AAUW-Asheville: Quietly Making A Difference For 100 Years

- By Pat Argue -

Women’s History Month is the perfect time to profile an organization without which Asheville, the county and the country wouldn’t be the special places they are today. UNC-A, The Literacy Council, Friends of the Library, the juvenile court system, pre-k school programs, and on goes the list of other entities which can trace their origins to one of Asheville’s oldest but most overlooked organizations: its branch of AAUW (aauw.org - formerly American Association of University Women). On March 15, our state’s largest branch with 165 members will have a lively kick-off for our centennial year’s fun events, publicity and publications.

AAUW-logoHowever, in keeping with this issue’s theme of non-failure, if assured of success, national and local members would doubtless implement the ideas in the upcoming AAUW research report, Solving the Equation: Women in Engineering and Computing, which will feature the latest data on girls’ achievement in subjects related to engineering and computing, how few women are working in these fields, and what can be done. We would also eradicate the most pressing issues that women face today, from the gender pay gap to human trafficking.

Closer to home, our active public advocacy group led the branch’s participation in and co-sponsorship of, 2014’s voter registration events, candidate forums, the county’s Women’s Agenda Assembly, and Moral Monday events. Branch member, Senator Terry Van Duyn says, “As an elected official, I’m especially grateful to the Advocacy Group. The changes the Legislature made around Voter ID may have a disproportional effect on women. This is because many women change their names when they marry or divorce. The AAUW took this issue on and did the hard, grass roots-level work, educating the public about changes in the law and getting them registered to vote. I look forward to visits from my AAUW sisters on Women’s Advocacy Day.”

Throughout the decades, hundreds of local AAUW women conquered possible fear to succeed with innumerable worthy efforts. Our branch began on March 27, 1915 when sixteen alumnae met to form the “Western Carolina Branch of the Southern Association of College Women,” whose name became the Asheville Branch of AAUW in1939. By 1915’s end, twenty-eight women were in the branch, slowly changing their own and other’s lives, as we continue to do today. One of the first community projects began in December 1915 when each member contributed $2 to fund materials for the Moonlight School Movement—night schools for mountaineer literacy, which continued through the 1930’s. Eventually forty members taught in those schools after each completing the Laubach training course, a forerunner of the Literacy Council of Buncombe County.

When local officials, academics and/or merchants asked for help, AAUW usually answered “yes” and sprang into action. In 1919 as a response to the desire to make Asheville a convention city, members each contributed $5 and recruited the national convention of the Women’s Clubs Federation. Community work centered on helping the Salvation Army, support for Travelers Aid, and visiting patients in the local sanitariums. Other projects included working to improve standards in colleges for women, to establish night schools, to help set up a juvenile court system, and to improve the probation system.

In 1939, when asked by Pack Library to collect books for the first bookmobile, they acquired thousands of books. In 1942 the branch helped organize “Friends of the Library” which had four hundred members by its first year’s end. From 1945-46 when Asheville-Buncombe College, now UNC-A, sought national accreditation, 4000 reference books were purchased and donated by members. Our donated phonograph records helped create the College’s music department library.

The longest-lived project was the Refugee Shop started in August 1940 at national AAUW’s suggestion as a temporary thrift shop selling used clothing to provide wartime aid to British women refugees. A success from its opening day, this small shop expanded to include furniture and other housewares. Staffed by branch members, it continued five days a week for thirty years providing post-war aid to St. Maxin, France, as well as many local charities and causes. It closed June 1, 1971 after earning more than $125,000 and receiving a U.S. Treasury award. Probably because of its good deeds, the branch continued to grow locally and regionally. In 1975 members from Hendersonville started their own “satellite,” then became a regular branch in 1978.

Our archives are filled with many more successful branch projects, but individual members, those still working and those not, also give back to society by volunteering in many different agencies, including government. We are proud to have current state, city and county officer-holders, as well as National AAUW officers as past and present members. “It is truly an amazing organization,” said Sandy Bernard, Asheville Branch member and former AAUW National President. “Relevant and responsive, AAUW’s fearless vision of a brighter future for women is demonstrated not only by local action, but also by national funding for a wide variety of grants (campus outreach, career development and community action projects), programs ($tart $mart, Tech Trek, Elect Her) and fellowships for higher education.”

Because we partner with like-minded community agencies, we have always supported the YWCA. Today, members volunteer their time, talent and treasures there to provide free daycare services at the drop-in center, which serves mothers who are students and/or job seekers.

Conquering personal fears and achieving success by making undergraduate education a reality for deserving women has always been important to members. In 1928 the branch established a revolving loan scholarship fund for high school graduates which eventually became a $100 scholarship to one woman each at UNCA & Warren Wilson. Thus began a proud tradition of providing scholarships whenever branch funds permitted.

All types of fundraisers, including passing the hat at meetings, usually paid for a small award most years. In 2002 to ensure permanent future scholarship funds, the branch created a perpetual endowment, the GEM (Gaining Educational Momentum) Fund. An IRS 501(c) (3) non-profit it awards undergraduate scholarships at A-B Tech and UNC-A to worthy, “non-traditional” women whose education has been interrupted or delayed. To date more than 58 awards have been given to women ages 23-57, many of whom are single moms. GEM’s annual fundraiser at the historic Fernihurst mansion on AB-Tech’s campus is Sunday, June 7 from 4-6 and is open to the public.

One current recipient echoes what many others have said: “This scholarship is important to me and my education because it helps me to focus on my studies more and worry about bills less. As I strive to improve the lives of my family by getting my education it warms my heart to know there are people out there that care if I succeed. I am a 41-year-old single mother that after years of raising my babies decided it was time to finally go back and get those degrees I had always dreamed of. Since the first half of my life has been filled with hardship and all the things I had to do, I decided to follow my dreams and make the second half full of happiness. After I receive my Associates in the Arts I will be transferring to UNCA to earn my Bachelors. After that, the sky is the limit!”

Branch President Ann Clarke Snell agrees and relates her story, with which many can identify, of leaving college at 19 and working as a secretary to put her husband through graduate school while raising two children. She says, “After reading Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, I found myself becoming a full-blown feminist, which I am to this day. I realized it was my time to return to college and law school. Throughout the whole process I was fearful. Returning to school after a long hiatus and with responsibilities for being a wife and mother, I was challenged but happier with that than I had been. Doing work that was not specifically woman’s work fulfilled my need to do something different. The intellectual aspects of law and the fact that a case actually does end appealed to me. At some point the last appeal has been taken and there is some kind of closure. Many times I am fearful, but having gotten through earlier challenges, it is not as hard to believe that I can do it.”

Our monthly luncheon meetings on the first Thursdays are open to the public and feature speakers who discuss issues pertaining to education, equality, and social justice. We also offer a monthly lunch bunch, book groups, film groups, international dining, and an active public advocacy group that are open to all members. Other groups form as interest demands. Joining one or more of them is a wonderful way to meet new friends, participate in lively discussions, and maybe find someone who is familiar with your home town or college. Our dedicated sisterhood includes six life-time members (50 consecutive years of membership). Many members have lived all over the country but have always found a home at local AAUW branches with other intelligent, compassionate, fun-loving women. So, if you seek that home, our door is always open. Come make women’s history!

For more information about AAUW: http://asheville-nc.aauw.net

Pat Argue, a retired educator, found an AAUW home when she moved to the area in 1996.

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