AAUW Convention: Setting the Tone for Tolerance, Respect, and Discourse

Attendees enjoy the banquet at AAUW National Convention on June 23, 1961. Image via AAUW archives

In June the 49th AAUW National Convention will be held once again in Washington, D.C. But let’s go back in time to 1961, when the 21st AAUW convention in D.C. brought members together at the precipice of a transformative decade in American society. Although the convention theme In Keeping with Our Purpose suggested maintaining the status quo, this event was all about change.

The country in 1961 was recovering from a recession while the Cold War was straining U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba, and the civil rights movement was growing: Freedom Riders were often met by angry, violent mobs and peaceful demonstrators were attacked brutally by the police. AAUW leaders knew that they had to respond to the alarming intolerance, hatred, and violence on the rise throughout the country. So the AAUW Board of Directors opened convention with a statement:

During the past months, this nation has witnessed disturbing evidences of intolerance and hysteria reminiscent of the irrationalism prevalent in the 1950s. Deepening international crises, the ideological struggle between democratic and totalitarian philosophies, and unresolved social and economic problems within the United States have contributed to acute frustration.

The board also reaffirmed its commitment to democracy and stressed the need for “tolerance and respect, for intelligent, dispassionate consideration of issues, and for rational decision making.”

1961 AAUW National Convention program; image via AAUW archives

AAUW’s home had recently changed as well. During convention members visited and toured the new AAUW Educational Center located at 2401 Virginia Avenue, AAUW’s home until 1989. The building’s official dedication ceremony was held during convention and also coincided with the announcement of that year’s AAUW Achievement Awardee, cultural anthropologist Cora DuBois, who was a Harvard professor and the first woman tenured in the arts and sciences faculty at Harvard. In her acceptance speech, Du Bois spoke of the discrimination she had faced in academia and said that “American women have less recognition in power positions than women in the new free and the new communist nations. They are … compared to many other nations of the world, less exploited but also less empowered.”

In keeping with the nationwide trend toward change, AAUW as an organization was also transforming. Our membership had surpassed 150,000 and the structures created decades prior were no longer relevant to the needs of the current membership. At the 1961 convention members discussed how to improve ways that the association prioritized issue areas, and two years later a complete overhaul of the association’s structure was implemented. From then until 1981, when the topics program ended, AAUW issued topics every two years that directed the work of the association. Topics were chosen from member input and analyzed and approved by the Program Development Committee.

Just as AAUW had changed since our founding, so had convention. By 1961 our gathering was more driven by member interests than in the association’s early years and focused primarily on AAUW programs and member involvement. Members reported on their work since the last convention and listened to committee reports, panel discussions, and convention business.

Change will always happen, and times of national unrest will always come and go — but AAUW has a decades-long history of evolving with the times. Come see how AAUW responds to today’s challenges: Join us this June in D.C.


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By:    March 23, 2017