Women on the AOA Board
By Irving Bennett, O.D.
This is second in a series of vignettes on historical events that occurred in and about the profession of optometry. Readers looking for more information on the subject of this vignette can consult Hindsight: Journal of Optometry History, the official publication of the Optometric Historical Society. Copies of articles like this can be obtained by contacting David Goss, OD. Ph.D., School of Optometry, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is thought by many that very few female optometrists have ever aspired to, or been successful at, becoming a member of the select AOA Board of Trustees. History only partially bears this out. As early as 1907 a woman optometrist from Denver, CO (Miss Edith Gallup) became an officer in the old American Association of Opticians, the first of many names for AOA in the early years. The female optometrist who made a real mark in history was Mrs. D. Elva Cooper of Bradford, PA when in the absence of the President and First Vice President she had the daring and the courage to defy convention and preside over the national meeting in 1911.
There is still no female who ever became president of AOA but one – Dori Carlson, O.D. of North Dakota – is in line for this achievement.
Research shows that women have been “officers” in AOA since 1907 when Edith Gallup of Denver, CO became “vice president.” This was many years before optometrists were granted the doctor of optometry degree and before it was customary for officers to ascend the organizational ladder to the presidency in any routine order.
From the AOA’s beginnings in 1898 until 1935, there were only seven women optometrists in AOA leadership. Collectively they held 14 “positions.” Those ladies were: Edith Gallup (CO), D. Elva Cooper (PA), Annie D. Robinson (OH), Mildred B. Winslow (KY), Gertrude Stanton (MN), Mollie W. Armstrong (TX) and Esther M. Ingram (FL).
In those early years, the officers of the association were divided into four groupings – Officers (President, two or three Vice Presidents, Secretary and Treasurer); an Executive Council; a Physiological Section and a Board of Regents.
Miss Gallup was a respected lecturer and was in charge of the Physiological Section. It was not until 1910 that Mrs. D. Elva Cooper of Bradford, Pennsylvania became Second Vice President of the national association in the Officer section, the highest office up to then for a woman optometrist. She served in the VP capacity for but one year. She did create history, however, when she presided at the national convention in 1911, held in the Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City.
A report on this event appears in the 1972 book, “American Optometric Association – a History,” by James Gregg. This book splendidly records what happened to this pioneer female optometrist when she took the reins of leadership in 1911. Gregg wrote:
“Mild revolutions began at the 1911 convention at the Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City, and some precedents were broken. The ‘revolt’ came from the West; and as might be expected, California was in the center of the ruckus. Perhaps fortunately, it was a lady, Mrs. D. Elva Cooper, an AOA member from Bradford, Pennsylvania who delicately presided over the stormy session.
“With amazing frequency, members and officers of the AOA were unable to attend early conventions because of illness, far more frequently than has been the case in recent times. The convention records include case after case of illness. No president ever missed a convention until 1911, when President C.N. McDonnell was detained by illness (impacted wisdom teeth, we are told), as was First Vice-President E. E. Culverhouse of Toronto. Mr. Culverhouse’s illness was not identified in the records. This put Mrs. Cooper, who was Second Vice-President, in line to preside, which she decided to do over the objections of a few males.”
[Editor’s Note: A petition was actually floated at the convention and it was signed by many members asking Mrs. Cooper to step aside since it was not ‘ladylike’ to conduct the business of a national meeting.]
Gregg continues: “Mrs. Cooper was warmly applauded as she stepped to the platform and said:
‘Fellow optometrists and friends: It is with regret that I bring you the tidings that many of our prominent members are detained at home because of illness.
‘For this cause, our president, C. N. McDonnell, and our first vice president, E .E. Culverhouse, are absent; hence it devolves upon me as second vice president to assume the duties of president and open this meeting.
‘This is not the only great National convention recently opened by a woman in this great and glorious west, although it may be the first in this, the beautiful Queen City. I feel that it is a great honor to participate in the work of demonstrating that the optometrical world is as progressive and abreast of the times as is the case of other educational bodies.
‘I now declare this, the 14th annual convention of the American Optical Association, duly opened for the transaction of business. We will now listen to the roll call of states, so that we may know how many members each state has present.’
“The tone of the convention was ‘What good is the AOA?’ Association officers are used to that question, but in 1911 the crescendo was loud because it was the first convention in the ‘far west’ and because the attendance was dominated by men who had not attended before and who had little direct contact with the AOA. They were looking for tangible benefits. Several states were considering withdrawal of affiliation if something was not done to appease them.
“It may have been a fortunate happenstance that Mrs. Cooper was the presiding officer. For one thing, she was respected, but even more important, she did not represent the ‘Old Guard’ that usually ‘ran things’ at conventions. There had been complaints that a few men were dominating the Association. But Mrs. Cooper gave everyone ample opportunity to speak, with no favoritism; the committee assignments were well spread out; and the nominations for officers made from the floor with two for each office voted by secret ballot.
“The result was harmony and a solution of problems might not have otherwise have occurred. There was a completely new set of officers selected.”
Please note: Mrs. Cooper was not re-elected as an officer.
It may seem strange to learn that from 1935 until 1973 no female optometrist was elected to a leadership position in the AOA. Then in 1973 when the AOA Convention was held in San Francisco, Dr. Marjorie S. Ross of Battlecreek, MI was elected to the Board of Trustees and she served as a Trustee for four years. Thirteen years passed before another female optometrist was elected to the AOA Board. Dawn C. Kaufman, O.D. of Freeman, SD was named Trustee in 1990 and she served for four years as a Trustee and then, in 1994, she was elected as Secretary/Treasurer.
Dr. Kaufmann served the AOA leadership until 1995 and was succeeded on the Board by Theresa L. Madden, O.D. of Manchester, KY for four years. Carol D. Record, O.D. of Charlottesville, VA came next for two terms. Dori Carlson, O.D. of Park River, ND was elected to the Board as aTrustee in 2004; she advanced to the Secretary-Treasurer position in 2008 and to the Vice Presidency in 2009. In 2007 Andrea Thau, O.D. of New York, NY became a Trustee, marking the first time in recent AOA history when two female optometrists were in the AOA Board structure at the same time. However, in 1912-13 and 1918-19, there had been two women optometrists in AOA management at the same time.
With student enrollment at schools and colleges of optometry running nearly 70% female, we can anticipate that more and more female optometrists will assume leadership roles in local, state, regional and national optometric organizations.