DOWNERS GROVE – For years, one organization in Downers Grove has worked to raise awareness for women's rights. Founded on a mission to educate, empower and advocate, the American Association of University Women, a national nonprofit with a long list of local chapters including Downers Grove, has continuously fought for social change and gender equity.
Seventy years have passed since the Downers Grove branch formed, its history now buried in laminated books stuffed with old photos, faded news clippings, dated pamphlets and past meeting notes. At a 70th anniversary luncheon held Aug. 24 at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Downers Grove, those little souvenirs were scattered across a pair of tables, drawing up many moments of reflection.
Women have always faced barriers, said Joyce Tumea, who has been with the area AAUW for 38 years. The issues of gender inequality – which can take place at school, work or even at home – are nothing new. It wasn't too long ago that women were granted the right to vote and allowed to hold political office, Tumea added.
Just taking into account that the 19th Amendment was adopted into the U.S. Constitution almost a century ago, she pointed to a simple sign of hope admist the struggle.
"It's very interesting and important to know that women have always found a way," Tumea said.
The Downers Grove AAUW, for example, is one. The women-focused organization offers a network of support and resources, a place to uplift one another, especially through tough times. Guests at the high tea luncheon talked of how they learned about the AAUW by word of mouth or an invitation from a friend. Here, they found camaraderie and began working toward a common goal: to spotlight women and young girls.
In the early 1990s, the AAUW Education Foundation published "How Schools Shortchange Girls," a report that revealed how the public education system failed to offer and encourage girls to take more STEM-based courses. These subjects are the ones where "girls are still being told are not suitable for them," wrote Alice McKee, who served as president of the education foundation in 1992.
During that time, the Downers Grove AAUW held its own roundtable with 31 local leaders to discuss gender equity and formed the Initiative for Educational Equity Task Force, which stayed active until 1998. An extension of those efforts lives through TechSavvy, a daylong program geared toward sixth- through ninth-grade girls.
In recent years, the Downers Grove AAUW partnered with the League of Women Voters of Downers Grove, Woodridge and Lisle for the Equal Pay Day Rally, as a way to voice concerns about the gender pay gap.
"I'm old enough to know that men were hired before me," branch president Mary Ann Dion said about the grave reality most women face in the workforce. "Men were hired for higher salaries than me."
Dion, a 16-year member, pointed to the Downers Grove AAUW's scholarships as one of its biggest initiatives to promote higher education. The Back to the Books scholarships, which award $1,500 to $3,000, were designed for women who sought to return to college after a three-year or longer hiatus.
"I did get a good education, but I did it later," Dion continued. "I didn't do it right out of school. If I had not done that, it would've been much more difficult. That's why we give out scholarships to women who go back to school because we know how serious it is."
Since 1984, the Downers Grove AAUW has raised more than $115,000 and helped 67 local women pursue their associate, bachelor's and graduate degrees. Dion and Kim Venzon, another longtime member, noted that their annual book sale – which dates back to 1959 and has grown into a three-day festival – remains an important fundraiser, especially for the college scholarships.
Before Dion stood at the podium to deliver a speech, she sat a table and chatted with some members. Scanning the room, she smiled at familiar faces, the generations of women who sat next to their loving husbands, daughters and grandchildren.
The Downers Grove AAUW is rooted in tradition, and the future of the organization is on the horizon. For now, Dion leaves with a piece of advice, from one woman to another.
"Understand that girls are just as smart, just as capable," she said. "Don't let anyone put you down. Go be a little brave. You can't settle. You have to try a little harder."