Alcoholics Anonymous History In Your Area
History of International AA Women’s Conference
After 25 years, we have endeavored to piece together, how the women’s conference was started, where the first conference was held and thoughts and feelings from the surviving women who were a part of AA at that time. We dedicate this history of the NAAWC to you, our sisters in sobriety.
Our efforts have not been without struggle. As I am sure you will all agree, 25 years ago – what we were doing and how we felt are extremely hard to remember. The same has been true for those early days about the women’s conference. We have tried to piece together as best we could, what it was like and what happened. In other words, those factors that contributed to making the women’s conference what it is today.
I believe the story begins with Bernadette O’K. She was 5’1″, weighed 155 lbs., had piercing black eyes that could see right through you and was always there when anyone, anywhere needed help. She was ahead of her time having graduated from the University of Michigan in Engineering. At the time one of our sisters met her in 1963, she had at that time, 14 years of sobriety, having sobered up in the late 1940s.
Starting the women’s conference was only one of many things that Bernadette did to promote AA and recovery in the area. Her typical day consisted of work, then she would stop by Group #1, at 6125 Troost, to see if there was anyone needing help or a 12-step call to be made. Then she would have dinner with one of the many women in the program she was sponsoring, then off to another meeting. She was always helping someone.
She used to say that she was a traveling drunk so when she sobered up she also traveled quite a bit to various Round Robins or other AA functions throughout the Midwest. It was not uncommon for her on three-day holidays to travel as far as Michigan or Texas. On other 3-day holidays, she organized functions (All day affairs) that brought families together. Women were in the kitchen skinning chickens for dinner while meetings or other recreational activities were going on. She was a great delegator. Marie B. was one of the main women behind the scenes who were there to implement the work that was inspired by Bernadette.
In the early 1960’s, Bernadette helped to organize the first women’s group at Group #1 on Troost in Kansas City, Missouri. It met once a week. That meeting continues today.
The first women’s conference was held at 6125 Troost (Group #1) on February 14, 1964. This was Bernadette’s birthday and the conference has continued to be the closest week-end to February 14th in her honor. At first the conference was mainly local Kansas City women. The second conference was held at the Holiday Inn in Kansas City, Kansas, followed by one at the now demolished Executive Inn at 14th and Washington Streets.
Bernadette’s last conference, prior to her death was held at the Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Missouri in 1968. About two weeks after the conference, Bernadette traveled to California to make an amend to her former husband, whom she had not seen for over 20 years. Although he was not anxious to see her, she was able to tell him a little about what she had been trying to do with her life, so he finally agreed to see her. After she made her amend, her former husband invited her to dinner to meet his wife and family, as she was crossing the lobby to meet him, she suffered a massive stroke and died a few hours later. It’s one of those many stories, we often hear around AA, which once again reaffirms how spiritually guided our program truly is.
Bernadette was a good friend with Marty Mann, the first woman in AA. They worked together to get the National Council here in Kansas City. The spread of the women’s conference occurred by word of mouth. It started out as local in nature, then in 1970, became a regional conference first moving to St. Louis, then Wichita, Ks., Oklahoma City, Little Rock and then to Des Moines. Marty Mann also helped to promote it from her position in New York. After the Des Moines conference, it started moving around to various parts of the country finally returning to it’s roots in its 25th year.
Bertha C. informed me how she was the only black woman in AA for a time until Vernetta W. came into the program. They were sponsored by one of the first speakers of the conference, Madge F. Although it was hard for these women, at first, being the only black women, both of these women are alive and sober today and both plan to be at this year’s conference.
Bernadette was a legend in her own time. Besides pioneering the conference, she was one to get things done in the halls of AA. The one big thing that Bernadette stood for was honesty. She didn’t soft pedal things. She was a firm believer in the basics of the program. She felt that women should only sponsor women and vice versa.
From what I have heard, I am sorry I didn’t know her. She sounds like such a wonderful, down-to-earth, caring person who would show though love whenever it was needed. She wasn’t a person to sit on the sidelines. She was one of those rare people that intuitively could see what they wanted to go about to accomplish it. Bernadette was that way in helping AA in Kansas City to grow. Since there were no halfway houses for women in the fifties and sixties, she started one in her home, known as the Winona Simmons Home. She helped to promote the first treatment center in the area at St. Joseph Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Maybe the women’s conference would have gotten started without Bernadette. But I’m grateful she was the promoter and instigator for what has become one of the truly beautiful experiences within our sobriety.
Thank you all for being here at our 25th Anniversary, to contribute your part to the history of the National AA Women’s Conference. We are all needed to make the conference special for each and every one of us.
We would like to express our thanks and appreciation to those women who have contributed their thoughts and time in NAAWC History.
A Truly Special Sister in Sobriety who wishes to remain Anonymous
Bertha C., Vernetta W., Jane J., Fawn H., Sally T.
And all others who have contributed their time and effort in gathering names and making phone calls…
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