Convention History in D.C: Why We Didn’t Support the ERA and More

Later this year AAUW will hold its 49th National Convention in Washington, D.C. So we’re thinking back on our history of holding conventions in the capital city, especially our 1924 event and the historic things that happened there.

Call to the 39th General Meeting, 1924

Call to the 39th General Meeting, 1924

On April 21 of that year convention attendees gathered at the recently built Hotel Washington, across from the White House. The convention occurred less than four years after women were granted the right to vote. By then AAUW members had developed a hefty legislative agenda, and they were ready to roll up their sleeves to debate the issues upon their arrival in Washington. In somewhat of a departure from the past, though, the discussion included matters of importance not only to college-educated women but to all women.

Delegates voted on a wide variety of issues. In international affairs, this included endorsing the United States’ entry into the League of Nations and the participation of the United States in the Permanent Court of International Justice. To the dismay of our members, neither of these became a reality.

AAUW Hospitality Committee, 39th General Meeting, Washington, D.C., April 1924

AAUW Hospitality Committee, 39th General Meeting, Washington, D.C., April 1924

AAUW members also overwhelmingly supported legislation relating to children, including the Child Labor Amendment, which Congress was considering to restrict the employment of children. Members also agreed upon a compulsory education bill and the Sterling-Reed bill, which would have provided federal funds to education.

The issue that caused the most debate was the one you might have thought would be an easy sell. The “Lucretia Mott Amendment,” otherwise known as the Equal Rights Amendment, stirred up much controversy within AAUW’s ranks. First introduced in Congress in 1923, the amendment said, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The ERA sounds straightforward, but actually a sizable number of our members were opposed to ratification because they feared it would remove the protective legislation for women that they had fought for and secured.  After a hot debate, they agreed to study the amendment for a year and prepare arguments both for and against.

AAUW News 1924

Newspaper clipping about AAUW’s discussion of the ERA, 1924

On November 1, 1924, a ballot was mailed to branches asking if AAUW should vote on whether to support the ERA at its next convention. There was no consensus, so the issue remained a controversy for the next decade. It wasn’t until 1938 that AAUW offered an official position: opposition to the ERA “as a means of securing the equality of women.” (Note: AAUW reversed course and came out in support of the ERA in 1971.)

The year 1924 also brought big news in the field of education. AAUW leaders announced that they had received a Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Grant of $27,000 to conduct preschool and elementary education research. This grant resulted in several important research reports that can still be found in AAUW’s archives, including The Mental Health of Parents and Children, The Social Development of the Child, How Children Build Habits, The InfantThe Toddler, and The Preschool Child.

Like all of our meetings, this convention wasn’t just all work and no play. Attendees visited Baltimore and were taken on a sightseeing trip around the city by alumnae of Goucher College and the Baltimore branch. They were also invited to the White House, where they were greeted by President Calvin Coolidge and had tea with First Lady Grace Coolidge. AAUW members were very familiar with their hostess. An alumna of the University of Vermont, she was the first presidential spouse to graduate from a four-year university and was also an AAUW member!

Are you amazed at how much was accomplished for women in just four days in 1924? Join us this June to do the same by providing your voice to issues that are important to women and girls.

By:    February 01, 2017