WOMEN'S CLUBS are voluntary organizations that were originally formed by women who had been denied access to the major institutions of America's democratic civil society. Until the twentieth century, men dominated political parties, labor unions, professional organizations, universities, and even charitable and benevolent organizations, and either excluded women or severely limited their roles. The type, purposes, and work of women's clubs range across every conceivable area of public life. To further their work, individual women's clubs were also organized into larger associations.
Types of Women's Clubs
In the early nineteenth century, urban and rural women formed female moral reform associations. The American Female Moral Reform Society, which had 445 auxiliary societies by 1839, and the Female Benevolent Society of St. Thomas, which was founded by free African American women, were two such clubs. During the Civil War, women founded war relief organizations. Elizabeth Blackwell formed the Women's Central Association of Relief in New York City in April 1861 and women across the North followed her example. The women of McMinnville, Oregon, for example, formed a Ladies' Sanitary Aid Society in 1863.
Following from their war relief work, various types of women's clubs proliferated throughout the country. During this period, there appeared suffrage and literary clubs such as the Ladies' Reading clubs, Sorosis, and Fort-nightly. Working women formed working girls' clubs and small-town women formed civic improvement associations. In bigger cities, women organized citywide and neighborhood women's clubs and women's educational and industrial unions. Ethnic, church-based, African American, and settlement house women's clubs were founded across the country. One contemporary survey of women's clubs in Chicago counted more than eighty clubs with an active membership of over 12,000 women by the first decade of the twentieth century. This survey, in fact, greatly under-represented the actual number of clubs. Between 1890 and 1920, there were at least a dozen African American women's clubs doing political and suffrage work. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, women's city clubs, women's municipal leagues, and socialist women's clubs were founded across the country, dramatically increasing the number of clubs and women members.
Purposes and Work of Women's Clubs
Although women continued to belong to literary, social, and charitable clubs, the majority of women's clubs organized after the Civil War had specific civic and political agendas. The specific purposes of each club differed according to the type of club and its stated purpose. The Galveston Women's Health Protective Association and the Chicago Free Bath and Sanitary League were concerned with public health issues, such as requiring city governments to regulate food production and distribution, and to build free public baths. The Chicago Woman's Club was determined to improve the public school system of its city, among other reforms. The African American Atlanta Neighborhood Union worked to better living conditions for that city's African American residents. Working girls' clubs and the educational and industrial unions focused on improving the conditions of labor for working women. Neighborhood and settlement house women's clubs worked to improve their immediate surroundings and to demand pure food laws, decent housing, clean streets, better sanitation facilities, and better methods of garbage collection. Infant welfare leagues demanded laws to promote maternal and infant health care. Anti-smoke leagues battled to eliminate smoke pollution from their communities. Women's city clubs, municipal leagues, and socialist and suffrage clubs were avowedly political in their purposes, demanding women's suffrage and extensive reforms of local and state governments. Women's city clubs were often springboards into future political work. Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve as Secretary of Labor, belonged to the Women's City Club of New York. Future congresswoman Ruth Hanna McCormick helped found the Woman's City Club of Chicago. The first woman elected mayor in a big city, Bertha Knight Landes, of Seattle, founded the women's city club there.
Whatever the specific purpose of a woman's club, the millions of women who joined them were determined to insert women's voices and ideas into public affairs. A vigorous and vocal women's civic activism was their common goal. In cities, members of women's clubs often linked their efforts to cleaning up and organizing the city as they cleaned up and organized their homes. At times they used the metaphor of "municipal housekeeping" to describe and justify their efforts. This metaphor was a strategy used by women to deflect resistance from men, as they demanded to be given a hearing in the public debate over social, economic, and political conditions.
Another common goal of women's clubs was to bring more social justice into American society. Thus, women's clubs worked to implement factory inspection laws, to place limits on the number of hours in the working day, to eliminate child labor, to institute the juvenile justice system, and to raise the minimum age for compulsory education. African American women's clubs fought against lynching, racial segregation, and discrimination. Catholic and Jewish women's clubs attracted women of those faiths who may not have felt comfortable in other women's clubs; these women were able to work for social justice within their organizations, which also paid special attention to the problems encountered by the particular religious group.
Associations of Women's Clubs
Women's club members believed that in order to accomplish most of their aims they had to organize networks of women's clubs. One early attempt at such organization came in Chicago in 1888 when working women, middle-class white women, and African American clubwomen formed the Illinois Women's Alliance. The alliance folded in 1894, but other associations were already replacing it. The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) was a national network founded in 1890 at the instigation of newspaperwoman Jane Cunningham Croly. State and municipal federations of women's clubs formed across the country and by 1910, the GFWC had one million members. African American women, led by Mary Church Terrell and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. By 1914, it had 50,000 members in 28 different federations composed of more than 1,000 clubs. NACW membership peaked in the 1920s at close to 300,000 and its influence declined thereafter; but in the 1930s, Mary McLeod Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women as a national association for African American clubwomen. The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) formed in 1893, at the behest of Chicago clubwoman Hannah Greenebaum Soloman, and the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW) was organized in 1920.
Women's Clubs Today
Membership in women's clubs changed after the woman suffrage amendment greatly expanded women's access to civic activism through organizations previously closed to them. But women have never rejected the legacy of female activism. Women continue to maintain and join female voluntary clubs. The GFWC today has one million members in affiliated clubs in twenty countries. The NACW with 270 commissions, the NCCW with 7,000 organizations, and the NCJW with affiliates in 500 communities throughout the country still exist. Women's City Clubs are still working for reform in their communities.
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