Remembering the Women
By Jeanne M. Gerlach
I will never forget the 1981 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention which was held in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was a doctoral student in English Education at West Virginia University, and my committee chair, David A. England, required me and his other advisees to attend the convention in order to fulfill a part of our doctoral program requirement. Even though I had taught school (secondary and college levels) since 1974, I had never attended an NCTE convention. At the time, I simply did not understand how much my professional organization could contribute to my teaching and scholarship. As a new convention attendee, I emersed myself in the program activities, attending numerous concurrent sessions, several workshops, the opening banquet, and nightly cocktail parties and gatherings. After the evening events, I stayed up most of the nights talking with my roommates about professional issues which had been discussed by the leaders in the field during the preceding day. I did not get much rest, but I seemed to gain energy from the excitement of meeting new people and learning about new and different ways of looking at teaching, learning, and knowing.
By Saturday afternoon I felt the need to go to my room for a quick nap or to leave the convention headquarters and take a walk in the fresh, brisk, November air. I chose the latter and headed toward an exit. As I moved through the corridors, a large poster attached to a ballroom door caught my eye -- Women's Tea. I stopped dead. What was this? Images of a French Women's salon where women met to discuss their roles in society alternated with English afternoon teas where pastries and teas were offered to those who paused and rested a bit. My thoughts raced faster -- What was NCTE's thinking about women? Had they remembered the women as Abigail Adams (1744-1818) had asked her husband John to do?
Abigail Adams (1744-1818): In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favor able to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebel lion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.
-- Letter to John Adams, 31 March 1776.
Was NCTE paying heed to Abigail's advice to John -- Remember the Women? I wanted to know the answers to my questions. I wanted to attend the tea, but could I? Was the tea open to all who wished to attend? I searched in my tote bag for my convention program, pulled it out, and quickly thumbed through the pages to find the listing of Saturday afternoon's sessions. There it was:
Hilton/Grant Room, Terrace Level
Open House Sponsored by Women's Committee of NCTE
Informal gathering for all interested in the concerns of women
in NCTE and in the profession.
Although I had never thought much about issues as they related specifically to women in English education, I had been actively involved in women's groups, including The American Association of University Women and The National Organization for Women, that were concerned with gaining equitable treatment for all women. In addition, as an English major, I had taken several Women in Literature Courses and had written on sexist language in secondary school textbooks. I decided to attend the Women's Committee's Open House. This seemingly small decision changed the focus of my professional work.
At the Open House, I met several members of the Women's Committee, including the newly appointed chair, Driek Zirinsky. Driek pointed out that NCTE was indeed concerned with the fair and equitable treatment of both men and women. She gave me a copy of the NCTE charge to the Committee:
to focus attention on the status and image of women in the Council and in the profession and to recommend ways of ensuring women equitable treatment by: advising the Executive Committee and the profession at large on issues relating to the role and image of women in the profession and the Council; acting as a resource for NCTE constituent groups in planning conferences and conventions, particularly on topics of concern to women in the profession; identifying and recommending women who should be more actively involved in Council affairs; analyzing and reporting on the role and image of women as expressed in journals and other publications of constituent groups of NCTE; and forming liaisons with women's committees in other professional organizations.
Then, as now, NCTE supported the belief that the role of education is to make opportunities available to women, not to limit them. For example, as committee member Alleen Pace Nilsen explained to me, NCTE had supported the publication of the Committee's Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language in NCTE Publications, for it promotes language that opens up possibilities for women and men. In addition to the guidelines, Alleen gave me other free materials, among which were bibliographies and brochures by and about women. As important as these new materials about women's professional concerns were, my new excitement about the possibility of learning more about the role and function of the Women's Committee matched them.
As part of my doctoral research during the following year, I looked at the history of women in English education and at the history of the Women's Committee. I learned that scholars in the past had largely ignored English educators who were women and that that topic was worthy of a dissertation in its own right. I learned also that the Women's Committee has undergone several name changes. Formed in 1971 at the Annual Convention in Las Vegas, it was officially called The Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and in the Profession. Then, in 1977, the committee members changed the name to The Committee on Women's Concerns. And once again, in 1978, the members shortened the name to the Women's Committee. (In 1972, Janet Emig was appointed the first chair; second was Johanna De Stefano, in 1975. She was followed by Lallie Coy in 1978, and Driek Zirinsky succeeded her in 1981.)
Having developed a keen interest in the group, I attended "Remember the Ladies" Boston Tea Party and Idea Exchange (Sponsored by the NCTE Women's Committee) at the 1982 NCTE Annual Convention in Boston. I had suggested the "Remember the Ladies" part of the title, and the committee members decided to have an Idea Exchange where participants should bring 100 copies of teaching materials and ideas to share with other attendees. In addition, a special display of materials available from Women's Educational Equity Act Publishing Center was featured. Besides the Tea Party and Idea Exchange, convention goers could attend a session entitled Mostly Films: Classroom Resources for Sex Equity. Films included "Hey, What About Us?"-- "I Is For Important" -- "Killing Us Softly: The Image of Women in Advertising" -- "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter" -- "The Math-Science Connection: Educating Young Women for Today (1-12)" -- "It's Your Future."
Both of the Women's Committee sponsored sessions were timely and meaningful, but what I remember most about the Boston Convention was Driek Zirinsky's question, "Would you like to become a member of the committee?" Of course my answer was Yes. Driek told me to write a letter to Charles Suhor, Deputy Administrative Director of NCTE telling him why I was interested in the committee and why I wanted to become a member. As a result of my letter, I attended the 1983 Denver Annual Convention as an official Women's Committee member. That year, the committee's major focus was to revise the Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language. The revised Guidelines would extend the existing document by offering alternatives to traditional language usages and the editorial choices that restrict meaning. Although the revision work was completed in 1983, the revised Guidelines were not published until 1985 because some of the council's executive members objected to nontraditional terms such as gender-neutral, sex-fair, gender-free which were used in place of the traditional term -- nonsexist. Reportedly some of the Executive Council felt that the term sex-fair evoked images of Swedish sex orgies. In the end, the term non-sexist was retained. I feel compelled to point out that this was the first time I can remember when a conflict of ideas arose between members of the Women's Committee and the Executive Council.
In addition to their efforts to have the revised Guidelines published, members actively promoted other issues and concerns. According to the 1984 (Denver) and 1985 (Philadelphia) Convention Programs, issues concerning women's literature were paramount. Convention sessions included: "Teaching Women's Literature: Critical Approaches (S-C)," "The Place of Women Writers in the American Literary Canon (C)," and "Teaching Women's Literature: The Differences of a Decade (S-C)." Accompanying the new session topics in 1984 was a new chair, Lahna Diskin. During her leadership, the Committee grew from ten to twenty members.
The new members brought with them a diversity of interests and new priorities. These "new women on the move" held open meetings for anyone interested in the status of women. Discussing topics both personal and institutional, they interpreted women's sense of sisterhood and defined the norms of traditional roles as they searched for self-definition and autonomous values. These topics included: "Tuning into Your Rights: Disseminating Information Across Levels," "Clarifying Women's Life Experiences Through Writing," "Beyond Role-Modeling: Women Faculty As Mentors."
As a committee member, I participated in many of the discussions and led some of them; I worked with several committee members to compile a directory of other national women's organizations; I helped to develop workshops and sessions for NCTE conventions. I began to integrate women's studies into my own teaching (English and English education courses).
My three-year appointment to the Women's Committee would end at the close of the 1986 Annual Convention, as committee members were appointed to three-year terms. However, I did not want to leave the Committee; I felt my work had just begun. Knowing this to be the case, Lahna Diskin nominated me to chair the Committee, and I was appointed in 1987.
Twenty members were present for the annual meeting Los Angeles, 1987. Those present agreed that the major focus the Committee during the next three years should be to explore in depth the impact women had on English education. They further concurred that the finding of such research should be shared with NCTE members at all conventions in both concurrent sessions and in workshops. In addition, members would contact NCTE journal editors and encourage them to publish more articles by and about women in the profession.
While the members agreed that it was extremely important to raise and discuss issues concerning women's roles in the profession during convention sessions and to encourage the journal editors to publish manuscripts addressing those same kinds of issues, they felt the need to do more, something more permanent. Since I, along with a new committee member Virginia Monseau had been exploring the history of women in English education for over a decade, we both knew that scholars in the past had largely ignored the place of women in the history of our field. Virginia and I agreed that we needed to write a book which would provide the "missing" information. Therefore, we decided to ask members of the committee to write chapters for the book; Virginia and I each agreed to write a chapter and to edit collaboratively the book. The membership voted unanimously to support such a effort, and eight members agreed to write chapters for Missing Chapters. Ten Pioneering Women in NCTE and English, Education. The book, published in 1991, focuses on ten women who made significant contributions to the profession during, NCTE's first fifty years and connects their work to what is being done in English education today. Even though we were eventually successful in getting NCTE to publish the work, there were those on the NCTE Executive Council who argued that we should not separate women from men in discussing professional contributions. However, Executive Council members finally agree that an examination of women in the field of English education. Missing Chapters, then, serves as a permanent reminder of how the women of our past acclaim our future.
Missing Chapters took five years to complete (1987-1991), and while it was a major Committee project, member were addressing other issues of equal importance. During the annual conventions (St. Louis, 1988; Baltimore, 1989; Atlanta 1990; and Seattle, 1991) the following projects were undertaken and completed.
1. Members agreed that there was a need for more information on teaching literature written by and about women. Margaret Carlson worked with a committee subgroup to collect, develop, and disseminate information of the same. Margaret worked with Jo Gillikin to write Guidelines for a Gender-Balanced Curriculum in English Grades (7-12) which was published by NCTE in 1991.
2. The Committee saw a need to identify new ways to help eliminate sexism in the schools. Therefore, members encouraged all schools, colleges, and universities to develop guidelines for nonsexist communication, to invite speakers to address the issue, and to encourage teachers, professors, and staff members to become aware of their own communication patterns both inside and outside the classroom. Youngstown State University was one of the first universities to respond to our suggestion by publishing and disseminating Guidelines for Nonsexist Communication.
3. Committee members realized the need for monitoring and role modeling at all levels. In an effort to emphasize that need at the University level, we encouraged interested graduate students to become junior members of the Women's Committee.
4. The Women's Committee decided to give an annual award to an outstanding woman in English education. The Rewey Belle Inglis Award, named in honor of NCTE's first woman president, Rewey Belle Inglis, who served in 1928 1929, recognizes women for achievement in scholarship (research and writing), teaching, and/or service. Jane Christensen, Deputy Administrative Director of NCTE, was presented with the award in 1989, followed by English educators Alleen Pace Nilsen, 1990, and Ruth K.J. Cline, 1991.
5. The Committee requested and was granted a two-year extension to their original term. Such an extension was need ed for the Committee to complete works in progress.
6. Members petitioned the Executive Committee to change our name from the "Women's Committee" to "The Committee on Women in the Profession." Members felt that "Women's Committee" seemed exclusive, rather than inclusive.
7. Since the Committee had grown to over thirty-five members by 1989, we divided into subgroups in an effort to more efficiently address issues dealing with publications, awards, networking, conference planning, monitoring, and sexist language.
8. The Committee continued to encourage NCTE journal editors to publish articles by and about women. Furthermore, we asked journal editors outside the Council to do the same. D. Barry Lumsden, editor of Educational Gerontology, an international journal, asked me to guest edit an issue of the journal. Along with several members of our committee, I worked to edit the special issue on Aging, Women, and Education, March 1991.
9. The Committee agreed to work with members of the CCCC's Women's Committee in a joint effort to publish a newsletter with articles and information about women.
10. The Committee sponsored workshops and concur rent sessions at NCTE conventions, including the NCTE Annual Convention, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and the Conference on English Education.
As anyone can see, the members of the Committee on Women in the Profession were involved in developing and completing numerous projects and activities during the 1987-1991 term. In addition, the membership had grown from twenty to over thirty-five active members. Because of the rapid membership growth and the commitment on the part of that membership to actively take on more new projects relating to the role and image of women in the profession, l suggested that we petition NCTE to grant our group assembly status. The members supported my proposal and eight women met at Nags Head, NC, in June, 1991, to write the Bylaws and Constitution for the Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA). In September, 1991, formal document were filed with NCTE, and in October, 1991, the Committee on Women in the Profession was granted assembly status. The Women In Literature and Life Assembly met for the first time at the 1991 NCTE annual convention in Seattle; Sue Ellen Holbrook, the newly elected assembly chair, welcomed the membership and advised them that WILLA would continue to focus attention on the status and image of women in the Council and in the profession by working to make opportunities available to them, by seeing that all in the Council and the profession continue to Remember the Women.
JEANNE M. GERLACH is Assistant Professor of English Education and Curriculum and Instruction at West Virginia University.
Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is granted to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.