A Place of Our Own: AAUW’s House Hunting

September 09, 2013
black-and-white photo of the exterior of the 1921 AAUW headquarters building

AAUW’s Washington, D.C., headquarters in 1921

Author Virginia Woolf was denied formal schooling because her father believed that only the boys in her family were deserving of an education. She defied the odds and went on to become a well-known author of novels such as Mrs. Dalloway. In her well-known 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote that in order to realize her full potential, a woman needed economic independence. Speaking of herself as an artist, Woolf famously said in that essay, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

AAUW leaders at the time also believed that they needed a room of their own. In its formative years, the association actually operated out of the home of its incumbent executive secretary, and important documents traveled around the country in a wooden trunk that passed from president to president. Beginning in 1919, AAUW leaders realized the need for a central physical space to conduct national work. So for two years on a trial basis, the association rented a property at 1607 H St. NW, Washington, D.C. Soon realizing that owning property was a wiser choice than leasing it, they created a special committee in 1921 to consider the purchase of a permanent headquarters.

A photograph of the large wooden AAUW trunk that presidents used to transport documents

The AAUW presidents’ trunk was used from 1881 to 1919.

The committee immediately set to work and visited several suitable locations. With razor-sharp vision, they zeroed in on one perfectly situated building for sale: a brick town house located at 1634 I St. NW and owned by the Men’s City Club. Maj. Julia Stimson, chair of the association’s Board of Managers of the National Committee and Clubhouse, explained the desire to purchase the location to members. She stressed that it was hard to see, feel, and touch their work without a headquarters because to members, AAUW “existed only on paper.” She then exhorted the membership to throw their full support behind the idea. With this headquarters, “there are no limits to what the AAUW can do,” Stimson said. Work would “radiate from the central home, through a working force located at that home — a place where contacts are made, where East meets West and North and South, where all educated women find something in common and work to do.”

1922 AAUW pamphlet, "Do You Know That You Own a House in Washington?"

1922 AAUW pamphlet announcing purchase of headquarters to membership

In 1921, AAUW purchased the building for the asking price of $165,000. Sure, this purchase gave us new walls, but it also established a physical presence in Washington that exists to this day. And there was still work to be done! Wise women that they were, AAUW leaders then created a campaign to eliminate the two mortgages on the property. The Washington Fund, as it was called, lasted until 1928, when both mortgages were finally paid off. Contributors’ names are inscribed in the Founders’ Book, which is on display at AAUW’s headquarters today.

We already knew our founders were bold visionaries, but this story adds another layer to that vision … a layer of business savvy and financial wizardry rarely displayed in the public sphere by women in the 1920s. Considering the significant legal, social, and cultural barriers that have prevented women throughout history from owning property, AAUW’s efforts to secure a “room of their own” is even more worthy of our applause.

By:   |   September 09, 2013

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