Looking Back – Remembering Our History
The West Suburban-Milwaukee Branch of AAUW began in 1957 when a small group of women from the Elm Grove-Brookfield-Wauwatosa area decided that they needed a way to stay connected to the world of ideas. It was the era of stay-at-home moms, single car families, shirtwaist dresses and pumps a la June Cleaver. The concept of ‘having it all’ wasn’t yet on the horizon and men and women had rigid roles. College educated or not, married women typically did not work outside the home, particularly once they had children and their lives often felt cramped and unstimulated.
How We Began
On March 27, 1957, Beth Almon of Elm Grove—always referred to as Mrs. John Almon in press releases and the print media—invited some like-minded women to her home to discuss ideas for bringing women together in a meaningful way. With over a dozen in attendance, they talked about AAUW and the possibility of starting a new branch to serve their suburban communities and interests. It would be fair to say that enthusiasm was high. In less than two months the group took their first formative step holding an organizational meeting at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church.
Forty-two Women Attended
In attendance were 42 women along with state AAUW officers who helped guide the conversation and answer questions. Bylaws were proposed, $7 annual dues were set ($3 National, $1 State, $3 local), and the Elm Grove Branch name was accepted along with a meeting time (second Wednesday of the month). The rest of that summer a temporary committee worked through the application process.
Although the new branch wasn’t officially recognized until October, the first branch meeting was held on Wednesday, September 11, 1957, 8 p.m.—with refreshments!
On the agenda for the evening was a panel discussing AAUW activities including study groups: the Arts, Primary and Secondary Education, Higher Education, International Relations, the Fellowship Program, Legislative Programs, the Status of Women, Social and Economic Issues, and Mass Media. The very full agenda included officer elections.
The First Officers
Not surprisingly, Beth Almon became the group’s first president with Jean Cox (Mrs. Leilyn Cox) acting as the vice-President. Angie Fincke (Mrs. William Fincke) and Rosalie Carson (Mrs. Waller Cox Jr.) filled out the roster as the respective secretary and treasurer.
At the October meeting, the officers were officially installed and study groups were assembled. What would later become the West Suburban Milwaukee branch was off and running.
Looking Back at Our Collective History: Part II
Many of today’s young women are skeptical of the term “feminist” and question the concerns that older women share. They take for granted the privileges we in the westernized parts of the world have, and they assume things have always been this way. The events and efforts that brought us here have been forgotten.
Today, it’s hard to believe that women first got the right to vote less than 100 years ago. That was a major breakthrough won by generations of women fighting to make their voices heard. But that is only the most widely known battle on our path to equity. There have been many other battles, equally hard fought and many ongoing.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), another long-term battle, was first introduced in 1923. It passed both houses of Congress in 1972 and was nearly ratified by the states when conservative organizer Phyllis Shafly brought strong opposition in the name of housewives. Thirty-five of the required 38 states ratified it before the 1979 deadline (Wisconsin was number 14) but it was shelved and is now mostly forgotten. But not by everyone. One of our members has vivid memories of the Waukesha march she participated in as a member of the League of Women Voters:
- “We carried placards supporting ERA. As we stopped at an intersection an elderly man standing at the curb spat at my feet. Startled, I looked over into a face of hatred.”- Carole M.
The fight continues. ERA has been re-introduced into every session of Congress since 1982. While Wisconsin ratified the federal amendment, our legislators have never passed a state ERA.
Another long and ongoing battle is the demand for equal pay. While things have improved overall, the pay gap between men and women has not yet gone away. Several of our members remember personal experiences with blatant pay inequity just a few decades ago:
- “During my first year of teaching, I soon noticed that the newly hired men had larger pay checks than I did. When I asked why, they told me that they received an extra $460 a year because they were entitled to ‘head of household’ pay.
- “At the time, my husband was a full-time student at the university and I was providing our income. Therefore, I went to the personnel office, explained our situation, and asked to receive the ‘head of household’ pay. I was told that only men were eligible for ‘head of household’ pay.” – Carol T.
- “Since there were several fall sports at our high school, I was asked to coach golf (which I did for 13 seasons. When I discovered that the men’s golf coach had the same length of season and a higher salary, I requested a review and was appropriately paid the correct amount — the following year.” – Shirley E.
One area of success for women was the 1972 passage of Title IX which required all federally funded education programs to provide equal treatment of girls and women in all programs and activities. While there are persistent problems with enforcement, the fact is that girls can now participate in all education activities on equal terms with boys. This opportunity has given many young women experiences never available before. Prior to 1972, sports opportunities for girls were spotty and treatment was second class at best. Some of our members remember those years:
- “In the 1960s there were no sports for girls at my high school. Girls could be cheer leaders, or participate in the Modern Dance Club or Water Ballet. (It wasn’t called ‘synchronized swimming’ in those days.) In order to practice, girls had to come back to school in the evening – thanks to transportation provided by willing parents. After school, the pool was reserved exclusively for the boys’ swim team.” – Carol S.
- “I loved playing basketball in the 1960’s. Being tall, I played center and the rules were that I could not go past the mid-court line at that position. Also we could only take three dribbles and had to stop and pass the ball. These rules made the game twice as difficult as the boys’ game. I am not sure if this stayed the same until Title IX.” – Linda B.
But there were other forms of discrimination in education that were perhaps subtler but often more difficult to work through.
- “The [college] dormitories were separated by gender – one per building, not by floor. Boys had no ‘hours.’ Girls not only had ‘hours’ but were required to sign out of the dorm during evening hours. As an undergraduate, you were required to live in the dorms, unless your family lived in town and you lived at home.” – June M.
Girls and women frequently had to stand up for themselves to achieve what they wanted – sometimes with support but often without.
- “At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I signed up for the classes I wanted to take my junior year. Among the classes were chemistry and advanced algebra, which were my strong areas and of high interest to me.
- “The next day after signing up for my classes, the principal called me into his office. I had never been asked to see the principal before and went with great anxiety. The principal said, “I noticed you signed up for chemistry.” I replied that I had. He then said, “I don’t think you should take chemistry and I noticed that you have not taken home economics yet. I think you should take that instead of chemistry as it will have things you need to know in the future.” I told him I was going to college and wanted to have four years of math and science. I also told him that I was a farm kid and knew how to cook, sew and clean. In addition, I took care of my three younger brothers before and after school and on the days school was not in session. The principal told me that he felt he was right and was changing my schedule.
- “I went home that night and told my father what had happened. The next day he went to see the principal. I took chemistry as a junior.” – Carol T.
- “As I the only woman in the Master’s program for AV Education in 1970, one of my professors felt I should not be there. He decided to give me a lower grade for not lining up my masking tape at right angles on the back of my transparencies – even though you could not see the tape when the transparencies were in use. I talked to him about this, but he refused to change the grade. Ironically, he was a very young teacher.” – JoAnne P.
- “My sister Wanda, five years older than me, was my role model. She went to college – worked her way through – and I never doubted my ability to do the same. We came from a relatively poor farm family where there was no extra money for college, and our father belonged to a generation of men who thought college for women an unnecessary frill (since they would just get married anyway, and their husbands would support them). Still, I know he was proud of both his daughters when we earned our college diplomas.” – Marjorie P.
- “When I was in high school I signed up to take trigonometry. The first day of class the teacher (a man, of course) said that girls didn’t belong in that class. I stayed and got an ‘A’. Went on to become a bank officer.” – Susan K.
Those members were strong and overcame opposition, but not all girls and women are able to do that. Jobs and roles were much more strictly defined according to gender. Girls were often stifled and counseled into one or two fields that were perceived as “family-friendly”:
- “I was a senior in high school and was talking to my counselor about my college plans. His remark to help me was “What do you want to be a teacher or a nurse?” No other options were offered to me. I became a teacher.”  – Linda B.
- “In the 1950s and 1960s, I was given two choices: nursing or teaching. Teaching was especially encouraged because it would allow me to be home in the summer with my children – of course that decision wasn’t open for discussion. My senior year in high school, I met with my guidance counselor for the first and only time. Before I had a chance to speak he said, ‘You’re going to be a teacher, right? Good.’ That was the sum and substance of our two-minute encounter.” – Carol S.
- “Before her marriage to my father, my mother taught in a one-room country school. (She had earned a teacher’s certificate at a two-year teacher’s college.) In those days only single women were allowed to teach.” – Marjorie P.
- “The Chicago Tribune listed jobs in two categories: Men. . .Women.”  – June M.
Participation in activities outside the home often required special permission or understandings from the men in their lives. In public, women were referred to by their husbands’ names. (There’s plenty of evidence of that in the press clippings in our archives from the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s.)
- “During my first of three campaigns for alderman in Brookfield, several people asked me if my husband was okay with my doing this. (He was.) I was the first woman elected to the position of alderman in Brookfield and polled the most votes of the seven candidates in the primary. (The other six were men.) Prior to 1976 women only served on the School Board.”
– June M.
And then there is the still divisive issue of reproductive rights. The introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960s freed many women from the worry of unwanted pregnancies and the sexual revolution that followed cleared the path for a more open-minded attitude toward pregnancy. Many of our branch members remember when this wasn’t the case:
- “Upon becoming pregnant during the school year, I was told I had to resign before I began to ‘show’.” – Carol T.
- (1963) “In Rochester, NY while working with an employment agency to find a FT job I learned I was pregnant. I was told by the agency that there was no need to go on the two final interviews that were lined up because no one would hire a pregnant woman.” – June M.
- (Mid 1960s)” If you wanted to use birth control pills, you had to check if the doctor you intended to see would prescribe them. It wasn’t unusual for them to refuse. And you’d better be married!” – June M.
- “After college graduation, I taught high school English for five years, then left the profession to have children. I knew that if I got pregnant and began ‘showing’ it would be necessary to quit teaching – at least until after the baby was born. It seems laughable now, but 50 years ago most people didn’t think it appropriate for children and adolescents to see a pregnant woman in the classroom.” – Marjorie P.
Women’s history has been fraught with set-backs and confrontation. Even within our gender there is no universal agreement. Women have sat on the opposite side of the table on more than one of these issues and will undoubtedly continue to long into the future. Being aware of what has come before, keeping our history alive, sharing what we have witnessed with the young women who were not standing on those picket lines with us – will perhaps lift the stigma that the word feminism holds for some younger women today and keep us moving forward.