Boston — The American Association of University Women (AAUW) is sometimes pictured as the cream of the suburban elite -- well-educated women sponsoring early childhood education seminars or local art shows. AAUW does provide these kinds of services. But the organization also-does a lot more, and not just in suburbs.
* A local branch of AAUW members on Alaska's Kodiak Island parlays a $600 AAUW national grant into $57,000 in community support for a women's crisis center.
* A member in Mississippi reports that AAUW is "helping the status of women" by promoting appointments of women to policymaking positions in the state.
* The national staff of AAUW, headquartered in Washington, D.C., provides testimony in support of federal legislation on domestic violence.
This reputation as a moderate activist group is one of its drawing cards, according to Mary A. Grefe, outgoing president of the 100-year-old organization.
"We are not into militant strategies, and we are not political in the sense of supporting candidates, but we do address issues," says Mrs. Grefe, who is from Des Moines, Iowa. "Throughout the years we have taken consistent stands. That is what gives us credibility. We are not a 'Jill- come-lately.'"
Says Susan Pratt, an enthusiastic member from Jones, Okla.: "AAUW is an outlet for women that is action-oriented. It is not just tea parties, but a place to use talents."
As in the beginning, when two women met in Boston to discuss opening higher education to more women and locating wider opportunities for women with college training, AAUW is seeking the best ways to advance equality for women. Now their tradition of speaking out on issues may be taken a step further during the centennial celebration convention in Boston June 21-25.
"We are wrestling with the idea of whether or not AAUW should start a political action committee," says Mrs. Grefe, referring to the federally sanctioned political groups that accept contributions to be used on behalf of candidates who support their views.
"We are spending money educating people about issues," she says. If a legislator votes against those issues, she adds, why not get him or her out of office by electing a candidate who share AAUW's views? The topic will come up for discussion at the Boston convention.
"We're also thinking of setting up a legal defense fund for issues such as affirmative action," says Mrs. Grefe. AAUW has been asked to intercede in legal battles involving education, such as the Cornell Eleven case, where more than two dozen women have filed sex discrimination complaints against Cornell University. "Presently we do not have the structure to do it. It would have to be a separate arm."
At the Boston convention, 4,000 AAUW delegates will vote on such resolutions as calling for continued support for the Equal Rights Amendment, affirmation of the doctrine of separation of church and state, protection and establishment of shelters for victims of domestic violence, a consistent policy for refugees, and a comprehensive policy statement on energy. Afterward each resolution will be carried out by the 30-member board.
AAUW's activist agenda, which calls for support of the Equal Rights Amendment , has disenchanted a few members. One woman in Virginia maintains her membership begrudgingly, citing the value of local activities. Another woman points out that though the branch in the last city she lived in voted to give money directly to the campaign for the ERA, the branch in her current home town refuses to give any money for the effort.
"If you want to help the ERA, you have to do it yourself," she says.
But most AAUW officials says there is a good consensus among AAUW members to support the ERA. It was voted the No. 1 priority at the last national convention, and many states campaign vigorously for the amendment.
"It is possible we have lost a few members because of the issues, but the members are overwhelmingly supportive of the issue," says Janet LaGrange of Vinton, Iowa. Cora norman of Jackson, Miss., agrees.
"It's been a misfortune that we have lost members, but I think we have gained others because we have taken a stand on the issue," Dr. Norman says.
Another potential controversy for AAUW members arises because of their interest in families. They have helped to form a group called "Friends of the Family" to help educate the general public on the issues of parenting. The council will use the news media and AAUW's network of branches to reach the public. It is a joint project of AAUW, the Education Commission of the States, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the Distilled Spirits Council of the US. The involvement of the trade group for the liquor industry has brought some complaints, since alcoholism has undeniably caused families many problems. Mary Grefe defends their involvement.
"I can hold the Distilled Spirits Council responsible for alcoholism in this country," says Mrs. Grefe. "I think they are facing up to the fact that alcoholism hasm created family problems, and they want to help people deal with it. They are especially concerned about teen-agers."
The flurry of political activism in AAUW is not confined to the national level. In Iowa, AAUW is starting a lobby corps for the next legislative session. They will target everything from women's issues to environment and soil conservation. They also plan to sponsor a workshop for AAUW members and the general public on how to apply for and write grants, says Jane LaGrange, state president.
But state branches are equally busy in projects that are not political. Many states give scholarships and honor college and graduate students in their own state. And they are often very active in education projects.
In Oregon, AAUW members have helped school districts incorporate kindergartens into their school systems. In Oklahoma, women have given local seminars on health care and have started children's arts program.
In fact, sometimes state organizations chafe at having to contribute money to the national level, says Jane Ketchum, publc information chairman for Oregon AAUW.
"They feel it will just go to some woman studying bugs in India," Mrs. Ketchem says. She reminds members that some of the money does come back to states. In Oregon branches, national funds help a woman take an intensive course in Latin so she could teach it in the public high school. Using a national grant, a branch in Ashland made a slide show on women in nontraditional jobs.
Mary Grefe is saddened by this trend away from internationalism in AAUW.
"Only 16 percent of our membership wanted to give fellowships to foreign women," she says of a recent survey of members. "That's quite in contrast with our group's history. We will discuss at this convention whether or not to keep our membership in the International Federation of University Women."
During her term as president, Mary Grefe has fought the description of AAUW as elite. The first president in the organization not to have a doctorate degree, she ran because she felt the organization should be more in touch with the membership.
And at 190,000, the membership is healthy. Mrs. Grefe reports that 23,000 members have joined since last July. Though some branches admit they have a hard time attracting young women, AAUW's latest profile showed that 50 percent of all new members are between 21 and 35. The diversity in age in effect keeps the organization elastic.
"In Eugene [Oregon] there are lots of young single women," says Jane Ketchum. "But in the Dallas, half of our members are retired teachers. So our programs must reflect concerns of allm women, no matter what age.