The American Association of University Women, 1900-1940: Teaching strategy




When physician Edward H. Clarke published his widely read Sex in Education; or a Fair Chance for the Girls in 1873, educated women in the United States realized that their hard won gains in secondary and higher education were sorely threatened. Dr. Clarke's argument that women could not sustain intensive intellectual activity without sapping their reproductive organs, their bodily health, and their sanity, was being contradicted daily by venturesome women completing secondary schooling and entering higher education institutions in increasing numbers. The anecdotal cases Clarke offered to bolster his argument persuaded some parents that perhaps higher education was not worth the potential sacrifice of their daughters' health. To counter such fears, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, precursor to the Association of American University Women, conducted its own research on collegiate women—surveying college students and graduates about their health, their lives, and their activities. Concluding, based on their survey evidence, that a college education did no harm to women's health, the Association undertook a number of different kinds of activities to further educational opportunities for women.

The Association was formed in 1881 by a small group of middle-class white women who were early graduates of universities and colleges in the United States. The purpose was to bring together academic women for "practical educational work." Gradually membership broadened from the original eight institutions' graduates to include all accredited colleges and universities. One early initiative was instituting fellowships for women to pursue graduate training in Europe and the United States to increase the representation of women faculty and researchers among the ranks of American academics. By 1900, the Association had become the principal organization arguing for, researching into, and informing the nation about the benefits and problems associated with advanced education for women, and it had established branch associations across the United States. The Association changed its name to the American Association of University of Women (AAUW) in 1921 upon joining with the Southern Association of College Women, and becoming a member of the newly formed International Federation of University Women. The AAUW supported research on women college students and faculty; developed standing committees addressing such issues as educational policies, international education, the legal status of women, and vocations for women; and regularly published reports on the association's activities and research. One major concern was to maintain contact with and support among college-educated women across the United States. To that end, the association established local branches all over the country. Through these local branches the AAUW increased its impact on the ongoing education of American women and sustained support for the national-level goals of the organization. In addition, membership in a branch offered women graduates a connection to other college women they sorely missed after leaving college as well as a means of enlarging others' educational opportunities. The Binghamton branch of the AAUW offers a glimpse into the nature of these local activities, a window on the relationship between the national association and a local branch, and a way of viewing the connection between a national women's organization and women's local social movement activities, particularly those focused on education.


To examine the impact of a local branch of a national organization on women's activities on behalf of women in their community; to assess whether this activity inspired women to see their own actions as part of a larger enterprise; and to understand organizational women's roles in furthering women's education locally and nationally. By exploring these issues, and connecting them to education, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of education on women's public efforts to improve their communities.

Lesson Ideas

1. Begin with the AAUW pamphlet "What Your Dollar Does." What goals of the national association do you find in this pamphlet? How were dues to benefit local branches? How are the AAUW's goals, as evidenced here, reflective of the post-World War I period (1919) and the status of women in American society?

2. Move on to Document 2, "Pupils Hear Head of Girls' College on Needs of the Day." In what ways does this speech reflect the AAUW's agenda? What does it suggest about educational elites' views of American culture and education?

3. Discuss the range of activities of the Southern (NY) Branch in the Program Committee report of 1929-1930; what do you discern about these women from this report? Do you see these activities as educational? Why or why not? How did the branch connect with the larger community? How deep do you think this connection was? Using Document 4 on the AAUW survey (1934), compare the local activities with the national ones. Why was it particularly important to determine the status of women in jobs in 1934?

4. Now examine Documents 5, 6, and 8 on the branch's Loan Fund (1901). Was this a significant activity to promote advanced education for women in Binghamton? Why or why not? In what ways did the branch extend its influence (see Document 7)? How important was such cross-generational contact with college women for the organization, do you think?

5. While the loan program and the college club had specific goals regarding support and mentorship of college women, the study groups had other goals. Examine documents 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 to think through the purposes of the study groups. Keep in mind the women themselves. Who were they? What kinds of roles were they performing in their daily lives? What do you think these groups did for the branch members? For the Binghamton community?

6. By the early twentieth century, most rural school districts had consolidated, and the focus of reformers was on urban education, educating new ethnic immigrants, and developing curriculum and testing for placing students in large urban schools. Using Documents 13 14 15, lay out the major political positions on the Rural School Bill. What are the concerns of each group? In what ways was the branch members' position on the bill a political position? Why did they focus on in this bill?

7. Think about the relationship between women's organizations and political activity. What kinds of political activity were open to women? Do you think the fact that women had gained the right to vote in 1920 had an impact on how they were heard at the state level? Did the fact that they operated within an organization give strength to their political positions on rural schooling? Look at the rhetoric in Document 15; how did Mrs. Vanderlip build her argument? Do you think her membership in the AAUW increased her credibility? Explain.

Short Paper Assignments

In perusing the documents of the AAUW Southern Branch at Binghamton and the accompanying references to related documents of the period, explain how the group's mission and concerns changed over the 33 years. Did they become more activist in their educational efforts? Were their activities timely? Argue in 2-3 pages, using the documents and related references, the ways you think they did and did not change over time.

Class Discussion on women's involvement in social movements

Class discussion on women's' involvement in social movements.
  1. Ask students to talk over whether and to what extent the branch's activity in the first 10 years was activist. Can the group's educational activity be characterized as part of a social movement? How so or why not? Can any educational activity be characterized this way? Explain.

  5. Who were these women? In what ways did their privileged status as educated women shape their agenda? What did they hope to gain for women in the Binghamton community with their educational programs?

  9. How did the branch's activities in the 1930s manifest as political activities? Can educational lectures and plays be political? What public purposes did they serve? Did they fit with the original mission on the AAUW?

Suggested Further Reading

Ruth Bordin, Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of a New Woman (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993).

Anne Firor Scott, Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: a History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

Marion Talbot and Lois Kimball Mathews Rosenberry, The History of the American Association of University Women, 1881-1931 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931).

Mary Ann Dzuback
Washington University
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