The Equity Issue & AAUW's Membership
I am a member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an organization that prides itself on learning, the study of issues, and civil discussion. Membership is currently putting these values to the test as it prepares to engage at its national convention in a full scale revision of its operating bylaws. Bylaws revision has come to us after the previous convention in 2007 voted overwhelmingly to restructure the organization and charge the Bylaws Committee to develop bylaws to carry out such restructuring.
After more than a year of work, publication of the bylaws and supporting material has opened considerable explanation, discussion and controversy. At the start, members have differed chiefly over a change in membership eligibility. What follows is one example of this interchange.
On April 27, 2009, Nancy Shoemaker of North Carolina informed me that she had seen an opposition piece dealing with the membership question on the blog Herban Sprawl. I decided to look at it and then to write a response. That piece follows.
What AAUW Is About
Thanks so much for raising these questions. I am grateful for every avenue to discuss them.
I am one of the people who joined AAUW out of attention to its aims, not because of any need to recognize my academic achievements. That was 20 years ago when AAUW changed membership eligibility to admit men. Since then, I have steeped myself in AAUW. I became the first male president of an AAUW branch and held other branch offices. I attended every state convention since 1989, including this last weekend. I served on state committees and under two state presidents as administrative assistant, a job broader than it sounds.
Consequently, I also became involved at the national level, attending association conventions from Providence (2003) onwards. I happen to be from a branch and state that for several years has worked for a more inclusive membership. In fact, our branch generated the bylaws amendment, further supported by AAUW Minnesota, to extend membership to those who have an associate or equivalent degree and AAUW passed in 2005.
I am now serving my fourth and final year on the AAUW Bylaws Committee, the group that revised the currently proposed bylaws for our restructured organization. We did as charged by the delegates at the 2007 convention to prepare bylaws for the restructured organization beginning July 2009. Many areas required action, but membership issues that have been under discussion for several years, attract the most controversy.
We are making changes for our organization in the 21st century. Other national organizations are doing the same. As the Bylaws Committee researched restructuring, we found lots of eagerness for information about positive changes, but few actual changes being made at the time except at the directorial level. The results of extensive member input in AAUW’s strategic planning process showed demand for a changed organization that will be leaner, efficient, and flexible, and up-to-date.
You are right that membership eligibility is an idea. I disagree that it is a bad idea, and I am not sure that the discussion of it is raging. Rage is a passionate, violent or insane anger, hardly a term that goes along with discussion. My experience or observation is that the discussion has become emotional because change is an emotional experience. Arguments pro the change and pro not making the change come from our understanding and our perspective. As we discuss, our shared aim is to widen our perspective and deepen our understanding so that we see the issue on mutual terms.
Membership eligibility is an integral part of who we are as an association. We come together in any association – family, church, a democracy, or whatever – for mutual benefit and benefit beyond our group. It is never exclusively about a person individually but about our togetherness. For AAUW and its bylaws, the membership question, as with all the rest of the bylaws proposals, stems from how we see our see our mission and the possible ways to achieve it. That mission, restated in our bylaws as purpose, is “AAUW advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy and research.” In short, as we say, “Equity is still an issue.”
AAUW began in 1881 with a few college graduate women as a means to get together, support one another, and do things. Soon the newly organized group was doing projects that affected the provision of equal educational opportunity, raising funds, doing research, and granting money. They recruited new members, but at first only those members who graduated from colleges and universities that met AAUW’s criteria for provision of educational opportunities equal to men. In that specific regard, AAUW has long ago achieved one of its original aims. All of the activities begun by our association have evolved and expanded over the years.
Membership eligibility is one of our comprehensive bylaws changes, proposed chiefly to bring our membership in line with our mission. If our mission is equity, then our membership ought to be all those who support equity. Will this radically change membership? Not likely, but it could. Here are some reasons:
1. Who do we want to associate with? We want to associate with anyone who wants to work for equity for women and girls and in the manner we have traditionally done and by the activities on which we focus: advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research.
2. What kind of person is it that would join such an organization? Our associational mission is likely more demanding and long-range than many organizations. Potential members are those who know and understand the values of equity, that is equality of opportunity and equality in treatment regardless of gender, and thereby accept what it takes to achieve the aim. They will commit because they understand. Such people are educated, formally or informally, to be learners and thereby can grasp what the organization is about. Learners know their own limits and the necessity to gain new knowledge and understanding for the challenges ahead.
3. How do such people come to AAUW? We invite them, encourage them, recruit them. We explain our mission. Often we recruit those we know best, those of our own circles. When we meet new people, we may be hesitant or embarrassed to ask about their degree status, and so we never get to the invitation stage. Eligibility based on mission removes that hurdle we have placed on ourselves. We will free ourselves to invite people when we have conversational clues about their interests, understandings, and willingness, not their degrees. Since a third of US adult women have degrees – about 60 million of them – our chances of gaining more degreed women is quite good.
4. What will membership based on mission do for us? As an organization we will live its mission and gain a new recognition. We champion equity and we regard others as deserving of equitable treatment regardless of their status. Others will see us as appreciative of every member for their contributions whatever they may be. We will have greater opportunity to work with those who share our aims, close at hand, rather than out there waiting to get it. Others will see us as extending the value of joining in the company of those who are breaking the barriers to social and economic equity for girls, women and their families.
Yes, AAUW is about education, as is our tradition. But education is understood in the bylaws, not as a pathway to membership, but a pathway to equity. We educate ourselves, we work for the education of others. If a degree was the only equivalence of education and having a degree brought all by itself both equity and a 60 million member AAUW organization, then we would be talking about another matter. Unfortunately, the degree by itself does not perform in so automatic a fashion. More is needed and working towards mission becomes the means to fulfill that need.
The Herban Sprawl Reply [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 3:43 PM
Subject: Re: Herban Sprawl comment
I have a policy that I do not edit comments, except for spelling and grammar. Yours is good, but it is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long. If you can send me a comment that is a pithy 50 words or less, I'm happy to post it. I'm not soliciting long explanations. This is not an AAUW site. This is a woman's blog that is quite personal, highly opinionated and, from time to time, somewhat serious. If you can live with an abbreviated comment, then please do that for me.
If you doubt that this is a raging discussion, then you aren't listening. There are women in some states who will not renew their memberships if this change goes through. For myself, I think the
equity thing has gotten to be more important than the original intent of an organization for college-educated women to come together for mutual intellectual benefit and sociability. That's the reason I joined. That men are allowed to join doesn't bother me, but it wouldn't have been a priority for me had I been a member when that was decided.
Anyway, please feel free to resubmit something more appropriate as a brief comment.
The Herban Sprawler
Reflection and Response
Clearly I had held the wrong assumption. It seemed to me that when someone publicly raised a question that is a subject of controversy, they would want information on the topic. I troubled myself that I could legitimately condense what I had already said in a summary fashion into only fifty words. I therefore backed out as politely as I could.
From: Roger Sween [email@example.com]
Sent: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 11:47 AM
Subject: RE: Herban Sprawl comment
Now that I have read the front end of your blog, I see that I missed completely the warning on size.
Sorry, but I assumed after reading the one portion that you were inviting discussion which to me means fullness.
Thank you for the invitation to reply with 50 words. I have mulled this for a day and come to the conclusion that my best approach is to treat the “Membership Issue” on my own blog where I can handle the complexity and length and keep it up to date.
My best to your endeavors.