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Leader, Target in Equity Fight, A.A.U.W. Builds on History

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A lesson in the ABC's of lobbying for gender equity in America's schools would probably have to begin with four letters: A.A.U.W.

Since it released a student poll in 1991 that found a significant self-esteem gap between boys and girls, the American Association of University Women has been both a leader in the cause and a lightning rod for criticism.

This old-line women's-advocacy group has made it a mission to insure girls not only get equal attention with boys in K-12 classrooms, but also can walk hallways free of sexual harassment.

Lately the Washington-based group, which accepts as members women and men who have a degree from a four-year college, has been lobbying for gender-equity provisions now pending in Congress.

It also seeks changes in state and local policy to promote educational equity, and urges districts and schools to evaluate their policies and practices using the group's Gender Equity Assessment Guide.

But such activism has prompted rebukes from those who question whether girls face serious inequities in schools and who wonder why the A.A.U.W. is complaining after two decades of marked educational progress by women.

As of 1992, women made up 55 percent of the enrollment in higher education, observed Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a top U.S. Education Department official in the Bush Administration.

Likewise, Linda Chavez, the John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank based in New York City, said of the A.A.U.W.: "I think they've damaged their credibility and their image in the academic world [with activities] that appear to be ideologically motivated."

But one member of the A.A.U.W., Donna Shavlik, the director of the office of women in higher education at the American Council on Education, said: "I think [the A.A.U.W.'s] effort to focus on girls was really born out of the idea that ... if we don't change things for girls, changing things for women is going to continue to be a total hassle."

College Access, Birth Control

For the A.A.U.W., the decision some six years ago to take an activist stand on how girls fare in school and society was at once both a significant shift and a natural outgrowth of its long history of advocacy on women's and family issues.

The organization grew out of a meeting in Boston in 1881 where women who were recent college graduates--a rare breed then--began discussing working together to boost women's access to higher education and to career opportunities after graduation. They called themselves the Association of Collegiate Alumnae.

By the early 1900's the group was advocating child-labor laws, compulsory education, juvenile courts, and funding for public schools and libraries. In 1921, the group adopted its current name.

Over the years, the A.A.U.W. championed many causes: access to information on contraception, the Marshall Plan, the Equal Rights Amendment, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, nuclear disarmament.

Perhaps its activism on gender equity has seemed "radical" because by the mid-1980's, the formerly avant-garde A.A.U.W. was seen as middle-of-the-road, far less activist than, for example, the National Organization for Women.

The average age of its members hovered at around 55--and it was losing the members it had. In 1980, membership stood at about 190,000. By the mid-80's, it was between 110,000 and 120,000, said Anne L. Bryant, the group's executive director since 1986.

'Run With It'

The shift to focus research more on girls and K-12 gender equity came in the late 1980's from the A.A.U.W. Educational Foundation.

Since its inception, the foundation has awarded grants and educational and research fellowships.

As it approached the 1988 centennial of the first fellowships given to women, foundation officials noted they were receiving more and more grant proposals to look into gender-equity issues for girls.

Carol F. Stoel, who was the director of the foundation in the late 80's, said: "It was just a feeling that ... girls were not succeeding in fields in the same number boys were--in technology and science and math." She added that the many current and retired teachers among the members meant concern ran high for K-12 issues.

The foundation launched the Eleanor Roosevelt Fund, which has commissioned research on the status of girls and sexual harassment in schools and awarded fellowships for women public school teachers to improve the way they teach girls.

"Once the research was done, the association would take it and run with it--and that's what they did," said Mary Grefe, a past association president who was also the elected president of the foundation from 1985 to 1989.

Getting the word out and involving members at the grassroots level have been key parts of the A.A.U.W.'s Initiative for Educational Equity, formally launched in 1991.

When the group released "How Schools Shortchange Girls" in 1992, it spent more than $150,000 on publicity and a "summit" to showcase the issue--about $50,000 more than it paid to commission the study from Wellesley College.

It also emphasized outreach in a document it circulated to local chapters, or branches, in 1992. It urged local leaders to think how the initiative would help achieve "membership growth, visibility, and fund-raising goals."

Whether by design or happenstance, the A.A.U.W. saw an increase in its membership last year for the first time in 10 years. This year the growth was even larger; membership now stands at 152,361, up 12.8 percent over 1993.

However, in 1993 fewer than half the branches attracted more members. Members' annual financial contributions, while up this year, have also proved problematic.

But the status as an authority on education-equity issues is what Ms. Grefe said she always dreamed of for the A.A.U.W.

With a laugh, she said last week: "I can die happy."

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