World War I Didn’t Stop These Ladies from Demanding Change
The 49th AAUW National Convention is coming to Washington, D.C., but of course this isn’t the first time our association has convened in the nation’s capital. In April 1917, 100 years prior, AAUW’s predecessor organization, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA), organized a convention at a time when the nation was on the brink of war.
On April 6, just three days before the convention began, the United States joined allies Great Britain, France, and Russia in declaring war against Germany. Aware of this impending announcement, ACA leaders had been consulting with authorities and debating whether to cancel the meeting due to the likely declaration of war. They decided that the business at hand was too urgent to put aside. In a letter to the Washington, D.C., branch president, ACA Executive Secretary Ellen Pendleton wrote, “The future life of the association may depend upon the [convention] business being transacted in proper time.” ACA members came together at the now-defunct Raleigh Hotel, which was located at 12th and Pennsylvania avenues NW at the time.
Attendance at the 1917 convention was at a normal level despite the grim news of war, but the announcement certainly affected the content and tone of the event. Gertrude Martin, the editor of the ACA Journal, wrote in May of that year, “With the declaration of a state of war with Germany only a few days old, and with the debate of the seven billion dollar war loan just beginning in Congress, it was inevitable that the matter of most vital moment in the convention should be the question of offering and preparing ourselves for national service.”
At the start of the meeting, leaders pledged their services to President Woodrow Wilson to aid in national defense. They then established the ACA War Service Committee to coordinate the volunteer efforts of college-educated women across the country.
The war also brought up the question of women in industry. Surely women would be asked to fill positions left vacant by drafted men. In an open letter to members, Susan Kingsbury, a social science researcher and professor at Bryn Mawr College, urged members to work toward the maintenance of labor laws during the war time period, and said that “college women should take a firm stand in favor of ‘equal pay for equal work.’” She also warned association leaders to avoid the dangerous precedent of women accepting lower wages than men in similar positions.
The agenda also included discussing the right to vote. Attendees endorsed a resolution in favor of suffrage, requesting that Congress pass an amendment in support of women’s right to vote. In the past, ACA leaders were hesitant to address the subject for fear of deviating from the mission, but by 1917 suffrage for women was recognized as a fundamental need, especially in a time of war. Several convention attendees cited examples of other democratic governments that were more advanced than that of the United States and had already granted women the right to vote.
Members also passed a resolution in favor of establishing a women’s division of the U.S. Department of Labor. The next year the Women in Industry Service was established as a wartime precursor to the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor.
Toward the end of the convention attendees moved to the Pan-American Union Building for a reception during which they heard an exciting announcement: The ACA would establish a Latin American fellowship for Central or South American women who wanted to study in the United States. In the audience were ACA leaders and members as well as the diplomatic corps of 21 American republics. In the ACA Journal that May, attendees commented on the “new spirit moving in the association expressing itself as a readiness for national service and a demand for fuller citizenship but also in reaching women of other lands.”
Veteran convention attendees pronounced this meeting “one of the most vitally interesting and worthwhile conventions that the association has ever held” in the same Journal issue. It is easy to see why. Facing impending war in a chaotic and dangerous world, everyone knew that AAUW was needed more than ever. Our leaders remained fearless and forged ahead, conducting the business necessary to make positive change for women around the world.
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