The History of WICB: The Founding and Early Years

On the eve of the ASCB annual meeting in 1971, a small group of women at Yale University were discussing their dissatisfaction with the status of women in cell biology. There were very few women faculty, and even fewer were tenured. Women speakers at meetings and seminars were very uncommon. Virginia Walbot, then a graduate student in the Yale Department of Biology and now a Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University, had the idea to organize women in cell biology and to seize the opportunity to do so at the annual meeting. She, Mary Clutter, then a Yale research associate and part-time lecturer and now Assistant Director of Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation, and others made posters asking interested women to meet. At the meeting in New Orleans, Walbot and Mary Lake Polan, then a Yale postdoc and now Chair of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Stanford, put the posters in women’s restrooms. Walbot estimates that 30 people attended the first meeting, held in a hotel bar.In the following years, the Women in Cell Biology (WICB) continued to meet at the ASCB annual meetings. The meetings afforded women the opportunity to network, to arrange collaborations, to talk. Each year the meeting had a theme, e.g., juggling career and family, mentorship, gender equity in job placement. According to Clutter, the mood of the meetings was upbeat and supportive; people cheered like at political rallies. WICB reported that their meeting in Miami in 1973 was attended by nearly 200 women and about a dozen men. The major topic discussed was the hiring and promotion of women in academia and government laboratories.Soon after the first meeting, WICB began to publish a newsletter, which was originally co-edited by Walbot and Clutter. The newsletter was produced with typewriter and mimeograph. Walbot said that the main motivation for publishing the newsletter was to disseminate job listings. At that time, most positions were not advertised —there were not long lists of job ads in Science as there are now. To create a list of jobs, the women who attended the first meeting all asked about openings back at their home departments. One month later, the resulting list of jobs was published in the newsletter. Walbot estimates that 5% were not actual positions, but rumors. The first issue of the newsletter was sent to the ASCB members whose names looked female so that they would be informed of and could apply for the jobs listed. Walbot wonders how the recipients of applications for jobs that were never advertised reacted. In later issues of the newsletter, job listings came from the ASCB placement office.

In addition to job listings, the newsletters contained news about women who were appointed to powerful positions, sexist comments by speakers and in the biological literature, results of studies and court cases relating to women’s issues —especially sex discrimination in employment. The spring 1974 newsletter included a questionnaire on hiring, firing, and promotion of women and men in order to determine “whether affirmative action is really working.” Reading the newsletters from the early 1970s gives a good idea of the political and social climate for women at that time. For example, the newsletter of May-June 1974, reported that a Superior Court ruled that Connecticut could no longer require women to use their married names when registering to vote. An issue later that year summarized an ACLU report that found a universal pattern of blatant discrimination against women by banks, loan associations, retailers, and credit distributors. Single women were required to have male co-signers when they applied for a loan. Widows and divorcees often could not get loans or charge accounts at all.

An important early goal of WICB was to help women advance from research associate, lecturer, and part-time positions to “real” jobs. As Susan Gerbi, currently Chair of Biology at Brown University and 1993 ASCB President related, “WICB was started at a time when the government threatened to discontinue federal grant support to universities if they did not hire women on their faculty, so the mood at WICB was upbeat because finally there were some ‘real’ job opportunities.” WICB provided, in addition to job listings, a forum for advice and information on how to conduct a job search. At the meetings, Walbot told stories about her ongoing job search. WICB created publications including: How to Get a Postdoc, written by Walbot and Elizabeth Harris, then a postdoc at Duke University and now the curator of the Chlamydomonas Genetics Center there; How to Get a Job, written by Susan Goldhor, then Dean of Natural Sciences at Hampshire College and now President of the Center for Applied Regional Studies in Cambridge, MA, with Walbot and Clutter (an updated version is available from the ASCB); and How to Keep A Job, on getting tenure, by Goldhor.

WICB began as a grass-roots organization within the ASCB and, for a long time, was neither accepted nor appreciated by all members of the ASCB. One founding WICB member, Dorothy Skinner, now retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, brought WICB to the attention of the ASCB Council. As a member of the Council from 1972 to 1974, she presented to the Council issues of importance to women in cell biology. She suggested appropriate women as speakers at the annual meetings and also nominated more women to the Council. She saw her role as “putting efficient, bright women forward and giving them a chance to participate.” Even with Skinner’s support, the ASCB Council rejected a 1973 proposal requesting funds for continued publication of the WICB newsletter. In order to finance the newsletter, the editors had to collect cash contributions at the WICB meetings and appeal for contributions in the newsletter. The WICB newsletter was discontinued in the late 1970s, but WICB carried on. As Mary Clutter points out, “now women are fully involved [in the ASCB]; maybe that is due to WICB as a constant reminder.”

About the Author:

WICB Section Editor