Fresh out of college in 1951, Shirley Cox joined a new organization in Powell: the American Association of University Women. Earlier this month, Cox met with fellow AAUW members as she has for …
Fresh out of college in 1951, Shirley Cox joined a new organization in Powell: the American Association of University Women. Earlier this month, Cox met with fellow AAUW members as she has for decades — this time as the only charter member at the group’s 70th anniversary celebration.
“What a pleasure it is to honor a Powell branch charter member,” Charlotte Patrick, president of the local branch, told Cox. “We are so thankful and appreciative of your 70 years of active involvement, and I do mean active involvement, in our group.”
Over the decades, Cox has given programs, hosted meetings, held offices (including president), and participated in a variety of projects, Patrick said.
“At just about every meeting, you can count on Shirley for a funny story,” she said, adding that Cox’s keen mind and willingness to participate actively “have enriched our branch and each of us.”
Cox compiled a history of AAUW’s first few decades in Powell, which Patrick read during the 70th anniversary celebration on Sept. 9 at the Powell Library.
The Powell branch received its charter in September 1951, with 19 members.
“Some were teachers, some professional women and others young or middle-aged homemakers,” Cox wrote.
The oldest charter member was Hannah Pearson, a 1902 graduate of the University of Nebraska. Marie Odgers served as the driving force behind organizing the Powell branch.
During the first 25 years, AAUW included study groups focusing on painting, creative writing, gourmet cooking, landscaping, school finance, “understanding our children” and other topics.
“WIth the expansion of Northwest Community College, the need for study groups was diminished as regular classes and adult evening classes were readily available,” Cox wrote.
But some groups carried on for decades. The Powell branch’s book reading group that started in 1951 continued until it stopped meeting last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beginning in 1955, AAUW members met at Northwest College for most of their regular meetings, and the branch was connected with the college in other ways.
AAUW hosted coffee events for new NWC faculty women and faculty wives, as well as teas for freshmen girls, with a style show as entertainment.
“I thought the involvement with the college was very interesting,” Patrick said.
Membership gradually grew, reaching a peak of 51 members in 1967-68. Through the ‘70s, membership leveled off at around 30-35 women.
In recent years, the Powell branch has consisted of 14 to 20 members. While joining is an easy process today, that wasn’t the case in the early years.
“Back in the day, you had to verify that you had graduated from college, and AAUW nationally had a list of acceptable colleges and universities,” Patrick said. “Part of the acceptability was how many female faculty you employed.”
Powell member Linda Greaham originally wanted to join AAUW in Hawthorne, Nevada.
“But the school where I went — which was Southwestern State College in Oklahoma — was not on their list,” she said. “So they had to correspond with the college and find out if they had the right number of women faculty members and met all the criteria before I could join.”
Over the years, the Powell branch took on a number of different projects, including early childhood education and childcare.
“AAUW was really instrumental in getting public kindergarten, and also in getting the first daycare — we worked on that, too,” Patrick said.
The branch sponsored a film festival and held story time for children at the library. Other events included a literature hour and lecture recital series.
Group members also surveyed magazine stands in Powell, “checking for pornographic and objectionable material,” according to the branch’s history.
In the late 1970s, the local branch partnered with other AAUW groups in a statewide survey, looking at handicap accessibility.
“So every public building had to be surveyed and measured — like the doorway, how many steps, stalls, toilet height, all of that,” Patrick said.
During the ‘90s and into the 2000s, the group focused on STEM initiatives, encouraging women to go into science, technology, engineering and math.
“We’re still working on that and also pay equity,” Patrick said, adding, “That’s still an issue, and there’s certainly a wage gap.”
AAUW also has looked at Title IX, sexual harassment and other gender discrimination issues.
The national organization selects some issues to focus on, and groups highlight topics of local interest.
AAUW’s mission is to empower all women and girls.
“From grade school through retirement, from the classroom to the boardroom, women and girls have a mountain of challenges to overcome,” AAUW says. “That’s where we come in. For more than a century, women and men have been drawn to AAUW as a space to make real change.”
As a national organization, AAUW is marking its 140th year in 2021.
“We have been in existence half as long as the national [association],” Patrick noted.
AAUW has been active in legislative issues and promoting candidates, particularly to get women to run, she said.
“A lot of legislators have, in the past, relied on the research done by AAUW specialists to promote certain pieces of legislation,” Patrick said.
Through the decades, AAUW has hosted a variety of money-making projects, with proceeds going toward the group’s expenses and scholarships. In 1968, the Powell branch established a scholarship for freshmen females.
“We still give a scholarship for a freshman girl entering Northwest College,” Patrick said.
In the past decade, the local group also added a scholarship for a non-traditional female student.
The Powell branch hosted AAUW state conventions in 1969, 1983, 2001 and 2015.
“In keeping with the purpose of AAUW, the Powell branch has endeavored to enable its members to continue their intellectual growth, further the advancement of women and discharge special responsibilities to society,” Patrick said, reading from the group’s history. “That was the language back then.”