Female veterinarians in the U.S. numbered fewer than a hundred in 1946 when Dr. Mary Knight Dunlap (MSU ’33) decided they should organize. Through the decades and several name changes, the organization has been a source of encouragement and, at times, a force for change.
The organization now known as the Association for Women Veterinarians Foundation adapted to serve women in veterinary medicine for 66 years but is in the process of disbanding.
Chartered as the Women’s Veterinary Association, it first convened in August 1947 during the AVMA Annual Meeting in Cincinnati.
“Mary felt it was awful that women veterinarians didn’t know anything about one another—how many there were, what they were doing,” said Dr. Phyllis Hickney Larsen (KSU ’47), chair of the organization’s history committee and author of its book on the history of women in veterinary medicine. Dr. Dunlap also wanted women to help each other solve harassment and discrimination problems and other problems that beset them.
Dr. Dunlap contacted and received encouragement from the president of the Society of Women Veterinary Surgeons in England, Dr. Olga Uvarov, and AVMA leaders such as Executive Secretary John G. Hardenbergh and President Leslie M. Hurt. So, she set about writing to the 37 female AVMA members.
Dr. Larsen, who joined the group in the early ‘50s, said, “Mary got terribly excited, because they were so glad to hear from other women who wanted to get in touch with one another.”
The group’s objectives were “to maintain the high standards of the veterinary profession, to act in an advisory capacity to women veterinary students and new graduates, to discourage racial and religious prejudice within the profession, to cooperate with other veterinary associations in all matters approved by this association, to encourage attendance at veterinary meetings, and to promote friendship and understanding among all women veterinarians.”
In 1949, the Women’s Veterinary Association became the Women’s Veterinary Medical Association at the AVMA’s suggestion. Dr. Alfreda Johnson Webb (TUS ’49) was the first black member, joining after graduation, followed by Dr. Jane Hinton (UP ’49).
Monthly bulletins started by Dr. Dunlap were a valued membership benefit. Not only veterinarians but also students contributed to the early bulletins. From the beginning, the organization provided aid for students, Dr. Larsen said, at first through contributions to the Auxiliary to the AVMA Student Loan Fund. Initially, this aid was designated for female students, but starting in 1978, men could apply also. Almost from the beginning, special achievement was rewarded with the Outstanding Woman Veterinarian of the Year Award. In 1986, the first Distinguished Service Award was given to Moses Simmons, a black man who encouraged women in his federal government department.
The ‘70s were a test of the Women’s VMA. Dr. Bonnie V. Beaver (MIN ’68), president from ’72-’76, noted that before 1970, there were still fewer than 500 women veterinarians, but equality-in-education legislation in the mid-‘70s increased their opportunities for selection to veterinary school.
“My focus as president was getting women involved in AVMA, because I viewed AVMA as the organization that represented all veterinarians,” Dr. Beaver said, “but there was such a small voice coming from women, and the WVMA could collectively promote them getting involved in leadership.”
Dr. Larsen said, “We had a number of significant leadership positions at AVMA that came out of the Association for Women Veterinarians (as it was later known).” The association began its political activism by campaigning hard to get Drs. Beaver, Bobbye A. Chancellor (AUB ’51), and Barbara S. Stein (OSU ‘66) elected to councils. No one was elected, but Drs. Chancellor and Beaver, along with two other active WVMA members, Drs. Margretta F. Kethler (CAL ‘65) and Mary Beth Leininger (PUR ’67), went on to win key AVMA posts: Dr. Chancellor as vice president, Dr. Kethler as an AVMA district Executive Board member, and Drs. Leininger and Beaver as presidents.
In Dr. Larsen’s mind, “Bobbye Chancellor was the single most important woman in AVMA history, the first to serve on the AVMA board.” With introductions and promotion by Dr. Andy Crawford, Mississippi delegate to the AVMA, Dr. Chancellor was elected AVMA vice president in 1977 and later re-elected, seating her on the Executive Board. As vice president, she got the board’s permission to become liaison to the veterinary students. “Her thought was this will show the students a woman veterinarian,” Dr. Larsen said. This set the pattern that led to the vice president becoming AVMA’s official student liaison. A federal employee, Dr. Chancellor was also asked to represent government services on the Arthur D. Little manpower study, and she chaired the AVMA Council on Education.
“We almost bit the dust in the mid-‘70s,” Dr. Larsen said. In 1976, the WVMA had 385 members and a treasury exceeding $4,000, but some key officers were not showing up for meetings, few members were engaged, and bulletins were down to one a year.
With the organization’s structure “in shambles,” Dr. Larsen said, 21 members held the 1976 annual meeting to decide whether to continue the association. Drs. Judith Spurling (COL ’66), Helena Costantini (UP ’56), and Chancellor were central to the decision to carry on. It was the start of a rejuvenation period during which a capable new president, Dr. Karen F. Bowls (CAL ‘64), took over, and the organization changed its name to the Association for Women Veterinarians.
The association also advocated for women’s issues such as equal pay and an AVMA antiharassment policy.
Dr. W. Jean Dodds (ONT ’64) worked for the state of New York before establishing her animal blood bank in California. She credited the AWV with helping her improve her own salary and those of other women in New York after she learned she was being paid “more as a technician than a doctor.”
Men were first admitted as members during Dr. Beaver’s term as WVMA president. One of the most active was Dr. Robert R. Shomer (UP ’34), a member of the AVMA Judicial Council. He worked closely with Dr. Pamela Chamberlain (MSU ’87) when she was the women’s group president on the effort to get the AVMA to adopt an antiharassment policy.
The association presented programs in conjunction with AVMA conventions that emphasized health risks for all veterinarians, maternal leave for women, management difficulties for women, and, recently, generational issues. The association also has some involvement with foreign veterinarians.
The ‘90s saw the most women in executive leadership at the AVMA, with Drs. Kethler and Joan Samuels (MSU ’77) on the board and Dr. Leininger as president (1996-1997) and board member. Dr. Larsen noted that the number of women in the House of Delegates has gradually increased, with many of these women being nonvoting alternates. The first woman in the HOD, Dr. Lois Hinson (GA ’50), was a federal meat inspector, she said, adding that women laboratory animal veterinarians have often been represented in the HOD. And in 1998, Dr. Shirley Johnston (WSU ’74), an active AWV member, became founding dean of Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine.
Yet, new doubts surfaced about the organization’s future. A strategic planning meeting was held in 1998, and it was decided at the following year’s annual meeting to continue, guided by a new mission statement: “Supporting veterinary medicine by providing leadership in women’s issues.”
The AWV set up a web page in 1999 and hired its first paid editor, Dr. Carin Smith (ORS ’94), who filled the bulletin with material from diverse sources.
In 2004-2005, with fewer than 200 members, the AWV realized it did not have enough funds to continue with its website, an editor, and scholarships. A strategic planning meeting was led by practice management consultant Karyn Gavzer, former AVMA marketing director. Dr. Leininger, who provided $5,000 in funding from Hill’s Pet Nutrition, said, “I recognized that the organization was really struggling to find an appropriate niche.”
The AWV decided to become a foundation, the Association for Women Veterinarians Foundation, and continue its awards, scholarships, and programs at the AVMA convention. For many years, Hill’s had been the primary sponsor of the scholarship program, at $6,000 per year, according to Dr. Deb Nickelson (MIN ’85), AWVF finance chair. From 2005-2013, Hill’s and 11 other companies donated a total of $82,200 in scholarship funds.
In 2012, the AWVF decided to relinquish all funds to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, and AWVF officials were in the process of that transition at press time.
Dr. Larsen said, “I’m a believer in influence being as important as position. I think Judy Spurling, for instance, was one of the most influential and lasting members of AWV; the same with Chris Stone-Payne. The workhorses in organizations are the ones who keep them going.”
Dr. Beaver left the AWV in 1980 when she saw it becoming more “feminist.” “I thought what you needed to do was be an organization that represented women veterinarians as professionals,” she said.
Even today, she thinks it is hard for women with children to be involved organizationally. “We all overextend ourselves. We have male colleagues who ask, because they’re truly concerned, whether they’ll be able to put in the time commitment.”
Dr. Beaver believes the AVMA Future Leaders program will help equip interested women veterinarians to become active at any organizational level. She also thinks leadership and mentorship style hold keys to greater women’s involvement.
The typical male and female leadership styles differ, she said. “We tend to lead by incorporating all kinds of ideas and bringing everyone in as part of the decision making. Men tend to think of women as passive because of that style and to lead by saying, ‘This is my decision.’”
Males mentored the first women who became active at high levels, whether in a company or a volunteer organization, she said, so many women of that generation do not know how to be good mentors to other women. “It’s just now, when we’re getting into second and third generations of women in those kinds of roles that we’re figuring out how women mentor women.”