The American Association of University Women (AAUW) provides support and leadership in equity and equality issues within higher education as well as the larger society. Members of the association include women, men, and institutions that share an interest in removing discrimination and inequality as barriers to the educational, employment, and social opportunities open to women and girls. In advancing its efforts, the AAUW publishes reports, offers professional development, supports research and educational activities, advocates for community and political activities, and works to pass legislation. Following a description of the association’s history, this entry provides more details on the AAUW’s activities.
History and Structure
The origins of AAUW date back to 1881, when 15 alumnae from eight colleges joined together to create an organization called the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA). As initially formed, the AAUW’s mission was to open the doors of higher education to more women and to improve their career choices. As the national organization grew through the establishment of branch chapters, the members of the ACA began researching and writing reports on school conditions and career options, which they published in the ACA Journal. By its 25th anniversary, the ACA boasted 3,639 members, 36 branches, and partnerships with 24 colleges and universities. By the ACA’s 75th anniversary in 1957, membership had grown to 140,000 members with 1,365 branches and 377 colleges and universities. Today, the AAUW has more than 100,000 members, 1,000 branches, and 500 college and university partners. While the organization has expanded over the years, the mission remains to “advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research.”
Under the original organizational structure, the ACA established an international agenda in 1914 by creating a project to assist women in coming to the United States from other countries. The members of ACA were revolutionary women by the standards of the early 1900s, because all women experienced large-scale social limitations worldwide. By 1919, the ACA had developed additional international exchange and growth opportunities, including the Committee on Vocational Opportunities, Latin America Fellowship, and Committee on International Relations as well as a teacher exchange program with Oxford University. Focusing on domestic issues, members of the ACA argued for equal pay for civil servant jobs and the establishment of a U.S. Department of Education.
In 1921, the ACA merged with the Southern Association of College Women to form what is now the American Association of University Women and established its headquarters just two blocks away from the White House in Washington, D.C. Under the new configuration, the AAUW continued to grow throughout the nation, establish more committees, and expand its range of activities to improve the education and lives of women. The AAUW also continued its international efforts with a Refugee Aid Fund and international grants and obtained permanent observer status in the United Nations.
The AAUW remains actively committed to helping improve the educational, employment, political, and social opportunities open to women. In 1990, the AAUW adopted its current logo of the “W,” which helps symbolize and reinforce the organization’s focus on education and equality for women. Similarly, in 2004, the organization embraced a new slogan, “Because Equity Is Still an Issue.”
Under its current structure, a board of directors governs and oversees the operations of the AAUW. Three officers and seven directors make up the board of directors; the officers include the association president, the Educational Foundation president, and the executive director. The AAUW membership elects the other seven board members at its biennial convention.
The AAUW offers two types of memberships: individual and college/university partner. Prospective individual members must hold at least an associate of arts degree. It is noteworthy that the AAUW began to extend its membership to men holding a college degree in 1987. Enrolled college students are eligible to apply for student affiliate memberships. Moreover, the institutional partnerships add organizational activities via AAUW’s Campus Action Project and the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders.
Advocacy and Legislative Involvement
The advocacy initiatives of the AAUW primarily focus on achieving gender equity. To this end, the AAUW promotes the attainment of equal pay for female employees, champions the right of pregnant women both to work and to pursue an education, routinely gathers and produces materials to foster leadership development for women, and actively encourages women to vote and participate in the political process.
As an extension of its advocacy efforts, the AAUW has also played a consistent and crucial role in getting legislation passed to formally support equitable treatment for women. In the early years of the organization, these activists were among the first to picket the White House. In 1917, members of the AAUW held a vigil to draw President Woodrow Wilson’s attention to the fact that women still did not have the right to vote. In this instance, the actions of the AAUW helped to promote the drafting and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which finally gave voting rights to women across the United States.
During the 1960s, the AAUW continued to protest and participate in political life by lending its support to both the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). At the same time, the AAUW published documents such as “Action for a Unified Society,” “Community Action Bag,” and “Congress and You” to educate and urge community involvement and unification. The AAUW continued its legislative involvement in the 1970s with support of the Equal Rights Amendment, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. In addition, the organization established a legislative hotline and a Capitol Hill lobby corps to monitor and inform members about gender equity issues receiving legislative attention. In 1977, the AAUW joined over 70 other organizations in the Women’s March for Equality. Later, in 1981, the AAUW established a legal advocacy fund to support women filing sex discrimination cases against higher education institutions.
Following the successful passage of legislation of the 1970s, the AAUW continues to promote legislation designed to support gender equity. After years of support, the AAUW saw the Family and Medical Leave Act passed in 1993. During the 1990s, the AAUW also lent its support to various elements of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (2002) meant to help improve the educational opportunities open to girls and the preparation of teachers.
Campus Support and Activities
Through relationships with its various college and university partners, the AAUW offers numerous additional programs and resources to college students, staff, and faculty. Each summer, the AAUW joins with the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) to offer the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. With more than 500 college women attending this two-and-a-half day conference, the AAUW and NASPA provide research and presentation sessions that focus on helping women employed in higher education to develop their leadership skills. Moreover, the AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund Campus Outreach Program seeks to address sexual discrimination or harassment on college campuses.
Nevertheless, AAUW’s main campus program is the Campus Action Project, where campus teams of students and faculty design proposals to address a topic chosen by AAUW. For example, the 2008–2009 topic was “Where the Girls Are: Promoting Equity for all Women and Girls,” which built upon research released by the association in 2008. As part of the Campus Action Project, the AAUW funded 10 teams to develop and implement their proposals as well as attend the National Conference to present their projects and discuss the impact of their efforts.
Research and Publications
Since its inception, the AAUW has routinely supported and promoted groundbreaking research and publications that impact women in higher education and the workplace as well as publications that more generally address issues related to equality, fair treatment, legislation, and community action. In 1885, still functioning as the ACA, the organization conducted a survey of 1,290 members that produced data that contradicted the contemporary belief that higher education was detrimental to the health of women. In 1978, the association renamed the AAUW Journal to Graduate Woman, and in 1981, the AAUW created a quarterly magazine called Leader in Action to address internal business.
The AAUW has also published self-focused historical works such as The History of the American Association of University Women 1881–1931 (1931) and AAUW Historic Principles: 1881–2007 (2007), the latter being part of its 125th anniversary celebration. In other publications, the association has focused on sex discrimination specifically in academia with works such as The Living Wage for College Women (1938), Gaining a Foothold: Women’s Transitions Through Work and College (1999), and Tenure Denied: Cases of Sex Discrimination in Academia (2004). In the 1990s, the AAUW highlighted its research on girls with landmark reports and books including Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America (1991), Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (1994), and Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children (1998). Today, the AAUW continues to focus on gender equity with research and reports on pay gaps, sexual harassment on campuses, and gender gaps in K–12 education.
In addition to conducting and publishing its own research, the AAUW also supports research projects on gender and other issues conducted by women. This support is governed through the AAUW Educational Foundation, and the association has a distinguished history of providing scholarships and fellowships to women. In 1888, Ida Street of the University of Michigan received the first fellowship from the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae just prior to its 1889 merger with the ACA. In 1917, the association awarded its first international fellowship to Virginia P. Alvarez Hussey to support her studies at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Prominently, members of the AAUW also provided $156,413 to Marie Curie to purchase one gram of radium, which she used to do the research for which she won a Nobel Prize. Presently, the AAUW offers a variety of scholarships, fellowships, and grants to support women seeking to complete research, degrees, and other educational activities.
The AAUW has honored, supported, and benefited from the work and contributions of numerous women both in and outside of higher education. At its biennial convention, the association chooses women to acknowledge for their social, educational, political, and scientific contributions with the AAUW’s Achievement Award. Some previous recipients include Florence Siebert, who won the inaugural AAUW Achievement Award for her invention of the first reliable tuberculosis test (1943); Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to a congressional office, in 1916, in Montana (1976); Margaret Mead, anthropologist (1978); Eudora Welty, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer (1985); Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (1987); Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court (1988); and Gloria Steinem, feminist leader and cofounder of Ms. magazine (2003).
Saran Donahoo and Tamara Yakaboski
- Corbett, C., Hill, C., & St. Rose, A. (2008). Where the girls are: The facts about gender equity in education. Washington, DC: AAUW Educational Foundation.
- Costain, A. N. (1980). The struggle for a national women’s lobby: Organizing a diffuse interest. The Western Political Quarterly, 33(4), 476–491.
- Dey, J. G., & Hill, C. (2007). Behind the pay gap. Washington, DC: AAUW Educational Foundation.
- Kohlstedt, S. G. (2004). Sustaining gains: Reflections on women in science and technology in 20th century United States. NWSA Journal, 16(1), 1–26.
- Snider, C. J. (2005). Patriots and pacifists: The rhetorical debate about peace, patriotism, and internationalism, 1914–1930. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 8(1), 59–83.
- Wright, S. (2007). Education for liberation: Race, class, gender, and the history of education. Journal of Women’s History, 19(2), 202–209.
- Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-352.
- Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 107-110 (2002).
- Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, Pub. L. No. 103-3 (1993).
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, Pub. L. No. 95-555.
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 (2008).
- Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110.