A Lifelong Connection to AAUW

black and white photo of four women at the 1955 AAUW national convention

AAUW General Director Helen Bragdon, AAUW Convention Program Chairman Eunice Roberts, AAUW Convention Committee Chairman Flora Rawls, and 1954–55 AAUW International Fellow Bani Singh Mahadeva at the 1955 AAUW National Convention in Los Angeles, California.

July 05, 2018

‘Bani Singh Mahadeva, a 1954–55 AAUW International Fellow, began her relationship with AAUW in 1954 when a member came to pick her up at a Los Angeles train station. Mahadeva had just been given an AAUW International Fellowship, and after a month-long journey from India to California, she was ready to begin attending University of California, Los Angeles’s (UCLA) graduate program in social welfare. Today, 64 years later, Mahadeva is a Champion and a Legacy Circle member. Mahadeva, who just celebrated her 88th birthday, had a chance to catch up with us recently.

“The era in which I grew up, women didn’t have many choices,” Mahadeva notes. Women in India were lucky to get a primary education at that time, let alone go to college. Mahadeva did both, went back to school for a masters degree in social work, and then applied for an AAUW fellowship to get ahead and challenge herself. She knew studying abroad would help advance her career, but didn’t realize how much her time in California would help until she went home to India.

Soon after returning to India from her year at UCLA, Mahadeva received her doctorate from Bombay University (now Mumbai University), an achievement she credits to AAUW. “[My doctorate] I owe entirely to the opportunity that I had in the United States, which strengthened my understanding of research methods. I never thought I would be a teacher, but all of the experiences in the U.S. enhanced my ability to teach,” she says.

While Mahadeva looks back at her fellowship with mostly positive memories, she also recalls receiving unwanted attention because of the way she looked. It was mostly curiosity — she was asked about life in India, how she draped her sari, why she wore a bindi — but some instances went further than that. “Initially, UCLA wouldn’t give me a field placement because I wore a sari. I wanted to work with a child welfare agency — they were afraid that children would be uncomfortable seeing me in ‘different’ clothes.”

These obstacles didn’t stop her from making the most of her time in the United States. In 1966, Mahadeva wrote to AAUW, saying, “I often describe the year I spent in the United States as the happiest year of my life. I was able to form close friendships. I still hear from my professors there. I was able to gain self-confidence and look at myself and world problems much more objectively. I visited nearly 33 branches of AAUW in California, and can never forget the warmth and hospitality which I received in each one of these places.”

Image of smiling black woman overlain on an exercise for the AAUW online, interactive salary negotiation tool.

Help AAUW close the gender pay gap.

AAUW has committed to teaching 10 million women to negotiate their salaries by 2022. Learn how you can help close the gender pay gap — and empower women around you to do the same — by using our It’s Negotiable: Salary Skill Builder online tool.

After returning to India, Mahadeva was adamant about working in her community, but circumstances forced her and her husband, whom she had met during her fellowship at UCLA, to migrate to the United States. They both went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, where Mahadeva founded the women’s studies program.

Despite Mahadeva’s lasting impact on campus, the university wasn’t always fair to her. She notes that her husband was paid more than her for years, despite having similar credentials and job experience as her. “That’s how it was: Women were always offered less, and we were expected to be grateful.”

While the pay gap has narrowed substantially since the 1970s, AAUW’s research report The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap shows that, on average, women are still being paid 80 percent of what men are paid. At the current rate of change, the gender pay gap won’t close until 2119. “I feel that women speak up much more today, but it’s not enough,” Mahadeva notes.

When looking back at the changes that happened in her lifetime, Mahadeva is quite pleased at how far women’s rights have progressed. “I didn’t think I would live to see the changes in gender equality that have happened through my lifetime. A lot has changed. But a lot more needs to be done,” she says. Her desire for continued change is one of the reasons she gives to AAUW.

“I’ve always been a part of AAUW,” said Mahadeva. “When I came back to the United States, I immediately became a member. I didn’t even have a job back then; I just wanted to feel a part of the community. It was my connection to American society — I never stopped being a member. I have so much gratitude to AAUW for giving me a start in life, and I want to pay it forward.”

Over the past 100 years, AAUW International Fellowships have helped more than 3,600 women from 145 countries make progress toward achieving their dreams. Meet our 2018–19 awardees and learn more about AAUW’s fellowships and grants program to find out how our awardees are making a difference.

 


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