The First Woman Member of Committee A

laura white

Laura A. White, source: University of Wyoming

BY JOERG TIEDE

Women professors were among the charter members at the AAUP’s founding, although their numbers in the early history of the Association are hard to reconstruct. In 1917 Vassar College professor Lucy Salmon was elected as the first woman member of council, and in 1925 Wellesley College professor Mary Calkins was the first woman elected as a vice president of the Association. Women not only played an active role in the early AAUP, their role in the profession was an early subject of study when the Association established Committee W on the Status of Women in Colleges and Universities in 1918 at the request of the Vassar chapter. That committee would issue its first reports in 1921 and 1924 but then ceased to operate for several decades.

A list published in the Association’s Bulletin in 1934 identifies four women who had served as “chairmen” (sic) of committees during the first 20 years of the AAUP, but it took until 1942 for the first woman, Professor Laura White of the University of Wyoming, to be appointed as a member of Committee A. Professor White began her career as an instructor of history at the university in 1913 and received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1917, after which she was promoted to professor. She was elected to AAUP membership in 1921, served her chapter as president in 1935-36, and the national AAUP on council in 1936-38 and as a vice president in 1940-42. 

Professor White served only one three-year term on Committee A, as she suffered a stroke in 1945 that left her mostly incapacitated until her death in 1948. During those three years, the committee authorized the publication of six investigative reports, five of which led to censure, which during World War II, when no annual meetings were held, was imposed by council.

In 1935, Professor White became involved in a local dispute over the dismissal of Professor Caroline Ware from the summer school at the university because the governing board learned that she was married. “Marriage bars,” which restricted employment to unmarried women, were actively enforced at the University of Wyoming and through much of the country. Professor White’s advocacy did not, however, lead to Professor Ware’s reinstatement. The related practice of “antinepotism rules,” disallowing the employment of husband and wife at the same institution, was one of the first issues taken up by Committee W upon its reactivation in the early 1970s and led to the publication of Faculty Appointment and Family Relationship, which urged institutions to remove such rules.

An obituary for Professor White notes that “[h]er advice was sought on important university matters, and she did much to secure a satisfactory faculty tenure program” at the University of Wyoming. This  led to the adoption of central elements of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure in 1939, then still under negotiation with the Association of American Colleges. In recognition of her long and distinguished service at the University of Wyoming, one of the residence halls is named in her honor to this day.

 

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