In recognition of Women’s History Month 2019, the LSA acknowledges and celebrates the accomplishments of the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics (COSWL), whose mandate from the Society is ‘to monitor and advance the status of women in Linguistics’.

The roots of what is now COSWL go back to 1971 when a group variously known as the ‘Women’s Organizing Committee’ or ‘Women’s Caucus’ emerged spontaneously from the LSA membership outside of a formal relationship with the Society.  Participants met at the Annual Meeting and debated launching various projects, including investigating professional discrimination, establishing channels to process complaints, framing resolutions against sex discrimination, operating a complaint booth at the LSA Annual Meeting, or studying what was loosely defined as ‘women and language use’.  There was plenty to talk about: a report of discussion among members of the Women’s Caucus that was published in the LSA Bulletin in 1971 indicated the persistence of departments of linguistics that by policy did not hire women.

By 1973 the group was formally allied with the LSA and named the ‘Committee on Discrimination Against Women’, before being renamed ‘COSWL’ the following year.  It was charged to investigate and maintain records of sex-based grievances, and initiate a survey to monitor the institutional status of women linguists, focusing in particular on discrimination, harassment, and advancement.  COSWL carried out six such surveys between 1973 and 2008, some of which collected data from departments, and some from individual scholars and students.  Their results were published in the LSA Bulletin, or reported orally when, from 1989, COSWL has convened over breakfast at the LSA Annual Meeting.  A digest of past surveys compiled by David J. Silva & Sarah Fauzi is available here <https://www.linguisticsociety.org/sites/default/files/COSWL-Handout-Jan2008.pdf>

By 1981 COSWL’s major initial preoccupation—redressing discrimination against women—expanded to include activities to promote the accomplishments of women linguists in the past and in the future.  In 1982 and then again in 1997, COSWL sponsored presentations at the LSA Annual Meeting calling attention to the contributions of distinguished 20th century women linguists.  In 1990, the group participated in a conference at Cornell on the topic of women in linguistics, following which Alice Davison and Penelope Eckert edited The Cornell lectures: Women in the linguistics profession (Washington, D.C.: COSWL).  COSWL also supported research on women and language, compiling a bibliography of research on language and gender, and collecting and making available syllabi for courses on that topic.  The LSA asked COSWL to compose guidelines promoting the use of nonsexist language.  After a long interval of development, a text eventually appeared in 1995.

From the late 1980s onwards, COSWL has taken the initiative to mentor graduate students—especially, but not exclusively, women.  At both the winter and summer meetings of the LSA, the group regularly organizes panels and workshops on such topics as ‘Career paths in linguistics’, ‘Linguists in non-traditional professions’, and ‘Professional skills for graduate students and junior faculty’.  COSWL-organized multi-session ‘survival skills workshops’ have been a long-running and highly-attended feature of LSA Summer Institutes since 1995.  The group also created and hosted the ‘Women in Linguistics Mentoring Alliance’ program to link young and established scholars for one-on-one advice and support.  COSWL is an open committee accepting nominations (including self-nominations) for membership.  The current Chair is Melissa Baese-Berk of the University of Oregon.  More information about COSWL is accessible here

-- Margaret Thomas, Boston College

Editor's Note: As the LSA begins planning for the celebration of its Centennial in 2024, we are pleased to publish this brief essay about COSWL. This is the eighth such feature in our series, “This (time) in Linguistics History,” to be published on a periodic basis via the LSA website. We invite LSA members to submit their ideas and contributions for future history features. The new feature will be coordinated by LSA Archivist Margaret Thomas, in consultation with the LSA Secretariat. The trigger event for this periodic feature could be an important day, week, month or year in the history of the LSA and/or the field of Linguistics. We are happy to publish as many features as often as LSA members are willing to contribute. Please submit your ideas via e-mail to  Margaret Thomas or Alyson Reed.