Program Resources – Intersection of Racism and Sexism Program

In September 2018, the California Online Branch held an email list discussion on the topic The Intersection of Racism and Sexism: Where Feminism Fails Women of Color featuring guest speakers:

  • Gloria Blackwell, AAUW Senior VP of Fellowships and Programs
  • Suzanne Gould, AAUW Archivist and Historian
  • Dawn N. Hicks Tafari, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, Winston-Salem University (2014-15 AAUW Fellow)
  • Mary Phillips, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Lehman College, CUNY (2018-19 AAUW Fellow)
  • Amaka Okechukwu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, George Mason University (2017-18 AAUW Fellow)
  • Ashley D. Farmer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Texas-Austin (2016-17 AAUW Fellow)

The program looked at the issue covering four sub-topics:

  • History of the early 20th century (passage of the 19th Amendment)
  • History of the 1960s/70s (Civil Rights Movement and Second Wave Feminist Movement)
  • Current Events (Black Lives Matter, #MeToo)
  • White Privilege

Resources/articles shared during the program:

EARLY 20th CENTURY HISTORY (passage of the 19th Amendment)

1960s/1970s HISTORY (Civil Rights and Second Wave Feminist Movements)

CURRENT EVENTS (Black Lives Matter and #MeToo)


As a part of the program, we asked AAUW Archivist/Historian, Suzanne Gould, to tell us about AAUW’s record in the intersection of racism and sexism.  Here is what she shared with us:

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this important discussion. I can provide some background on AAUW history to give some perspective in response to  Sandy’s third question: “Did AAUW fully embrace equal rights for all, or exhibit some of the same racism that has been documented in other women’s advocacy organizations of that era?”

While AAUW has always been an organization composed of predominately white women, the organization was forced to address the issue of discrimination in its membership policy in 1946. This was the year that Mary Church Terrell was invited to join the Washington DC Branch by a fellow Oberlin graduate. Some members of the branch opposed Terrell’s admittance because she was African American. The irony is that Terrell was once a national member of AAUW, back at the turn of the century after she graduated from Oberlin,  yet had let her membership lapse and decided to rejoin later in life. AAUW, 1949. On display at AAUW.

National AAUW told the branch they had to accept Terrell’s application for membership or be dissolved. AAUW had never explicitly excluded women based on race in its membership criteria or bylaws. However, the branch sued AAUW in district court and won. AAUW then appealed the court’s decision but lost. The president at the time, Dr. Althea K. Hottel, recommended that the organization should revise its bylaws to clarify its membership requirements to prevent exclusion by race.

At the 1949 National Convention in Seattle, AAUW members voted to revise the bylaws so that the only requirement for membership was to be a woman with a college degree from an AAUW-approved university. (Men weren’t admitted until 1987. More on the AAUW approved universities later.)

This new wording clarified that was one and only one requirement for AAUW membership, and reaffirmed that women college graduates of all races were eligible for membership. The branch members that had opposed Terrell’s membership quit AAUW and formed their own group, the College Woman’s Club of Washington, D.C. The remaining AAUW members stayed on as the Washington branch.

It’s important to note that although the bylaws did change to make it clear there would be no discrimination based on race, this opened up the organization only in theory. In practice, however, things were quite different and there existed significant barriers to membership. For example, AAUW still maintained a strict membership policy regarding its list of approved institutions. Until about 1965, in order to become a member, you had to have a degree from a list of AAUW approved institutions. Colleges and universities first applied to AAUW for membership, and when they were approved, at which point their graduates were eligible to become members. However, none of the HBCU’s were ever approved despite having applied. The approved membership list remained full of predominately white colleges and universities. This clearly limited the number of women of color who were eligible to become members up until that point in time.

When  asked about AAUW’s role in the passage of the 19th Amendment, Gould added:

Many of our members did advocate for women’s suffrage—both on a local and national level. The national AAUW (then the ACA)  leaders at the time of course supported the passage of the 19th amendment, but were hesitant to devote AAUW resources to the issue because they deemed it outside the mission/scope of the organization which was focused on equity for women in higher education. They were also very concerned about losing membership since there were some women who opposed women’s suffrage (hard to believe, but true) within the organization’s ranks. The organization was still rather small during that time so maintaining and building membership was always at the forefront of their minds.

Of course there is a strong, natural  connection between the issue of equality in education and women’s suffrage, and the leaders knew this and debated it a bit in the records. But as far as ACA itself as a national organization advocating for women’s suffrage, they came to support it rather late in the cause, around 1915, and then only as an issue to study and adoption of a resolution. There isn’t much else as far as historical resources on suffrage in the archives. However, I know of many ACA members who were working on the issue in their own states long before then and then nationally up to the passage of the 19th amendment.