Gresham: Charting a path for women
The half century history of the Gresham branch of the American Association of University Women is bookended by two very different gatherings, and linked by remarkable passion for uplifting women and girls around the globe.
The inaugural meeting, when the Gresham branch was founded on Feb. 10, 1971, took place at the beautiful Lakeside Gardens, just south of Powell Butte Nature Park in East Multnomah County.
Attendees were adorned in stunning dresses and suits, and included distinguished guests like the AAUW state president from Seaside and other regional officers.
Gresham was the 35th branch in Oregon and had 32 charter members. In an Outlook article written about the organization forming, Carol Brookhyser was commended for "starting a rumor that there would be a Gresham Branch and then making it come true."
Fifty years later, another group of women assembled Monday evening, Feb. 22, utilizing a platform not even conceived in 1971. This iteration of the Gresham AAUW met virtually for an event to remember their roots and plot the future. There were beaming smiles and laughter from the 40 attendees, shared cupcakes, Bingo and origami.
"Today we are honoring the charter members and life members of our group," said Arlene Lemieux, who served as master of ceremonies.
Despite the digital divide and a pandemic year spent apart, the group felt closer than ever — and that was no accident.
The Gresham AAUW implemented new programs to continue the strong bond that first began in the shadow of Powell Butte. They stayed connected through COVID with newsletters, phone trees, weekly check-ins, letters on birthdays and holidays, virtual book clubs and meetings, plans for future bridge nights, and so much more.
They also didn't slow in their advocacy and fundraising.
"How we responded will be a legacy for us too," said Peggy Taylor, co-president of Gresham AAUW.
"Hopefully very soon, with everyone getting their shots and the pandemic under control, we will be able to meet once again in person," added Bonnie Jepsen, co-president.
The AAUW advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy and research. The local branch has more than 60 members working to provide programs on issues facing women and girls, community projects and women's outreach activities.
During the virtual celebration they spoke about the branch's history and honored the charter members — six of which still are active in Gresham — with bouquets of flowers.
"Let's hope our legacy keeps going strong through the next 50 years," said Marilyn Zook, the inaugural president and a current member of the Gresham AAUW.
Leading the way
The Gresham branch of the AAUW was born in a cozy dining room.
Six women, including Zook, came together to craft a plan. Most were members of other branches of the AAUW, and wanted to meet and make a difference closer to home. They contacted local news outlets and posted notices around town to generate excitement. The minds behind the formation also reached out to friends, growing ranks.
Eventually they hit the required minimum of 30 members — conducting a swearing-in ceremony in the community room of the former Gresham Hospital on Northeast Seventh Street. The group was initially comprised mainly of teachers, but now consists of women from all walks of life, bringing a diverse set of skills.
Charter members included: Carol Brookhyser, June Christman, Betty Cullens, Nancy DeWard, Gladys Forrester, Harriet Halverson, Argyle Hensley, Martha Hug, Ruthanne Jensen, Janet Kelly, Rene Kirtley, Beverly Martin, Joan Morgan, Elizabeth Morse, Shirley Nelson, Ruth Ness, Donna Olson, Ruth Pettinger, Jeanne Pulliam, Virginia Riley, Joanne Ross, Ester Rucker, Elaine Sinclair, Anna Scafidi, Deanna Spooner, Carole Sprenger, Juanita Syron, Beverly Tolman, Stella Trenholm, and Marilyn Zook.
The Gresham AAUW branch has become renowned for extraordinary efforts when it comes to participation and fundraising.
In its 50 years, the Gresham branch has had more state presidents than any other group in Oregon. The Gresham branch is also heavily involved in national programs. It normally tops the state for contributing donations to the national organization, which raises about $4 million a year.
"We have always had strong leaders and involved members," Zook said.
A lot of the issues that were on the books in 1971 haven't changed in recent years — one of the first speakers 50 years ago spoke about environmental issues. The branch continues to be active in Salem, addressing sexual harassment and Title IX issues, income disparity between men and women, and education opportunities for women.
The branch funds an annual $3,000 scholarship for a second-year woman student at Mt. Hood Community College — preferably seeking a degree within the STEM program. On Jan. 1 of this year, the group was able to endow the scholarship after a successful $50,000 fundraising effort.
"For some recipients, the scholarship keeps them from having to drop out of school," said Martha Manske, program director.
Before the pandemic shut things down last year, the group dressed as suffragettes to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving some women the right to vote. They also visited downtown Gresham last fall to "Chalk the Vote," encouraging people to participate in the election.
In normal years, the group also hosts many talks, social gatherings and other fundraisers to promote the advancement of women in the community.
Everyone within the Gresham branch is excited for the future. The end of social distancing is in sight, and many made plans to get together later this year once it's safe to do so. The group is also recruiting new members, especially younger women and women from diverse backgrounds. The only requirement is a 2-year college degree.
"Any woman is welcome no matter what," Manske said. "We are trying to back more women leaders."
Want to learn more?
Who: American Association of University Women
Gresham branch (1971-present)
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