Fraternal and Service Organizations

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FRATERNAL AND SERVICE ORGANIZATIONS. Men's business lunches and women's afternoon teas blossomed into national voluntary associations for public service around 1900. The need to do public good combined with private camaraderie to change these social occasions into local clubs, which then federated with a national organization. Service clubs flourished especially in smaller cities and towns. Their typical monthly meetings involved ninety minutes of socializing over food and thirty minutes of civic uplift. Local women's clubs mostly joined the General Federation of Women's Clubs, incorporated in 1901 in Washington, D.C., by Ella Dietz Clymer. Their public service focused on schools, libraries, and parks.

Businessmen's clubs initiated the national Rotary in 1905 in Chicago and founded by Paul Harris, the Exchange in 1911 in Detroit and founded by Charles Berkey, the Kiwanis in 1915, also founded in Detroit, by Allen S. Browne, the Lions in 1917 in Chicago and started by Melvin Jones, and the Optimist in 1919 in Lexington, Kentucky, founded by William Henry Harrison. Each men's service club eventually specialized its public service. The Rotary became linked with polio, the Lions with blindness, and the Exchange with child abuse, for example. In 1931, fifteen major men's service clubs and six major women's service clubs had a total of one million members. By 1964, twenty-six major men's clubs counted four million members and eight women's clubs had fifteen million members. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exempted private clubs from integration by race or gender, the U.S. Supreme Court negated this exception in Rotary International v. Rotary Club of Duarte in 1987. By 2000, women's service clubs had shrunk to fewer than one million members, while the men's service clubs' membership remained static in the late twentieth century.


Charles, Jeffrey A. Service Clubs in American Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Sheets, Tara, ed. Encyclopedia of Associations. 36th ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.