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The History, Aims, and Methods
of the Association of Collegiate Alumna (AAUW)

May 1893 — The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


There is nothing to be seen in this world like the beauty of the creation on the enchanted shore of Lake Michigan. This new power which Americans have developed to express the ideal and spiritual side of man fills one with awe and wonder, mingled with thanksgiving that such forms of beauty and grace can be conceived and perfected in this new world.

Rapid and wonderful as the development of the artistic sense in this country has been, its forerunner has been the general education of the people — that education which is neither artistic nor technical, but which is the foundation upon which the solidity and permanence of our greatest works, both of art and of utility, must rest. The progress of education has been the most marked and the most rapid, happily, where it was the most needed — among the girls and women of the country. It seems but a span since the World’s Exposition was held in Philadelphia. Even then, in one of the principal cities of this country — and what was true of that city was doubtless true of many — so low was the standard of education that no girl was taught in any public school any of the elements of the higher learning save a little Latin.No steps had been taken in 1876 — none, in fact, had been suggested — to prepare girls, as they may be prepared to-day, to pass the tests of the higher scholarship. Neither were they fitted, except in a most superficial way, to help forward the wonderful scientific and industrial development of the period. Fortunately, this defect in the training of girls was not universal in this country. After arduous effort, a few women had fitted themselves to take the courses of study at Michigan University, Cornell University, Wisconsin University, Vassar College, and a little later at Boston University, Wellesley College, and Smith College. Still, the number of these women was very small. They had in most cases taken their degrees in order to qualify themselves better as professional teachers. But time developed a new class of college women — women with more or less of competence and of leisure, who, having been trained while in college in definite aims, and in habits of constant and persevering industry, found themselves on graduation cut off by this training from the power to live on easy terms with women less systematically educated. The opportunity for acquaintance and cooperation with graduates from other colleges was necessarily limited. To an active and conscientious woman these questions soon become pressing — what special value had a college training been to her individually, and how could she best help to forward the aims and ambitions of other students, as well as to bear that part in the life of her own community which was her evident obligation?

It seemed as if it should be the mission of the collegebred woman of the latter part of the nineteenth century, not only to secure for herself the highest intellectual training, but to make such use of that training as would commend itself to her own conscience, and would satisfy the claim of a higher civilization that she should have a share in uplifting the human race.

It was in the mind of Mrs. Emily Talbot of Boston that this ideal was first evolved into a definite working plan, under circumstances which should be narrated and become a part of the history of the association.

As the mother of two college-bred girls she had often pondered upon these conditions and difficulties opening before women. One day a young woman was announced who apologized for presenting herself without introduction, but, having heard of Mrs. Talbot’s interest in college girls, she had ventured to call to see if she could get suggestions how to obtain a position to tutor a few hours weekly. Her family were unwilling she should teach in a school; in fact, were she strong enough, there was no absolute necessity to do so, but to obtain a small independent income was her desire, and within her power, if she could be put on the right path. The situation was carefully examined by question and answer, and thus was laid open a definite case of the attainments and ambitions of the modern type of womanhood, hedged in by the old traditions and prejudices. In that moment, as by an inspiration, the vision dawned of constantly increasing numbers of young women, with similar training and congenial tastes, who by organization and cooperation might advance educational methods, encourage girls in more definite aims, support the struggling student, formulate plans for original investigation, as well as learn to work together in a common interest, with method and harmony and a spirit of self-sacrifice.

The vision soon became a spoken thought. Rapidly the idea was passed on from one to another of the few college women in Boston, and on November 8, 1881, a little company gathered in the hospitable halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the purpose of considering the advisability of forming an association. There were present seventeen women, representing eight different colleges. It may be well to mention their names, especially since the early interest shown by many of them has grown with time and proved the source of much of the influence and power which the association now exercises.

There came from Oberlin College, Anna E. F. Morgan, ’66; Ellen A. Hayes,’78; Margaret E. Stratton, ’78. Vassar College, Ellen H. Richards, ’70; Florence M. Cushing, ’74; Alice Hayes, ’81. University of Michigan, Lucy C. Andrews, ’76; Alice E. Freeman, ’76; Mary O. Marston, ’77. Cornell University, Mary H. Ladd, ’75. University of Wisconsin, Maria M. Dean, ’80; Alma J. Frisby, ’78. Boston University, Sarah L. Miner, ’77; Marion Talbot, ’80. Smith College, S. Alice Brown, ’81. Wellesley College, Harriet C. Blake, ’80; Edith E. Metcalf, ’80.

In accordance with a notice sent to all alumnae of the eight colleges thus associated, residing in New England and New York City, sixty-six women met at Chauncy Hall School in Boston, on January 14, 1882, and adopted a constitution and elected officers.

At the meeting of the association held on March 11, 1882, the first after its organization, the president, Mrs. Jennie Field Bashford, addressed the association and outlined its work. The records contain the following abstract of her address: “She said the members have organized in order better to utilize their privileges in personal education and to perform their duty in respect to popular education. The immediate objects of the meeting may properly be the discussion of topics of common interest, especially those relating to educational matters, and methods of comparative education. It was suggested that a bureau of supply be established, through which members wishing employment and those seeking educated women to fill responsible positions might be brought together. Departments may be formed, devoted to the study of subjects which are frequently neglected in the ordinary college curriculum, such as sanitary science and political economy. The interchange of thought and friendly relations between graduates of different colleges will be most beneficial and helpful.”

During the first two years the number of associated institutions was increased by the addition of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and of Wesleyan, Kansas, Syracuse, and Northwestern universities. The University of California was admitted in March, 1886, and Bryn Mawr College in October, 1890, making the total number up to the present time fifteen only. The membership has increased to one thousand five hundred and thirty. It is well to record these facts, for the statement has gone abroad that the Association of Collegiate Alumnae is made up of all graduates from the colleges and universities of the United States which are open to women. Many institutions besides those united in this association are doing honorable service in behalf of the education of women, and it would be as presumptuous for the association to attempt to represent all the collegiate work of women as to maintain that its membership list typifies exceptional intellect or attainment. We know only too well that many of the women in our colleges have had but small share in the broadest culture and widest social privileges of to-day. But the intellectual training which they have enjoyed gives them an appreciative interest in all the work of the world, and has placed upon them an added obligation to use their powers in the faithful fulfillment of the every-day duties of life, even if they can not aspire to the few places in the roll of honor set aside for genius.

The element of variety, which is a peculiar characteristic in the membership of this association of graduates, is the source of much enjoyment and satisfaction. The spirit of loyalty to one’s alma mater is not lessened by contact with representatives from other institutions, but is supplemented by a broad interest in collegiate work, and a generous appreciation of efforts made by other colleges.

Members who have had an occasional opportunity to attend the meetings of the association, and to take some part in its work, were so impressed with the stimulus coming from organized action that they took measures toward the formation of local branch associations. The first organization of this kind was the Washington branch, which was formally recognized on October 25, 1884. Since that time the number has rapidly increased, and sixteen branches are now carrying on effective work.

The delightful relations which exist between the branches and the parent association, and the spirit of good will which they show toward each other and the common cause, make them a strong factor in the influence of the association. The only law which limits their freedom is that which makes the requirements for regular membership alike for all. In other respects they are free to decide for themselves upon lines of work and methods of administration. Under their auspices a large number of clubs for graduate study have been formed, dealing with such subjects as sanitary science, domestic economy, political science, pedagogics, social science, Latin, German, Greek, classics, English literature, English, modern poetry, fiction, general, local, and American history. In some of these clubs the quality of the work done has been so high as to receive recognition and be accepted as regular graduate work by some of our leading universities.

The encouragement of graduate study has not been limited to the branches. The association itself has from the outset given special attention to the subject, and many papers have been read and circulars issued describing in detail opportunities for advanced study in this country and abroad. A peculiarly important result of activities in this line has been the establishment of fellowships. No work more far-reaching in its influence can be undertaken than the maintenance of fellowships. Members must all feel great pride and pleasure in the fact that they are annually giving to two women opportunities for advanced study and research which but a few years ago the wildest fancy could not have imagined. In 1889, the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae, which had been organized in Chicago a few years before, was merged into the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. It brought with it the noble record of having sustained two fellowships in the University of Michigan which had been held respectively by Miss Ida M. Street and Miss Arlisle M. Young. The following year a European fellowship of five hundred dollars was maintained and awarded to Miss Lousia H. Richardson. So important did the work seem that the association then decided to support still another fellowship of the value of three hundred and fifty dollars for study in an American university. The holders of the European fellowships since Miss Richardson have been Miss Ruth Gentry and Miss Alice Walton, and of the American fellowship Miss Alice Walton, and Miss Susan B. Franklin. A partial fellowship has also been awarded to Miss Julia W. Snow. The record seems small. Its importance, not to the women only who directly share its privileges, but to womankind everywhere, is unbounded. It is impossible to make too strong an appeal to every member to see that the work is loyally sustained and enlarged during the years that are to come.

It is significant that, from the outset, the association has laid special stress on the necessity of a sound physical basis for mental growth. The first paper presented before it was on “Physical Education,” and its first work was the publication of a circular tabulating the work done in physical education by the nine institutions then represented in the association. It pointed out deficiencies in their systems, and made suggestions, first, to parents; second, to governing bodies which grant degrees to women; and third, to women studying in those institutions. It is gratifying to note that some of the defects existing at that time have since been remedied, as may be seen from the tables prepared for the exhibit of the association in the Department of Liberal Arts of the World’s Fair. The most important work, however, in this direction has been the investigation of the effect of college training on the health of women. The method employed was to send circulars to the women graduates of the colleges and universities belonging to the association. These circulars demanded specific answers to a long list of questions with regard to the health of each graduate before, during, and after college life. The questions were prepared with great care, and were heartily indorsed by physicians and other experts. Thirteen hundred and fifty circulars were distributed, and over seven hundred were returned — a large proportion, according to the testimony of statisticians. The information thus obtained with care was tabulated by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, and strict impartiality in the conclusions drawn was in this way secured. The untiring zeal of the committee, under the able direction of the chairman, Miss Annie G. Howes, was the means by which a valuable and difficult piece of work was accomplished, whose interest and significance seem to increase as time passes. All friends of the better education of women rejoice that the tendency of the testimony was that systematic mental training helps, not hinders, bodily health.

The statistics showed that the conditions of life during childhood and the years just preceding college life have an important influence. The association has therefore devoted considerable time to the consideration of the general subject of health. Various aspects have been discussed in papers on “Physical Training in Preparatory Schools, with Special Reference to Habits of Sleep and the Relation of Diet of School Life,” “Physical Training as a Factor in Liberal Education,” “The Effect of the Amusements and Occupations of Girls on their School Life,” “The Study of New Methods of Physical Education at Wellesley College,” “The Development of Children.”

Following close upon the investigation of the health of women college graduates, came the publication and distribution of a leaflet calling the attention of parents, guardians, and teachers to some of the chief hindrances to the development of healthy bodies in school-girls, and suggesting remedies. In connection with this an effort was made to obtain in a statistical form some definite information in regard to the life of school-girls before entering college. Although planned with great care, this effort was not fully carried out. The same may be said of a proposed investigation into the causes which lead girls to abandon the college course before its completion, with the special purpose of ascertaining the effects of varying physical conditions on the mental life, and of seeking to point out those factors which tend to lessen the benefits of thorough intellectual training. Many of the preliminary steps have been taken by the committee in charge of the work, but it is obvious that a great deal of labor is involved, and much time must elapse before any definite results of the inquiry can be made known.

These discussions and investigations made the fact clear that hand in hand with the study of school-life should go a similar study of infancy and childhood. Accordingly, in the fall of 1890, steps were taken providing for the presentation of a plan by which those members who were interested could unite in a systematic study of the development of children, with special reference to securing the best basis for their later intellectual life. The special committee has studied the problem with diligence and care, and has had the active cooperation of eminent specialists. The schedules for observations on child-life which have been prepared are now ready for use, and it is extremely desirable that as large a number of careful and intelligent observers as possible should join in the study.

In January, 1883, a communication was received from the Massachusetts Society for the University Education of Women, asking the association to establish a teachers’ registry for college-bred women. After careful deliberation it was decided to be impracticable to carry out the plan at that time. The members of the association, however, did not lose sight of the suggestion. The idea, as developed, has been somewhat modified, as the result of experience, observation, and discussion. Papers on “Industrial Education,” “Occupations and Professions for Collegebred Women,” “Work for Women in Local History,” “Librarianship as a Profession for College-bred Women,” “Occupations of Women,” “Women in Philanthropic Work,” “The Relation of College Women to Progress in Domestic Science,” “Educated Women as Factors in Industrial Competition,” “The Relation of College Women to Social Need,” have shown that many and varied opportunities for useful employment are open to women. As recently as the time when the suggestion to establish a teacher’s registry was made, teaching seemed the one occupation open to all women graduates, regardless of their fitness or ability. The changed condition of affairs made it essential that the association should join in the endeavor to elevate the profession of teaching by making known other occupations to women who feel themselves unqualified for teaching but look upon it as their inevitable vocation. In 1890 the plan of conducting a bureau of occupations was adopted, and, under the able management of Miss Eva M. Tappan, much good work has been done, which may be still further extended in the near future, if the members should do all in their power to increase its efficiency and make known its aims.

Papers on “Women’s Gifts to Educational Institutions,” “Endowments and Needs of Women’s Colleges,” “Work of Alumni for Their Colleges,” “The Idea of the College,” and “Educational Progress in America,” have corroborated

the observation and experience of nearly every member of the association, and have shown the importance of endeavoring to attract public attention to the financial needs of American colleges and universities. A glance at the list of institutions legally termed colleges, which is given in the report of the bureau of education, is a sufficient proof that better colleges, not more colleges, are demanded. The committee on endowment of colleges has the difficult but important task of representing the association in its desire to strengthen already existing institutions for women, and to discourage the establishment of institutions with inadequate endowment. Their work is one which can and should be sustained by each and every alumna.

A bureau of collegiate information has been established, under the direction of Mrs. Kate Morris Cone of Hartford, Vt. Its aim is to gather information on the various topics allied to the higher education of women, for the use of persons making investigations into the different phases of the subject. There is a great demand for articles which of theory. The coöperation of the members is needed in supplying the bureau with information of a definite character, in order that its usefulness to inquiring correspondents may be constantly increased. Closely allied with this work is an attempt to make a complete bibliography of the literature pertaining to the higher education of women. This piece of work is nearly complete, largely owing to the assiduous labor of Miss E. P. Huntington, and it is very desirable that its early publication should be secured.

It is interesting to note a movement which, though not strictly one of the forms of activity carried on by the association, is a direct outgrowth of the spirit and purpose which has been fostered by the organization of collegiate alumnæ. At one of the meetings held in Washington, a paper was read by Miss Alla W. Foster, on “The Relation of Women to the Governing Boards and Faculties of Colleges.” No definite action on the subject was taken, but since that time several positions of trust, both on governing boards and faculties, have been opened to women. Realizing the seriousness of the responsibilities which have been intrusted to them, the members of this association living in and near Boston, who are serving as college trustees, have held several conferences. Five women, representing the governing boards of four different colleges, have joined in the discussion of such subjects as the organization of boards of trustees, methods of financial administration, the selection and appointment of teachers, the relation of alumnæ trustees to alumnæ associations, and the status of special students. So much benefit has been derived from the frank and full discussion of these subjects that this group of women has been asked to serve as a committee on collegiate administration, for the purpose of making still more effective the influence which this association is striving to wield in behalf of progress in collegiate education for women.

It must be evident that the aim of the association, viz., to unite alumnæ of different institutions for practical educational work, has been attained by simple and direct methods. Its influence has been quietly but constantly growing. Among the many convincing proofs that the existence of the association is justified, are the facts that its members are exempt from certain examinations at Oxford University, England; that an appeal has come from a high official of the government in India to place the resources of the association at his service in an attempt to reform their educational system; and that the data and information we have collected and can command are constantly sought by educational experts.

In seeking for the factor which has accomplished this result, we find it has been a strict adherence to the fundamental principle of the association. The members of the association, while working as individuals in other organizations for many and varied objects, are here bound by one tie; and great as are the temptations to divert the strength of this association from its legitimate field, the members have refrained from doing so, and by a concentration of effort, which otherwise might easily be squandered, have won respect and confidence, which should be jealously guarded and steadily increased by the faithful loyalty and personal interest of every woman within its ranks. It is of course impossible to record the many friendly ties which have been formed, or the helpfulness of the social relations between members, but all these circumstances, no less than more definite intellectual activities, prove the value and importance of the association.

Henry Drummond has said, “The kingdom of God is a society of the best men working for the best end, with the best methods,” and he pleads for its realization in the daily activities of mankind. It is not too much to say that the aim, the method, and the spirit of the Association of Collegiate Alumnæ should be in harmony with this thought.



Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Vol. 2., ed. May, Eliza Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand and McNally, 1894).