“Ladies, the Meeting Shall Now Come to Order”
From Parlor to Politics
Most women’s clubs had their birth and growth from within the home, from the sitting rooms and parlors of middle-class women. Among the earliest clubs that women founded were those devoted to traditional concerns of women such as modern methods of child-raising. During the Civil War women formed Sanitary Commissions to raise money for supplies for Union soldiers. Charitable efforts were promoted by the Colored Ladies' Society and Dorcas Charity Club, both founded by African American women. The forerunners of our contemporary book discussion groups quickly arose as literary societies, providing opportunities for members to read and discuss modern plays, poetry, essays, novels and classic works of fiction and history. Sometimes the debates led to action by the membership, including investigation of social problems and programs to effect change.
Before the mid-1800s most women’s associations, with some notable exceptions, were either auxiliaries of men’s groups or church-sponsored aid societies. Without a doubt, women played active and integral roles in these groups, but the direction and administration of such organizations were usually controlled by men. Clubs expanded rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s as women began to press for access to higher education and civil rights. Clubs became places where women learned how to speak in public, handle money, and exercise political influence without actually having the vote. They also provided opportunities for personal growth and creative self expression.
Women’s clubs were founded on the notion that women, united, could change themselves and their world.
In the years following the Civil War, a growing number of women began joining clubs devoted to education, self and community improvement. Most club members were middle-aged white women from the leisured classes—women who had come of age when higher educational opportunities for women were limited. While literature and history were often the cornerstones of the study club curricula, some clubs specialized in the study of law, music, the sciences, and other fields. Clubwomen held discussions and presented essays and speeches on current topics of study.
In the late nineteenth century, feminism, suffrage, political action, self-culture and self-help devolved in the women’s club movement, which enjoyed a heyday from the 1890s through the 1920s. Two prototypical women’s clubs were founded in 1868, Sorosis and the New England Women’s Club. Journalist Jane Cunningham Croly, a founder of Sorosis, and Julia Ward Howe, representing the New England Women’s Club, traveled the country promoting the value of clubs administered and controlled by women. They envisioned women’s clubs as a means for women to become better educated but also expected that the clubs would play a significant role in bettering society through voluntary community service.
Many clubs followed the lead of these two and combined self-improvement with voluntary community work, addressing needs for kindergartens, libraries, and parks. Such clubs often accomplished their goals in town councils through sheer persistence and determination—a remarkable achievement considering that, prior to enfranchisement, women had no sanctioned political voice.
Julia Ward Howe
General Federation of Women’s Clubs
By the late 19th century a great number of women’s clubs had sprung up across the country, and in 1889 Croly and Charlotte Emerson Brown issued an invitation to 97 clubs to gather in New York City to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Sorosis Club. They then founded an umbrella organization, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), to coordinate the various clubs’ activities. The GFWC pushed the club movement more decisively in the direction of voluntary civic service by formulating a national public-minded agenda for clubs belonging to the federation.
By 1906, there were more than 5,000 women’s clubs in the United States.
By the 1920s, women enjoyed more opportunities for public activity than their Victorian grandmothers had. While club members were disappointed that their new enfranchisement did not grant them a greater voice in the American political system, they continued to initiate and maintain social welfare programs and lobby government to do the same. Women who won elective office saw victory with the support of women's clubs. By the mid-twentieth century, Mayors and Governors routinely recognized club influence by appointing club leaders to boards that directed the educational, social welfare, and arts agencies of the nation.