History 1999-2009

Once More, With Feeling

As we move towards the 2021 balloting on this issue, I thought I’d review the early years of the discussions I had on the topic and how I think the issue has evolved.


I joined AAUW in 1994 and, as a newly minted branch president, the 1999 national convention in DC was my very first. It was a contentious convention dealing with a proposal for divorcing the foundation from the membership organization. The AAUW report, Gaining a Foothold: Women’s Transitions through Work and College, documenting women’s winding path through higher education (school, work, home — rinse and repeat) took up much of the program time. That report spoke to our branch where we were trying to figure out how to keep one of our newer volunteers engaged — she spent the previous year with us as a student affiliate, but now it was her husband’s “turn” to go to work and she had stopped out of her undergraduate program. The only advice we got was to add a “friend of the branch” category to our bylaws (which seemed unduly complicated if, as I hoped, the change to dropping the degree requirement was relatively near).

During the discussion of the Transitions report, we were told that we should listen to those “not at our table”, and when the change was discussed in a forum at that convention, I rose during the debate and used those words to argue for the change.

However, many more folks quoted the then current bylaws that said AAUW’s purpose was “uniting of the graduates of different institutions for practical educational work, for the collection and publication of statistical and other information concerning education, and in general for the maintenance of high standards of education” — words that came from the AAUW Charter.

I had come to convention sure that I’d drop out if the change didn’t get the support of the delegates, since I couldn’t see what having a degree had to do with the current mission – “Equity for all women and girls, lifelong education, and positive societal change.” In the end, though, I could accept the argument of those who focused on the “uniting of graduates” for the 501(c)(4) organization. I acquiesced and went on to spend much of the next 10 years in a variety of AAUW efforts.


Cindy Hebert, AAUW ME, 2005

The late Cindy Hebert, AAUW ME president in 2003.

The question was next brought up for a vote at the 2003 convention in Providence, RI.

This time it was raised by a small group led by AAUW Maine.

This was about the time that Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone had come to wide attention, talking about the “social capital” that groups like AAUW branches could bring to communities.

The new argument was that some communities were so small that they couldn’t support more than one organization working on issues of equity for women and girls. Those proposing the amendment to drop the degree requirement wanted AAUW to be the one remaining such group, but felt they couldn’t really compete with, say the League of Women Voters and the National Organization for Women if the degree requirement for AAUW membership was maintained.

The idea didn’t get much support, and the bylaws amendment failed.


Frieda Schurch

The late Frieda Schurch on the day she swayed the convention to grant membership to those with AA or equivalent degrees.

The idea came back again in 2005, with the convention returning to DC. A few individual members across the country were inspired by Maine’s efforts, and communicated with each other to plan strategies to move towards the change.  There were handouts, buttons (see the Cindy Hebert picture above), and hallway discussions to lobby the delegates on the issue.

Two bylaws amendments were proposed:

  • One: as before, to drop any degree requirement.
  • Two: to allow those with associate  or equivalent degrees (not to be confused with “associate degrees or equivalent”) to become members of AAUW

The two were debated in that order. The first failed. As time was running out on debate on the second, Frieda Schurch, a 50-year member and major donor, spoke. Her brief question — “What are we about? Equity for women or showing off our degrees?” — changed the whole tenor of the debate and the second version passed with the required 2/3 in favor.

[By the way, 2005 was also the year that I was on a conference call with a member of the national board and and and a branch member who said her branch’s bylaws had been changed to state state specifically that all were welcome as members. That branch continued as a remarkable force in its community for more than a decade until they were eventually challenged on the issue and decided to fold.]


Diane Ehrenberger

The late Diane Ehrenberger who designed collateral for Open Up AAUW efforts from 2005 on.

This convention in St. Louis changed the organization forever. For the previous three years (and at the 2007 convention) members were presented with a “change or die” proposition. Addressing some of the issues that had come up in the 1999 Convention (and the Foundation/Association split), a complete new set of bylaws was proposed that would, among other things

  • Fold the Educational Foundation, Legal Advocacy Fund, and the “Association” into one corporation, “AAUW”
  • While EF and LAF had been 501(c)(3) organizations, the Association had been a 501(c)(4). The new AAUW would be a a 501(c)(3)
  • Relegate the AAUW charter to the dustbin, and make the new purpose “advancing equity for women and girls through education, advocacy, and research”, mirroring a mission that had been adopted by the board earlier. Note there was no longer a “uniting of graduates” anywhere in the documents.

After a furious floor fight, a small group of delegates got together and proposed amending the new bylaws by putting back back the language in Article IV — the degree requirement — from the old bylaws. That amendment passed and we were left with the contradiction that we have lived with since: a purpose and mission that could very well be of importance to those without degrees, but a “club mentality” that says only those with degrees can  be members.

Since 2009

Ruth Wahtera

The late Ruth Wahtera who gave her immense communications skills to AAUW in many ways, including support of this website, openupaauw.org

After 2009, the group that worked together in 2005 and 2009 expanded to a virtual presence and formed Open Up AAUW, the website openupaauw.org, and a corresponding email list. 

The other thing that happened in 2009, was that the power to change the bylaws moved from the relatively small group attending the (expensive) national conventions, to the membership as a whole through the one member/one vote process. This means that voting on the fate of the national organization was open to members who see AAUW primarily as a local organization whose character would be irreparably changed by expanding the membership base. No creative solutions (allowing a local option, say) emerged during the ensuing decade and all attempts to drop the requirement went down. We have yet to see if the strong support from the national level for the change in 2021 will reach the electorate and change the outcome.

-Nancy Shoemaker
 February, 2021


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