Civic Clubs, Women

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The impetus for the women's club movement, usually periodized as 1890 to 1920, originated in female benevolent and church societies, maternal associations, and sewing and reading circles in the early-to-mid 1800s. Through their charitable outreach, these groups learned organizational and fund-raising skills, as well as engaged in discussion of moral and social reform, such as "fallen women," indigent children, and common schools. However, as early as the 1810s, northern African American women had organized literary societies that established libraries, night schools, and other educational institutions for African American youth and adults. Most members of these organizations were middle or upper class, but during the 1850s some young working-class women formed their own clubs. Lucy Larcom and other Lowell female mill workers organized the Improvement Circle, wherein they shared and published their writing.

The first formal female city clubs were Sorosis of New York City and the New England Women's Clubs of Boston, both founded in 1868. When the Press Club of New York denied women admission to a speech by Charles Dickens, they founded Sorosis so that women could engage in their own study of literature and the arts. Many Sorosis members likewise supported female artists by buying paintings and creating scholarship funds for female students. Although not a philanthropic club per se, members were concerned with reform, especially of female labor, schools, and suffrage. Conversely, the New England Women's Club focused less on culture and more on reform. Many of its members, for example, also joined suffrage associations. Additionally, the club established the Friendly Evening Association, a place for working women to meet. However, the association was discontinued one year later because so few working women had the time or interest.

Thereafter, women throughout the country founded study clubs, thereby promoting a separate female culture where members could study and discuss literature, history, art, and social issues such as temperance and suffrage. Because many members were not college-educated, clubs also were a means of education and self-cultivation. For example, many clubs read classical writers, wrote and presented interpretive papers, and critiqued one another's content and delivery. In some cases, clubs brought in lecturers to guide them in their study; the Chicago Woman's Club, for example, hired Professor James Angell from the University of Chicago.

For native-born white club women, the study of arts, literature, history, and psychology was not frivolous. Rather, during the early twentieth century, club women used this knowledge to further their understanding of social problems and recommend reforms. As a matter of course, club women expanded their maternalistic sphere of influence beyond their homes to municipalities, arguing that they should be concerned with all matters pertaining to children's welfare. As "municipal housekeepers," they advocated for civic improvements, demanded that city ordinances be enforced, and engaged in community-building enterprises. To illustrate, they helped to create playgrounds, parks, social settlements, and kindergartens. They insisted that city officials enforce sanitation codes and that police protect children and youth from the "dangers" of saloons, roadhouses, and movie theaters. Some female clubs' advocacy was critical in the passage of legislation that regulated child labor, created mother's pensions, and established the first juvenile court in the United States. These reforms were not unique to urban clubs: rural clubs, too, focused on community improvements. The resulting achievements gave further momentum to their demands for suffrage.

By 1890, Sorosis and other native-born white women's clubs organized nationally into the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC). That year alone, the GFWC had a membership of 40,000; six years later, its membership increased more than twofold to 100,000. However, that membership was exclusionary in terms of social class and race. One African American club, the Woman's Era Club of Boston, was refused membership. This and other events led to the formation of a national organization of African American women's clubs. In 1895, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, president of the Woman's Era Club, published a copy of a southern journalist's letter that castigated African American women's moral character. In response, African American club women convened and organized the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC) in 1896.

African American women realized their tremendous responsibility in "social uplift," particularly as it pertained to children, women, and the elderly. They established day nurseries, kindergartens, and homes for working girls, orphans, dependent and delinquent children, and the sick and elderly. Through a constellation of club networks, they sustained these organizations as teachers, staff, and fund-raisers. Although African American women, like native-born white women, drew from a maternalistic ideology, one critical difference was that African American women had been historically denied the opportunity to express motherhood in culturally veritable ways. Motherhood, then, was the NACWC's central concern, expressed in community-building activities, as well as in the establishment of mothers' clubs for poorer African American women.

Historian Linda Gordon, in her comparisons of African American and white women's club, has discussed their similarities. First, like white club women, their African American counterparts were members of the middle class, although some African American clubs did include working-class women. Secondly, both groups of women were usually married, often to professionals. As such, they frequently demonstrated class distinctions, for example, in their study of literature. Similarly, they drew class lines in their fund-raising events of charity balls, promenades, and teas. As such, they upheld the twotiered motto of the NACWC, "lifting as we climb."

However, Gordon has also emphasized significant differences between the two groups of club women. Although African American club women may have held more privilege than most of their community members, they still experienced discrimination and racism. They knew that despite their exemplary respectable behavior, they were subject to derogatory remarks. They, too, like poorer African American women, faced discrimination in employment, transportation, and access to public facilities. For this reason, they protested such forms of discrimination, as well as advocated for antilynching legislation. Given the NACWC's large membership—50,000 women in more than 1,000 clubs and twenty-eight state federations as of 1914—the organization wielded a great deal of influence, especially in African American communities.

Immigrant women, too, formed their own clubs and associations. German American women joined church and secular clubs to retain German traditions and language. Not unlike African American women, they and other northern European immigrant women founded and sustained community homes for orphans, workingwomen, and the elderly. In the upper Midwest, Finnish women formed their own sewing circles and cooperative guilds, of which the latter organized youth camps, fairs, and homemaking projects. German-Jewish women founded their own national organization, the National Council of Jewish Women, in 1893. One Jewish women's club, the Chicago Hebrew Literary Society, sponsored lectures on the Hebrew language, Jewish literature, and history. Clearly, religion played a significant role in the establishment of many ethnic women's societies and auxiliaries.

Social settlement workers also created clubs for immigrant women in their neighborhoods, especially mother's clubs. For example, the Chicago Commons had both an Italian mother's club and a Polish mother's club, among others. These clubs provided lessons in housekeeping, cooking of American foods, sewing, child care, and sanitation. Immigrant women found some of these lessons useful, such as those on health and nutrition. More often than not, though, more immigrant women attended club meetings if there was a celebration or recreation. As such, settlement workers often recruited immigrant women as club members by sponsoring such activities.

Working-class women also organized their own organization, the National League of Women Workers (later the Association of Working Girls' Clubs). By the early 1900s, however, the group's focus had shifted from labor reform, in large part because club sponsors emphasized wholesome recreation. Accordingly, club leaders organized middle-class and respectable forms of entertainments, such as masquerade parties, teas, musicals, dances, and travel lectures. Clearly, these activities were popular: membership in the association mushroomed from 7,000 in 1900 to 30,000 in 1920.

After the 1920s, membership in women's clubs generally declined for four reasons. First, suffrage, the major political reform advocated by club women, had been achieved. Second, college-educated women turned to sororities and professional organizations instead of clubs. Third, organizations such as the Young Women's Christian Association created clubs for their own working-class members, including interracial clubs during World War II. Fourth, women became increasingly involved in other social reform organizations. For example, during the 1950s, women participated in the more traditional organizations of Parent-Teacher Associations and the League of Women Voters. But by the 1960s, more politically liberal women joined the National Organization of Women to advocate for further improvements in the status of American women.

Despite new women's organizations, some ethnic women have continued their involvement in women's clubs. The NACWC, for example, has remained active in the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and the preservation of the Frederick Douglass Home in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. Some of the African American women's clubs formed in the early twentieth century in Chicago existed through the 1980s. There may well be other groups that have continued the tradition of women's clubs, although the dearth of scholarship indicates otherwise.

See also: Civic Clubs, Men; Leisure and Civil Society; Women's Leisure Lifestyles


Blair, Karen J. The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redefined, 1868–1914. New York: Homes and Meier Publishers, 1980.

Gere, Anne Ruggles. Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women's Clubs, 1880–1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Gordon, Linda. "Black and White Visions of Welfare: Women's Welfare Activism, 1890–1945." Journal of American History 18 (February 1991): 559–590.

Haarsager, Sandra. Organized Womanhood: Cultural Politics in the Pacific Northwest, 1840–1920. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Knupfer, Anne-Meis. Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women's Clubs in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

——. In Defense of Culture: Women's Activism and the Chicago Black Renaissance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Martin, Theodora Penny. The Sound of Our Own Voices: Women's Study Clubs, 1860–1910. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

Murolo, Priscilla. The Common Ground of Womanhood. Class, Gender, and Working Girls' Clubs, 1884–1929. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Wesley, Charles Harris. The History of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs: A Legacy of Service. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, 1984.

Anne Meis Knupfer