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Willmar to host state AAUW convention this weekend

WILLMAR -- For three days this week, Willmar will host the state convention of the American Association of University Women -- an event coinciding with the national release today of a new AAUW-sponsored report examining the pay gap for working American women.

Between 100 and 125 women from across Minnesota are expected to attend the convention Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

A highlight of the event will be keynote addresses by Ruth Sweetser of Chicago, the national president of AAUW.

Willmar last hosted the state convention exactly 30 years ago, said Beverly Crute, a member of the Willmar branch of AAUW and president of the state organization.

"We thought this would be a good time to offer to host it. It was our time to do this," she said.

Attendees will have a busy three-day schedule of seminars, roundtable sessions and social events organized around the theme "Becoming Champions of Change."

"We have business meetings. We have enrichment sessions," Crute said. "I'm hoping we will just rev people up -- get them excited about our new vision, our new mission."

AAUW began modestly but ambitiously in 1881 with a group of 17 women who -- unusual for their time -- had graduated from college and wished to advocate for educational opportunities for women. AAUW now has 100,000 members -- including 2,000 in Minnesota -- and partners with 500 U.S. colleges and universities.

More than a century after its founding, education and equity for women remain the organization's key priorities, said Jeanette Carlson, program director for the Willmar AAUW branch.

"Education is the key to economic security," she said.

For instance, AAUW was "the first organization to give scholarships to women for advanced degrees. Those were so hard to find," Carlson said.

If the AAUW's latest research is any indication, however, women still face inequities in schools, work places and in the paychecks they earn.

A new report, "Behind the Pay Gap," which will be released today, contends that even with a college or university degree, women's salaries continue to lag behind those of men.

The report found that one year after completing college, women were earning 80 percent of what men were earning. Ten years after college, their pay had shrunk to 69 percent of what men were earning.

Other landmark reports by AAUW have examined women in the workplace, bullying in schools, gender equity in the sciences, sexual harassment on college campuses, and how girls are shortchanged in the classroom.

"We try to educate," Crute said. "We try to encourage our members to advocate for changes in legislation that would enhance pay equity, child care, health care for women. Education needs to serve all students -- boys and girls, men and women."

Enrichment sessions during the upcoming convention this weekend will focus on topics such as financial independence for women and sexual harassment on campuses.

Kathy Leedom, superintendent of the Willmar Schools and an AAUW member, will deliver the noon keynote address on Saturday, "Preparing Responsible World Citizens to Succeed in a Global Economy: Are We Ready?"

Sweetser, AAUW's national president, will speak twice -- first as the opening keynote speaker Saturday morning, then Saturday afternoon on "Strategic Process for Change." Sweetser also will participate in a town-hall discussion Sunday morning.

During business sessions on Saturday, state members will deal with public policy issues ranging from support for gender fairness, equity and diversity in public education to advocacy on behalf of pay equity and economic self-sufficiency for women.

Participants will be treated Friday afternoon to a bus tour of arts attractions in Willmar. The opening reception at 7 p.m. Friday at the Willmar Conference Center is open to the public and will feature Minnesota writer and poet Bill Holm.

A silent auction also is planned on Saturday, with proceeds to benefit the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund.

"We've been working on this for almost two years," Crute said. "We've had wonderful cooperation from the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Holiday Inn and Conference Center."

She and Carlson said they hope the state convention will help highlight AAUW's policy initiatives and inspire new members to join.

The equity battle isn't over, Crute said.

"Many younger members have not experienced some of the challenges with education that older members have. Maybe they have a different sense of entitlement," she said. "We recognize that every year the membership in our organization is falling 5 percent. We need younger members. Equity is still an issue."

On the Web: American Association of University Women,

Minnesota American Association of University Women,