Two National AAUW Conventions: 1981 & 2003

By Gudrun Hutchins

AAUW celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding at the 1981 National Convention in Boston. At that time National AAUW Conventions were held during uneven years at various locations in the country. Separate Regional Meetings (in our case the New England Region) and a Conference of State AAUW Presidents in Washington D.C. were held in even years. Each year we also held a Vermont State Conference hosted by one of the Vermont branches as well as a Vermont Legislative Day in Montpelier.

It was an exciting time to be an AAUW leader since information was passed on in person and by mail. Many AAUW leaders across the state knew one another from these personal meetings and from celebrations at the state and regional level.

The National AAUW Convention in 1981

Four Bennington Branch members participated in the national convention in 1981. They were Norma McShane, Gudrun Hutchins, Lucille Leamon, and Marguerite Lyons. Norma, Gudrun, and Lucille were past presidents of the Bennington Branch and Marguerite was the current president. Norma was also the Vermont State President in 1981 and served as the chair of the seventeen-member Vermont delegation to the National Convention.

Bennington Branch members Lucille, Gudrun, Marguerite, and Norma at the 1981 National AAUW Convention

It was the first National Convention the four Bennington AAUW members had attended and the same was true of most of the 13 other Vermont Branch Leaders who joined us from the Barre, Burlington, Montpelier, Middlebury, Rutland, and St. Albans Branches. Fortunately, Joanne Crisman, the state president before Norma, was also part of the Vermont delegation. Joanne had attended two previous national conventions and could advise us novices when the need arose.

Bennington Branch members had attended national AAUW Conventions as far back as the 1940’s, traveling by train. In 1962, I had been recruited by two Bennington Branch members who met my mother at a national convention, which took place in Boston in 1961 on the 80th anniversary of AAUW. In the 1980’s Vermont had nine AAUW branches and more than 400 members of all ages. The first weekend Vermont state conference I attended in Bennington had 70 participants.

When looking at the fuzzy Polaroid images of all Vermont participants at the 1981 convention, I am struck by several interesting facts. Nearly all of the Vermonters were fairly young, relatively slim, and wore skirts or dresses rather than slacks. Only five of the seventeen Vermonters wore glasses. It appears that most of us were young enough to see well without glasses or, like Norma, wore glasses since childhood or very early adulthood. I was 43 at the time and the other three Bennington members were close to my age.

The 1981 National AAUW Convention was held in Boston because AAUW was founded in that city. (More accurately, one of AAUW’s forbears, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae or ACA was founded in Boston in 1881).  All of the Vermonters had chosen to attend this convention because we could drive there rather than fly to Washington D.C., California, Oregon, Florida, or Texas–as several Vermonters and I did later. Also, there were some special events that were not typically part of an AAUW convention. For example: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sponsored an exhibit of newly engineered prosthetic devices for women and hosted a reception for AAUW members in honor of Ellen Swallow Richards, co-founder of AAUW and the first woman who had been admitted to MIT, had graduated from MIT, and had taught at MIT. Both Gudrun and Marguerite took advantage of this MIT invitation which came with chartered bus transportation from the Convention Center to the MIT campus and back. Others participated in history or art tours that had been scheduled immediately before or after the convention.

After we had registered for the Convention by mail and had booked our hotel at a rate negotiated by AAUW, we received mailings from Washington about some of the business to be conducted at the Convention. Members, rather than paid staff, decided what AAUW stood for and what our major efforts should be. The primary purpose of staff was to implement and facilitate member decisions. We also started to receive flyers from members who were running for national AAUW office and wanted us to vote for them. All of the elections for national positions were competitive and some positions had three or four candidates.

At that time, all votes for national leaders, public policy priorities, and bylaw changes were completed in person at AAUW conventions. Some by-law changes or resolutions were edited on the floor of the business meetings, with English teachers being watchful that all grammar was acceptable.

Business sessions were chaired by the elected president of AAUW. The Association also had an elected national Treasurer, an elected Secretary, and an elected board composed of 2 Members at Large and 8 Regional Vice Presidents who were elected by AAUW members in their Region (in our case New England). This ensured that each AAUW member was represented by a board member who lived in their part of the country and whom many of us knew from Regional Meetings.

It was a unique experience to sit in a convention hall with more than a thousand educated women from all over the country and debate not only the leadership and future actions of AAUW, but also many political, educational, and vocational issues for women. During plenary sessions we were inspired by nationally famous women in various disciplines and leadership positions. But there were also lesser known speakers who taught us to think big and not be limited by any idea that seemed impossible at that particular time.

At a festive banquet at all AAUW conventions, a well-known woman and national leader spoke and received the AAUW Achievement Award, a national AAUW honor that came with a unique glass sculpture designed by a famous artist. I don’t remember who the honoree was at the 1981 convention, but I certainly remember some of the later ones. They included Sarah Weddington, who argued Roe vs. Wade before the Supreme Court at the age of 26 even though she could not get a job at a law firm, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor;  Justice Ruth Ginsburg; Madeline Albright; past Secretary of State; Gloria Steinem, the founder of Ms. Magazine; and Sally Ride, the first woman in Space. Each spoke at a different AAUW Convention that I attended and were featured in Outlook, the AAUW magazine, before the convention at which they spoke and were honored.

The 2003 National AAUW Convention

The 2003 convention in Providence, Rhode Island, was also attended by many Vermont AAUW members. In the group photo of Vermonters in Providence, you will recognize four women who are still members of the Bennington Branch. They are Jennifer Kern, Judy Murphy, Gudrun Hutchins, and Jane Chamay. The other women were members of the Brattleboro, Middlebury, Randolph, and St. Albans Branches. This convention was also close to home and many of us attended because we could drive there.

The last National AAUW convention attended by Bennington Branch members took place in Washington DC in 2005. Jennifer Kern and I were roommates and Judy Murphy joined us for two days to lobby and to hear featured speaker Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State during the Clinton Administration.

AAUW National Conventions have been discontinued. AAUW membership has dropped from 230,000 in 1981 to less than 50,000 at present. Also, long-time AAUW members like me no longer have the mobility required to walk from Convention Center to Hotel or to visit the large Congressional Office Buildings in Washington. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to attend a total of eight National AAUW conventions and many regional and state AAUW conferences at an earlier time. They served as a counterweight to my professional life of electron microscopy, microanalysis, and semiconductor development with mostly male co-workers.

Jennifer Kern is kneeling in the front on the right side; Jane Chamay is in the back row on the right side.; Gudrun is to the left of Jane. (I may the least recognizable); Judy Murphy is in front of Gudrun and Jane — ducking down a bit to not be in front of us.

The woman in the blue top in the back row is Dorothy Rand of the Middlebury Branch who was the Vermont State President at the time of the Providence Convention. The rest of the women are from the Burlington, Brattleboro, Middlebury, Randolph, and St. Albans branches.

(The wide teal ribbon worn by one member indicates that she is available to help members from other areas of the country to locate a specific workshop, a bathroom, or a place to eat. Nearly all attendees from the New England Region took a turn as volunteers for a few hours.)