Unsung Heroes: The Association of Collegiate Alumnae

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ACA was incorporated in 1899.

The ACA was incorporated in 1899 for “the purpose of uniting alumnae of different institutions for practical educational work.” (Courtesy AAUW Archives, Washington, DC)

In 1881, Marion Talbot and Ellen Swallow Richards organized a meeting of 15 women in Boston in order to discuss the lack of opportunities for college-educated women. During that meeting, they discussed the formation of an organization to further the goal of improving women’s educational opportunities. A few months later, in January of 1882, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae was officially organized by 65 college-educated women, representing eight colleges. At the January meeting, the organization’s Articles of Incorporation were drafted, which included the organization’s goal: “For practical education work, for collection and publication of statistical and other information concerning education, and in general, for the maintenance of high standards of education.”

The organization’s headquarters were set up in Washington, D.C., and local chapters emerged in cities such as New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston. In 1885, the ACA’s first research report was released, debunking the myth that college can adversely affect a woman’s health. After the turn of the century, the organization began its campaign for equal pay by supporting the first federal pay equity legislation. In 1907, they began their study on pay inequality with Ellen Richards’ Desirable Tendencies in Professional and Technical Education for Women.

The organization did not officially endorse women’s suffrage until 1915. At a meeting in San Francisco, members voted 247-19 in favor of officially endorsing suffrage because education “in both its academic and social aspects is controlled by the electors, be it Resolved that we, as a body of college women dedicated to the promotion of education and desirous of furthering our ability for usefulness, favor suffrage for women.”

After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, the organization continued their work to promote higher education and equal pay. In 1921, the ACA merged with the Southern Association of College Women to form the American Association of University Women, or AAUW.

Today, AAUW has more than 170,000 members in the United States and they continue their mission of empowering women.


  1. Using the Digital Classroom’s historical timeline, research the history of women’s education in the 19th century. What kind of educational opportunities existed for women in the 19th century? Based on this information, why was the ACA a groundbreaking organization, or “unsung hero”?
  2. In 1905, the ACA supported the first federal pay equity legislation. Is the mission of the ACA, or today’s AAUW, still relevant today? Why or why not?
  3. Why did the organization support woman suffrage? Why did the association link education, political participation and suffrage? Why did they wait until 1915 to make this endorsement?

Research assistance for this blog post was provided by AAUW’s “Our History: The story of AAUW’s place in women’s history”

The Newseum Digital Classroom is a free resource featuring primary sources, interactives, historic newsreels, videos and lesson plans that bring history, journalism and the First Amendment to life for students.

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