Starting April 7, 2021, AAUW members will vote on a proposed bylaw change providing that membership shall be open to anyone who supports our mission. I wish to share with you my journey in regard to this controversial topic.
The last time AAUW open membership was proposed, I voted against it (a blog post on this appeared Feb. 27, 2018). This was because 1) a friend who was a member of the national Lobby Corps told me that she felt strongly that being “highly educated women” gave them more credibility in the halls of Congress, and 2) with the increasing number of women in the United States to hold at least a two-year college degree, it did not seem necessary to expand the pool of those eligible to join AAUW.
During one of the recent national discussions of the proposed change in membership requirements, I asked if there was any truth to what my friend in the Lobby Corps had told me. The panelist said no: what legislators care most about is whether or not you are eligible to vote for them. This was a “duh” moment for me. My years of experience in advocating for AAUW legislative priorities persuade me that the panelist was right. Perhaps it gave my friend more self-confidence to hold a degree, but a woman’s self-confidence comes from the sum of her qualities, not from just one. AAUW’s research and legislative advisory capability should give us confidence in approaching legislators.
As for the pool of potential AAUW members, it is indeed large enough as it is. I have repeatedly emphasized that the battle for college degrees for women has been won. But the question is whether it is diverse enough. The research recently commissioned by AAUW of Florida showed that fewer women of color hold degrees than white women: while 41% of white women hold at least an Associate degree, and therefore are qualified for AAUW membership under current requirements, only 23% of Black women and 28% of Hispanic women would qualify. In addition, we learned that 66% of black women and 57% of Hispanic women live below the level of economic security for their family type.
So shouldn’t we encourage these women to get a college degree? According to the Florida State College in Jacksonville (FSCJ) website, “Twelve credits, which is considered a “full-time” load for a semester, cost $1,259 for Florida resident students. Figure in your book costs at about $80 per credit hour, and you are looking at a total bill of about $2,219 for a full-time semester.” Of course, there’s financial aid. I used FSCJ’s net price calculator to estimate cost for a 35-year-old single mother with two children, earning less than $30,000 per year. She received $3,101 in financial aid. The cost was $15,203 including $10,396 for room and board. So if we subtract the room and board, we get $4,807. That is still too much for this woman!
If we want to help all women and girls with diversity, equity, inclusion, and economic security, we need not hold ourselves above the ones who need help. We might gain valuable insights from the people who are experiencing economic challenges and inequity. Moreover, we might be seen as working together rather than swooping down from above to be “saviors”. Our national Strategic Plan 2.0 calls for an increased emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. While education remains an area of emphasis, that area is focused on equity, access, and freedom from sex discrimination at every educational level.
We have been told by national board members that it is becoming more difficult to secure corporate grants when we are seen as exclusionary. Those grants have enabled us to maintain and expand Start Smart, Work Smart, NCCWSL, our research publications, and our lobby and policy advisory activity. We have been told that member dues cover only 15% of an already reduced budget and dramatically reduced staff. We need those grants if we are to retain and strengthen our position as a national force for equity for women and girls.