A Century of Women’s Rights Work through the Eyes of a CentenarianDecember 19, 2016
In the United States 2016 was historic for many reasons. For 105-year-old AAUW member Martha Ann Miller, it meant seeing a woman on the presidential ballot 96 years after she saw women gain the right to vote as a little girl.
Miller, who joined an AAUW branch in Virginia in 1944, has witnessed crucial milestones in women’s equality during the last century-plus. She shared with us what it felt like to live through some of those historical touchpoints.
The Fight for Fair Pay
“I cannot see why a man should be paid $200 more than I am paid to do the same work when he does it no better.”
Equal pay has been a hot topic in recent years, but it’s by no means novel. When Miller was entering the workforce in the 1930s, sexism and inequality were just as prevalent as they are today, if not more so. But the disparity in salaries was on AAUW members’ minds well before that.
AAUW, then known as the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA), published our first report on the pay gap 120 years ago to examine the wages of degree-holding women and their male counterparts. One first-person account from the report reads: “Men oftener than women have to support others. In spite of this, I cannot see why a man should be paid $200 more than I am paid to do the same work when he does it no better.” Throughout Miller’s membership, AAUW has supported equal pay legislation, with more plans to close the gender pay gap on the table. This January, we’ll celebrate the anniversary of President Barack Obama’s signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law that AAUW members and supporters worked hard to get passed.
While the fight for fair pay continues, so does the push for representation — something Miller has personal experience with from her role with AAUW in helping decide the first woman to be pictured on a U.S. bill.
More Women Leaders
Encouraging women to lead is nothing new for AAUW. In 2017 it will be 100 years since the organization passed a resolution supporting the 19th Amendment for women’s suffrage. Miller, who held AAUW offices as branch and state treasurer, among a host of other honors, is living proof. Since 1881, every national AAUW president or board chair has been a woman. But leadership wasn’t just encouraged within the organization.
AAUW has a long history of supporting women in politics, including making rosters of women fit for public office in the 1930s. Some of history’s most notable women, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Jeannette Rankin, were Miller’s fellow members.
This fall, Miller saw the first woman on the ballot for a presidential race – a concept she’d thought impossible 50 years ago.
“Men are making decisions that affect women.”
“Women had the right to vote but there weren’t very many running for office, and there still aren’t very many running for office,” Miller says. “But that’s one thing I think the AAUW now is encouraging — women to run for office. Because it’s unbalanced, and men are making decisions that affect women. There should be more women active in politics.”
Though Miller was hoping to witness the country’s first female president, women did make important gains this election. There’s still a long way to go, but the 105-year-old is looking ahead.
In 2015, Miller partook in a crucial milestone for women’s advancement. She was one of the AAUW representatives invited to help decide the first woman to be pictured on a U.S. bill. In a roundtable discussion with U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios, Miller was front and center.
“There had always been these men’s pictures on different bills,” Miller says. “Why not [women]? Why are women discriminated against, you see?” The $20 bill, on which Harriet Tubman is to appear, is slated for unveiling in 2020 — the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s passage.
Asked what goals she has for AAUW moving forward, Miller doesn’t miss a beat. “Same pay for same work,” she says matter-of-factly. “That’s the goal right now, and they’re working on it.”
This post was written by AAUW Communications Intern Hannah Golden.
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