention in Dallas.

Many other watershed moments in our country’s history were tackled at conventions. In the 1940s, members heard updates from the AAUW War Relief Committee, which found safe havens and new jobs for women academics fleeing Europe during World War II. Members at the 1971 meeting in Dallas drew up guidelines for universities to end sex discrimination on campus; when Congress passed Title IX the following year, the bill included many of these guidelines. In 1971 AAUW also took a stance on abortion.

History-makers haven’t failed to notice what goes on at AAUW conventions. Eleanor Roosevelt came to convention in 1959 at the height of the Cold War and bolstered AAUW’s dedication to taking on pressing global issues. In 1963, U.S. Rep. Edith Green (nicknamed “Mrs. Education” for her work on women’s education and the Equal Pay Act) came to talk about ending sex discrimination in higher education. And the 1970s brought many giants of the women’s liberation movement to convention, including activist Gloria Steinem and anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Other brilliant figures have graced our convention podium since then: computer scientist Grace Hopper, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, poet Maya Angelou, and then-first lady Hillary Clinton (by video), who praised AAUW’s work for women in the face of an uncooperative Congress: “AAUW stands for the best of what we can do when we work together.”

Same Old Sexism, New Solutions

It has been 133 years since the first AAUW gathering. But it’s as crucial as ever for us to gather to learn the latest strategies and tools to tackle the barriers women and girls still face.

A crowded hall of seated AAUW members raise pieces of paper in the air as standing members count some sort of vote.

The theme of the 1953 convention in Minneapolis was Education for a Free People.

Thanks to evolving advocacy tools like social media, old issues have new legs. Take reproductive rights, for example — an issue that member Georgia Kidwell has seen develop over the last four decades.

“The big issue that year was abortion,” recalled Kidwell of the 1971 convention, speaking in a 2013 interview for the AAUW oral history project. Kidwell initially disagreed with fellow members who wanted to legalize abortion — including her own mother. But afterward, she said, “My thinking evolved.” Unfortunately, with today’s anti-choice legislators closing down clinics across the state, “We’re fighting that again, right now, in Texas.”

The battlegrounds for women’s issues, even ones that seemed localized, are changing. Technology and social media allow us to organize grassroots protests electronically, collect and deliver signatures to representatives, and chime in on conversations online. Advocates need a whole new set of skills to be able to react quickly and effectively to women’s issues. Think of the fight that Kidwell describes in Texas, exemplified by state Sen. Wendy Davis’ famous 13-hour filibuster against an anti-choice law. Davis’ stand wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t for the feminists who spread the word on Twitter and Facebook. And in addition to those tech-aided advocacy efforts, there are still basic grassroots skills to learn and polish: how to lobby your state representatives, how to get women’s history into local classrooms, or how to fight for fair pay in your community and nationally.

Advocacy has changed, and so convention has changed, too. The AAUW National Convention has become a place where members gather not only to exchange ideas but also to get training and resources to take their skills to the next level — in their states, the country, and the world.

The convention has adapted to the times in other ways, too. Members in 2009 decided to democratize our voting system so that every member has the opportunity to help decide AAUW’s future.

Virtual tools, like video and live tweeting, make it possible for you to follow along online if you can’t make it to convention in person. And even the spirit of the Pullman sleeper train trips lives on in the San Diego tours members will take before and after convention, where attendees will explore local attractions together.

Why do we still gather? The issues we’re advocating for are urgent and evolving. We need to be able to learn from each other’s experiences and figure out how best to empower women and girls so that we can carry out our mission every single day. What will we do in 2015 that will make history?

Do you have a great story to share about convention? Share it on social media using the hashtag #AAUW2015.

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Save the Date

Mark your calendars for the
2017 AAUW National Convention.
When: June 14–17, 2017
Where: Washington, D.C.

By:    June 04, 2015