Opening Membership and Minds

Delegates vote at AAUW National Convention in Seattle, Washington, 1949. From AAUW Archives.

February 28, 2014

On display at the AAUW national office is a certificate from the National Council of Negro Women, signed by the council’s founder and president, Mary McLeod Bethune. The citation recognizes AAUW for “revising its constitution to prevent membership exclusion based on race, religion, or national origin.” The story behind this certificate is one of the most significant stories in AAUW’s history.

Photograph, Mary Church Terrell. Image courtesy of National Park Service.

Photograph, Mary Church Terrell. Image courtesy of National Park Service.

It begins with Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African American women to earn a college degree. Terrell’s family valued education, and she attended Oberlin College, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1884 and her master’s degree in 1888.

After earning her degrees, Terrell moved to Washington, D.C., and taught at the public M Street High School, where Robert Herberton Terrell, the District’s first African American municipal court judge, was a teacher and later principal. They were married in 1891.

Terrell’s list of accomplishments is lengthy. She served on the D.C. Board of Education from 1895–1906 and was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (now the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs) and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1946, Terrell was invited to join the AAUW Washington (DC) Branch by member Clarence Swift. This membership invitation caused a sharp division in the branch when some members opposed Terrell’s admittance because she was African American. The irony is that Terrell was once a national member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae and AAUW; her name is listed in a directory from 1905–06. And according to some of our archives, she was also a former member of the Washington branch — the same branch that in 1946 was resisting her membership.

Certificate from National Council of Negro Women recognizing AAUW, 1949. On display at AAUW.

Certificate from National Council of Negro Women recognizing AAUW, 1949. On display at AAUW.

The national leaders of AAUW ordered the branch to accept Terrell’s application for membership or be dissolved, because AAUW had never explicitly excluded women based on race in its membership criteria or bylaws. In 1948 the branch sued AAUW in district court and won. AAUW appealed the court’s decision but lost. With this controversy unresolved, AAUW President Althea K. Hottel consulted her friend, former Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, who advised her that AAUW should revise its bylaws to clarify its membership requirements to prevent exclusion by race.

Hottel visited branches across the country to explain the bylaws revision and stress that a vote to change them should happen at the first possible opportunity. At the 1949 National Convention in Seattle, AAUW members voted overwhelmingly (2,168 to 65) 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.

This revision helped clarify that there was one and only one requirement for AAUW membership, reaffirming that women college graduates of all races were eligible for membership. The change highlighted AAUW’s commitment to the democratic, egalitarian principles on which our organization was founded. 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 stood proudly with Mary Church Terrell.

By:   |   February 28, 2014


  1. Debra Witcher says:

    I appreciate the stride that Mary Church Terrell made. Her persistence led the AAUW to change its bylaws and to stand by and uphold its “commitment to democratic, egalitarian principles” so that African American female scholars like myself have the privilege of merit-based membership affiliation and free will participation in an organization that has been empowering women and making strides in society since 1881. While making sacrifices is inevitable; biases make sacrifices greater than necessary in the stride to equity and access in education and other sectors of our society. Such biases include tokenism, racism, genderism, and ageism. Beneath it all there lies a force that is going to sore past the prison guards of the past into a future with equity and access for all. A future where each and every one of us will have a roles in our communities based on merits and the content of our character, and we will lead our communities out of the rubble of biases and into a future of equity and access for all.

  2. […] highlight here). She assumed the presidency of AAUW in 1947, when the organization struggled with racial integration in its oldest branch, and she faced the issue of branch autonomy versus national standards for […]

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