In the Public Interest:
Women’s Clubs as an Agent of Change
Those who adhered to the belief that women's responsibilities should be limited to home and family were displeased at women's great impact on the public world. Nevertheless, multitudes of club members defied the convention that “woman's place is in the home” by uniting to sharpen their ideas, voice opinions, and engage in reform of the public world outside their households. The Progressive reform movement arose in response to the rapid industrialization of the early 20th century in America. Early progressives believed that society’s problems, such as poverty, poor health, violence, greed, racism, and class warfare, could be best addressed by better education, a safer environment, a more efficient workplace, and honest government.
“Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world.”
- Mary McLeod Bethune
Women's clubs set the stage for increased political and social participation in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Women launched impressive campaigns for municipal reform through their organizations. They succeeded at lobbying for a wide range of state and local legislation, including conservation measures, civil service requirements for government employees, public health programs, educational improvements, prison reform, the creation of public kindergartens, day care for children of working mothers, and facilities to support children in need.
Women expressed early support for political activity, particularly for women's rights. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs, formed in 1890, coordinated women’s activities throughout the country. Members lobbied governments to enact measures to ameliorate conditions of poverty, disease, and inequality. Chicago women secured the nation’s first juvenile court (1899). Los Angeles women helped inaugurate a public health nursing program and secure pure milk regulations for their city. They secured municipal public baths in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities. Organized women in Philadelphia and Dallas were largely responsible for their cities implementing new clean water systems. Women set up pure milk stations to prevent infant diarrhea, and they organized infant welfare societies.
Women’s club members sought national legislation to protect consumers from the pernicious effects of industrial food production. In 1905, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs initiated a letter-writing campaign to pressure Congress to pass pure food legislation. Clubwomen sought a ban on child labor and protections for children’s health and education. They argued that no society could progress if it allowed child labor. In 1912 they persuaded Congress to establish a federal Children’s Bureau to investigate conditions of children throughout the country. Julia Lathrop first headed the bureau, which was thenceforth dominated by women.
Women established settlement houses, voluntary associations, day nurseries, and community, neighborhood, and social centers. These venues intended to bring people together to learn about one another and their needs, to provide assistance for those needing help, and to lobby their governments to provide social goods to people.
“Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself.”
Women devoted themselves to crime prevention, demanded that marriage and divorce laws be revised, militated against bad government and crooked politicians. In 1934, the Federation turned its attention to legislation for crime suppression. They worked to provide separate facilities—or at least separate quarters—for female prisoners and for supervision by matrons, to prevent abuse by male prison guards. In the 1930s, California Federation of Women’s Clubs supported a proposed bill regulating possession of firearms and taking guns away from criminals.