“It is really amazing what you can do with nonprofit organization work. Never let yourself be put down because you belong to a women’s club.” – Phyllis Michaux, founder and first president of AAWE
If only I had understood the power of that sentence when I moved to Paris with my French husband and family in the winter of 2010. Instead, I watched in awe as my children took to their French lives like fish gliding into a pond. My daughter made friends in her CE1 class on the first day, and my son found a playmate in the sandbox of the Parc Monceau quicker than I could say bonjour to his smiling nanny.
I, on the other hand, with my American accent, very French name, and Asian face, felt a bit out of sorts. How was I going to find my place in a city that is lovely but not particularly inviting? Where would I find my community?
I first heard of AAWE from a woman sitting next to me at my French dentist’s office. She noticed the book I was reading – Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon – and said I should join AAWE, the Association of American Women in Europe: “It’s a worthwhile organization, and absolutely not your typical ladies’ club.”
I thanked her and promptly forgot about it.
It took me eight years, after I got a job at the American Library in Paris and painstakingly raised my children to be bilingual, to finally join AAWE…and it suddenly all fell into place.
The activism and advocacy origins of AAWE
Founded 60 years ago, AAWE is one of the longest-running volunteer associations of (mostly) American women based in France.
The first meeting took place on April 26, 1961, attended by 12 women who answered an ad in the New York Herald Tribune to unite: “American wives of Frenchmen resident in France to discuss problems specific to them – among others their civil rights.” The notice was placed by Phyllis Michaux, an American woman who had married a Frenchman and moved to France in 1946 not speaking a word of French. When her daughter was born in Paris, she wondered whether her child was an American citizen, or French, or both.
“I ran into so many snags, that I wondered how many other American women were in the same spot,” she said.
In placing the ad, Michaux was doing what she felt women do when confronted with new problems: seek out others for support and solutions.
That first meeting 60 years ago would pave the way for an association founded on providing a supportive community for American women in France. The group’s many social activities, including luncheons, U.S.-themed parties, and cultural outings, is balanced by its enduring commitment to the vital issues of bilingualism, international education, and citizenship rights.
Serious women having fun dealing with non-frivolous issues
Since the beginning, with its mix of teas and parties with discussion meetings, AAWE was known as a “serious women’s club preoccupied mainly by non-frivolous issues.” Members launched studies on bilingualism and education, campaigned U.S. Congress for citizenship rights, and provided resources to ease their lives in France. Many members would go on to found or participate in other associations key to the American community in Paris and beyond such as AARO, WICE, and FAWCO.
With diligent advocacy, including an ingenious teabag campaign, AAWE successfully helped pass landmark legislations impacting all Americans living abroad: the right to vote in U.S. federal elections (1976) and unconditional citizenship rights for American children born abroad (1978).
Why join a women’s group?
It took me eight years after moving to Paris to understand the benefits of AAWE partly because I felt I had no free time juggling work and family. I also had a lone wolf mentality my first year in France when it came to problems. I wanted to prove that I could navigate a new country, language, and culture toute seule, on my own.
However, the challenges of trailing spousehood were real – the reinvention of my career, the distance from family and friends, and the loss of self-identity. Not to mention my self-esteem and my attempts at conversation being corrected in French by my 6-year-old.
I knew I had to find my community if I ever wanted to feel truly rooted in Paris.
From the beginning, a particularity of AAWE members, including founders Phyllis Michaux and Gertrude de Gallaix, was that they were all self-confirmed “non-clubwomen.” Many of these women had lived in France for many years, some very well integrated into their French life. What brought them together then echoes why women form bonds today: providing mutual support, sharing information, and finding solutions to common issues.
Long-Standing AAWE member Kathleen de Carbuccia was drawn into the struggle to ensure her children were dual citizens and bilingual/bicultural. She was inspired by Phyllis’ foresight to make the focus of AAWE the future of their children, which drew many women in.
For her part, Jill Clément, a member of the AAWE Younger Wonders, was determined to integrate into French life. She learned the language, married a Frenchman, and made French friends.
“I was that American woman in Paris who ignored her American side. Then I met these cool women at an AAWE cocktail and realized how much I needed to be with people who understood what it’s like to live far from everything familiar.”
Finding life-long friends is a common refrain for AAWE members. Sally Benoist, a member for 55 years, says, “I have French friends that I’m close with, but I go to my American friends when I really need help.”
Looking back, looking forward
At the time AAWE began, few women in the group worked regularly outside the home. By the late 1980s, that was beginning to change with more women living in the banlieues and working in Paris. In 1988, a majority of the members were women with school-aged children. AAWE schedules and programs adapted to suit both the professional woman and the young mother.
Adapting to the times is a hallmark of AAWE and remains a testament to its relevance today. In our more connected social media age, women have many opportunities to meet people, network professionally, and socialize. The idea of joining a women’s club seems rather quaint in our click-and-scroll lives.
And yet, AAWE thrives in its 60th year.
Many of the tried-and-true AAWE activities like the Holiday Bazaar, Halloween Party, and biennial school fair continue to be very popular. New initiatives like the Refugee Task Force, Welcoming Diversity work group, and the Empowered Women Series address the most pertinent issues of our times.
In addition to its community offerings, AAWE continues to be a leading source of information on bilingual and international education in France with their publications: Beyond the Bac: Higher Education in France and Abroad and AAWE Guide to Education in France, whose 9th edition is forthcoming in Spring 2021.
Beth Austin, who became president of AAWE at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, looks to the opportunities ahead: “My goal is to make AAWE sustainable, which means we change with the times. Then and now, I have a great deal of faith in what women can collectively change and accomplish.” AAWE now has nearly 500 members, including non-Americans and even a handful of men.
I eventually did again meet the women in the dental office who suggested I join AAWE over 10 years ago. She greeted me with, “It took you long enough!” True. We all know those moments when we realize what we’ve been seeking has been in front of us all along.
AAWE entered my life at just the right time offering positive change, friendships, and a group to thrive within while also having fun – and that is both reassuring and empowering.