6194850By Pam Thiel, AAUW La Crosse, 2013

Our National Beginnings
AAUW has been empowering women since 1881!

Marion Talbot, a recent graduate of Boston College, at the urging of her mother, invited 16 alumnae from eight Eastern and Midwestern Colleges and Universities, including two from the University of Wisconsin, to meet at her home in Boston. This was an era when few women achieved higher education and there was little work or encouragement for those that did. Discouraged by the lack of opportunities available to them, the women discussed how they would join together to help other women attend college and assist those who had already graduated.

This first meeting in 1881 paved the way for the creation of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA) — the predecessor of the American Association of University Women.

The word spread and in just one year there were 65 members. The Association of Collegiate Alumnae continued to grow and by 1885 had nearly 1,300 members. This growth, at least in part, can be contributed to the 1885 statement by a prominent Boston physician that higher education adversely affected women’s health. A study to refute this accusation was the first research undertaken by the Association of Collegiate Alumnae.

In 1921, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae, and the Southern Association of College Women joined together to form the American Association of University Women. To mark this historic merger, there was a reception at the White House attended by First Lady, Mrs. Warren Harding.

Our State Beginnings

In 1894, Milwaukee founded the first branch of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae in Wisconsin and functioned in a statewide capacity. In 1908, Madison became the second official branch in Wisconsin. From 1908 to 1922, seven more branches were added in Wisconsin.

Now Our La Crosse Beginnings

On January 11, 1922, Mrs. Marvin Rosenberry, then national president of AAUW from Madison, met with women of La Crosse in Library Hall and gave an excellent explanation of AAUW and made it clear that a branch in La Crosse would be a real service to the community. The group voted unanimously to establish a local branch and elected a temporary chairman with power to appoint committees on nominations, membership, policies, and developing a constitution.

Then on March 7, 1922, 48 interested women met in Library Hall to form a local branch of AAUW. They knew they were embarking on something significant and important.
The proposed constitution was read, carefully reviewed, and then adopted. Mrs. T. H. Brindley, grandmother of present members Mary and Kathy Reiman, was elected the first branch president.

Here is what the first part of the 1922 Constitution stated:

Article 1. Name
Section I. The name of this organization shall be the College Club of La Crosse- La Crosse Branch of AAUW.

Article 2. Purpose
Section I. The purpose of this organization shall be (1) to cooperate with the National Association in its general work and (2) to unite the college women of La Crosse and vicinity for social companionship and for the promotion of educational and other interests beneficial to the community.

Article 3. Membership
Section I. There shall be national and local members. Any woman eligible to AAUW may become a national member.

Section II. Local members shall have had a minimum of one year academic work in college or universities on the accredited list of AAUW, or in such colleges or universities as may be added at the discretion of the Board of Directors.

After signing the constitution, Mrs. T. H. Brindley, the new branch president, proposed four areas for further study: 1) equal pay for equal work; 2) assistance for needy students; 3) women on boards—local, state and national; and 4) education for intelligent voting.

These are the same issues we are working on today! We have made progress, but our work is far from done. Nothing less than eternal vigilance will keep us moving forward. We must continue going back to these same issues with renewed vigor!

Our founding members were not just ladies that got together to have tea in their hats and gloves. They did that and I am sure enjoyed each other’s company, but they were more importantly women of substance. Keep in mind that this is 1922. Of the 48 charter members, twelve or one fourth had advanced degrees, mostly Masters of Science, but there was also a doctor, a dentist, and a Ph. D. As you would expect, most of the degrees were from the University of Wisconsin, but six were from Smith College, including our first president. Another four received degrees from Columbia. Other colleges and universities represented were Northwestern, Stanford, Wellesley, Laurence, Marquette, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana, and Iowa. Quite impressive indeed!

Many of the 48 charter members had local La Crosse names that you will recognize, such as Martindale, Desmond, Coate, Wing, Hixon, Trane, and others.

Leona Farnam, a charter member, was interviewed by the La Crosse Tribune in 1981, the 100th anniversary of national AAUW. Leona was 81. She said, “Lots of the husbands of members of the College Club didn’t see why their wives wanted to get into anything like that: most of them thought it was ridiculous. Perhaps, they thought we were flying out of the nest too soon.” It isn’t always easy to change the societal role of women, even within a family.

Early monthly meeting of the branch were held in the now razed Cargill House that was on the corner of West Avenue and Cass Street. The annual rent was $50. In the depression, they couldn’t pay the fee and had to start meeting in members’ homes.

It wasn’t until 1932 that the College Club of La Crosse was recognized officially as a Wisconsin AAUW branch.

National AAUW had high standards for accrediting the colleges and universities from which they would accept graduates as national members. Many private liberal arts colleges qualified immediately, as did many state universities. But even as late as 1949, only 16 teachers colleges were eligible and none of them were in Wisconsin.

Criteria for selection included high scholastic attainment; adequate provisions for women students (including housing and physical education); recognition of women in rank, salary, policy-making positions and faculty and administrative staff; intellectual freedom; and a sound basis of liberal arts education before specializing.

Not until 1962 was La Crosse State Teachers College accepted as an accredited college of AAUW despite years of prodding by the La Crosse branch and other female alumnae.


We have done many things over the years to raise money, including: card parties, candy, nuts, and stationery sales, and magazine subscriptions to name a few. In 1953, we earned $175 by taking the school census; a project deemed more bother than it was worth for subsequent years.

A Scholarship Bridge Tournament as a fundraiser started in 1953, and for many years it was the main source of funds for our scholarships. This later became a study group and a fundraiser. A bridge group continues today and now includes other card games.

Still another fundraising scheme involved Viterbo and La Crosse State students, who under AAUW sponsorship, worked as fashion models in local style shows. Retail exhibitors paid modeling fees to AAUW rather than to the girls. The College-Board earned $175 for AAUW in the late 1950s.

Children’s Theatre started as a study group and then became a fundraiser that thrived for more than 30 years. The idea was to awaken 1960s children to the pleasures and excitement of high-quality, live, dramatic entertainment—as opposed to the passive entertainment of commercial TV.
Early productions were based on fairy tales such as– Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella—or popular children’s literature like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. Later productions focused more on folklore like Native American legends and Hmong cultural traditions.

AAUW provided the actors and technical crews and area public schools sent thousands of students to watch the shows. Performance venues included the old Coleman Auditorium at Western, Viterbo’s Fine Art Center, and finally Morris Hall Theatre at UW-L.

The first home tour was in June of 1960 and featured six homes including Gunnar Gunderson’s in Ebner Coulee. The event raised nearly $800. This successful fund raiser continued for over 30 years. It was discontinued when many other organizations initiated Home Tours.

The ever-popular Christmas Ball was first held in 1947 and 115 people attended. The Christmas Ball was a viable fundraiser for various scholarships from 1947-1968.

It was a semi-formal dance and quite a prestigious and glamorous affair. It was usually held in the Stoddard Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom with a local orchestra on a Friday or Saturday near Christmas. Special invitations were sent to all La Crosse college girls, at home or away, who in turn were expected to buy tickets, invite an escort, and enjoy an evening dancing. AAUW members were also invited.

It was a great idea for its time and flourished for about twenty years until the social climate changed and students lost interest in dress-up parties. We were in luck because after the ball was over, fate would have it that the Art Fair on the Green would fall into our lap!

In 1959, the first outdoor Art Fair on the Green was sponsored by the Fine Arts Association of La Crosse and it was hoped to become an annual event. Twenty-four of Wisconsin’s leading artists offered their oil and watercolor paintings for sale.

In 1960, artists were charged $1 entry fee and 20% of sales. In 1961, Dr. Dale Kendrick, a first year art professor at the college, joined the Fine Arts Association. To draw attention to the event, rising like a circus tent above the entrance to the Art Fair at State Street, was a huge parachute. It belonged to Dale and he facilitated its use throughout the 60s. What an eye catcher that must have been!

From 1962-65, the art fair was included in the Coulee Region Arts Festival. The entry fee was raised to $5 with 10% of sales. In 1966, the Fine Arts Association was dissolved and the college probably sponsored the fair.

Then in 1967, AAUW takes over. The first chairman of the Art Fair was  Joan (Mrs. Edward) Koonmen, an artist and mother of our Erica Koonmen.

In 1969, rain on Saturday forced the 40 artists into the corridors of Main Hall, but it didn’t dampen the motivation or enthusiasm and the next year’s event was bigger and better. 1970 brought clear skies and 2400 people attended, each paying fifty cents to attend and there was a $900 profit. In the 1970s, the number of artists and the proceeds continued to grow. In 1977, a location move was made from the green in front of Main Hall to the larger space that we now occupy.

During the 1970s and 80s, the Art Fair was not the only source of scholarship funds. Home tour, Scholarship Bridge and other projects funded scholarships. However, Art Fair proceeds continued to pay for three high school girls to attend summer art camp and for grants each year throughout the decade to three Viterbo and three UW-L female art majors.

When in 1976, one of the UW-L scholarships went to a music student, the art department vehemently objected. The AAUW board passed a resolution that two scholarships would be granted the art department and that the third would be given to a student in the arts at the discretion of AAUW. A delicate balance was reached for our giving.

In 2007, Art Fair made about $15,000, with $1,500 going to the general fund and the remaining to our Foundation for scholarships.

2008 was the 50th anniversary of the Art Fair and we hosted a celebration for the artists and members on the Saturday evening of the event at the Pump House. At the Fair itself that year, approximately 100 artists participated. This was especially exciting because we were down to about 40 artists in 1998.

Over the years, our scholarships have changed and how we fund them, but we continue to provide opportunities for higher education to talented and deserving students. Today our chief fund raiser for scholarships is the Art Fair on the Green. Since our scholarship program began in 1935, we have provided over a half million dollars in scholarships.

In 1967, the branch set up our own Educational Foundation as a Wisconsin non-profit corporation. And in 2010, the La Crosse AAUW Foundation became the AAUW La Crosse Branch Fund at the La Crosse Community Foundation. The Branch Board of Directors and the Scholarship Committee serve as the Fund Advisory Committee.

In the early 1970’s a May scholarship brunch was initiated so members could meet the scholarship recipients. At the 2012 May brunch, we awarded $23,000. In addition to scholarships, we award grants to programs or projects that match our mission. We have also sponsored several local students to attend the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders annually held in Washington, DC.

Branch Meetings and Study Groups

We haven’t spent all of our time and energy on fundraising, even if at times it feels like it. There were also monthly branch meetings with stimulating and entertaining programs, and study groups to insure our life-long learning.

BookFellows is our longest running study group. Helen Dorset was a founding member of La Crosse AAUW from a pioneering family in La Crosse. She received a B.A. from Stanford and a M.A. from Columbia. She was an English teacher and scholar, and most probably a single lady because there was no male name associated with hers. She initiated Bookfellows in 1935 for women who enjoyed delving into literary subjects. Helen was the president of the group from 1935-65.

Each year a theme is selected and then members choose an author or book within the theme and present a paper for discussion. Over the near- 80 years, there have been some second generation Bookfellows carrying out the tradition of their mothers.

The current Contemporary Authors Study Group is an offshoot of Bookfellows according to Pat Sheehan, the current contact for Bookfellows. Alice Ross, the current co-chair of Contemporary Authors, recalls that the group meets at 2:00 PM like Bookfellows because that was good time to find college students to babysit.

The Vital People Study Group was formed in 1958 and its goal was to be a welcome group for new AAUW members to acquaint them to the La Crosse area. Reports were provided monthly on La Crosse, its history and people. After about three years, the reports expanded to include vital people in general and ranged from Jane Addams to Nancy Reagan.

Probably in the 1980’s, Vital People and another long-standing study group, Art Study II, merged because there were many overlapping members. This group disbanded about 2006.

Hearth and Home has been active for over 30 years. Members get together to enjoy each other’s company and visit interesting places. One of the group’s favorite meetings is in February for Valentine’s Day.

Our newest study group, AAUW in Action was initiated in 2009 by Erica Koonmen as a springboard for community service activities that promote AAUW’s mission. They have worked on a variety of projects, including but certainly not limited to, cyber-bullying, women’s history, literacy, and with YWCA’s transitional housing.

In 1981, our branch had 17 study groups and over 300 members. Today we have five study groups: Bookfellows, Contemporary Authors, Bridge or Card Games, Hearth and Home, and AAUW in Action.

Issues and Projects

AAUW has always championed civil rights along with women’s rights. On February 16 of 1953, Mrs. Wesley Bertelson, president of the branch, sent a letter to the La Crosse Tribune deploring the fact that a black woman student from the La Crosse Teachers College had been barred by Stoddard Hotel management from serving as a waitress at an AAUW luncheon because of her race. Ironically, the speaker at the luncheon had been James Dorsey, a well-known Black Milwaukee attorney, whose topic had been brotherhood.

In her letter, Mrs. Bertelson pointed out that the AAUW policy since the 1940s was “No woman who holds a degree from an accredited institution will be excluded from AAUW on account of her race, color, or creed.” She went on to say, “The mouthing of fine sentiment means nothing unless we are willing actually to put into practice the Golden Rule. There is no room in free America for the sort of doctrine that proclaims we are first-class citizens, but anyone who differs in color is a second-class citizen and, therefore, subject to discrimination.” The Stoddard Hotel management must have changed their policies because AAUW continued to have their Christmas ball there into the 1960s. Once again proving that a strong voice can make a difference!

In the 1960s, branch members pioneered volunteerism in area public schools, including a series of lectures on fine art. In the 1970s, we fought for adoption of Title IX and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Locally, we worked to change the school board from appointed to elected positions and several of our members have served on the school board.

We also helped to establish New Horizons, a shelter for women and children. In 1977, we were supporting members of the Pump House, a showcase for area artists and thespians and a meeting place for arts related organizations. In the 1980s, branch members volunteered hundreds of hours to help Hmong refugees, especially women, with language, shopping, and social customs. And over the years, we have delivered thousands of mobile meals. We have a rich legacy to be proud of!

To achieve positive societal change, we have often joined forces with other like-minded organizations like the League of Women Voters on voter education and candidate forums, hosting international travelers, and a speech by no other than Susan B. Anthony.

Examples of Recent Community Projects

In coordination with AAUW Louisiana and the La Crosse community, we provided the Plaquemines Parish Libraries in Louisiana with over $5,000 to help rebuild their holdings and services after Hurricane Katrina.

We helped facilitate the Pennies for Peace program that works to build and supply schools in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The multi-county initiative raised $42,000.

”25 Books for 25 Years” was started last year and is planned again for this year. It involves giving books on women’s history to women and girls in difficult situations so the stories will inspire them.

In 2010, we received the Emily “Sis” Hutson award for volunteerism by the YWCA. This says a lot about our group and what we mean to the community! This is part of legacy and our future!

Other Anniversary Celebrations

We have had other anniversary celebrations in the past. At the 30th birthday party in 1952, a skit called “I Remember” was presented. In the La Crosse paper, there was a photograph of Mrs. George Bunge, founding member and first secretary of the branch and president from 1923-27 and 1930-32, cutting the cake with Mrs. Chandler Campbell, the daughter of Mrs. Kenneth Salzer, a charter member. It is noteworthy and foreign to us today that despite three women in the photo, there was no mention of a feminine name–only their husbands.

It wasn’t until 1972 that the La Crosse Branch board officially decided to refer to members by their given names in the minutes and in the yearbook instead of by their husbands.

According to Lou Smith, a past president, “It always seemed strange to me that we had Art Hebberd’s name in our minutes when Mary was doing all of the work and did Bob Stanley run for school board or was it his wife? “ It still took several years before we totally lost the male name from our branch president listing. In 1976, we still said Mrs. Kenneth (Jean) Scheid. In 1978, we listed the branch president as Mrs. Janet Schilling. By 1986, we said Dr. Judith Green, and in 1988, it was simply Lou Smith.

Now back to our celebrations. The 40th birthday party was a tea held at the Hixon House. Very appropriate since Mrs. F. P. (Alice) Hixon was one of the charter members.

Our 80th birthday celebration was an old-fashioned tea party held at the Congregational Church in Sept. of 2002. Honored guests included Nancy Rustad, the Association president, Ann Gustafson, WI president, and 16 of our honorary life members. La Crosse Mayor, John Medinger, was also in attendance and proclaimed the week AAUW Week and shared his thoughts on education.

What Does Our Future Hold?

AAUW advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. By joining AAUW, we belong to a community that breaks through educational and economic barriers so all women have a chance. La Crosse AAUW is just such a community!

At the 1989 National Association Convention in Washington, DC., National president Sarah Harder from Wisconsin and recipient of assistance from the La Crosse branch, stated “We must look beyond business as usual and know that we are making history. What we do or don’t do today will become the record of our time. AAUW’s very special power is the credibility inherited from those who came before. Will those looking back wonder why we sat on the assets of this great organization? Or will they see that we have risked what is necessary to secure gains for women tomorrow?”

Dottie Dedo, branch and WI state president, wrote in 1981, “Membership in AAUW is a commitment to excellence. We are asked to give the very best of ourselves… Excellence serves to inspire and electrify each member… A frame of mind put into action. It is the best road map for our success into the future.”

We need to make sure that we have the enthusiasm and courage of those 48 La Crosse women back in 1922 to move us forward to 2022. It is only 9 short years until we reach the century mark. How impressive a record we have had for the last 91 years! Now we need to move the vision of our foremothers forward!