Early Women's Clubs

Early Women's Clubs
Women's Clubs can easily be traced back to the 1850's.
 These clubs aimed to cultivate middle class women in new ideas acquired through study and culture. Such clubs are more readily associated with the fraternalism clubs of the time than to the later service clubs. Organizations such as the Masons, Elks and Moose remained male only, but the members often invited their wives, “the little woman,” to join them at sociable events.

Interestingly, these clubs seemed to reinforce the stereotypical images of men and women, yet the women’s club movement prospered. Often, the idea was to simply replicate organizations such as the freemasonry movement, with its secret rituals. Yet, by the 1880's there were over 900 such groups around the USA.

However, many of these women's clubs actually formed themselves into a General Federation of Women's Clubs and held conventions. In 1889, President Charlotte E Brown's vision was for a club that "fits women for useful service in all the broadening avocations that are opening before them." There were calls for women to address the problems of the age and work for the improvement of the social, civic and educational institutions.

These women had a broad aim of self-culture and placed great emphasis on setting up local libraries, petitioning on industrial reform and campaigning for city beautification projects.

The women were very successful in their social aims. Companionship aimed at self-improvement flourished. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, who was president from 1900 to 1904, began successful efforts to recruit large members of socially prominent and politically influential women (the "society plan") and to convince the growing numbers of middle and upper-class women involved in women's clubs that woman suffrage would be a boon to their civic improvement efforts.

They also reached out to the new generation of college-educated women, many of them professionals, reminding them that their opportunities were owed to the pioneers of the woman's movement, and challenging them to take up the torch.

The Chicago Women's Club was an example of a prominent and exclusive club and dedicated to the movement's motto of "Unity in Diversity". The Chicago Club was credited with influencing the improvements in the city jails in 1906. Political campaigning was not taboo, it was a time in America that women made major contributions to reform, politics, child labor laws and national life during a time that came to be called the Progressive Era.

But, the Chicago Women's Club was an exception. Most women’s clubs had their birth and growth from with the home, from the sitting rooms and parlors of middle-class women. Most of these early women's clubs were charitable, social, or literary groups. And, even the smaller clubs in the smaller communities soon became involved in programs for community improvement, which led them into reform.
There are interesting comparisons with Rotary. One President of the Federation, Ellen Henrotin described the movement as one not "allied to any church or any creed or any nation, but underlying them all." She went on: "We must live an applied Christianity. No greater service can be rendered the world."

By the 1920's, the Women's clubs began declining as the men had taken up the challenges laid down by women in the form of Rotary and similar service clubs. Rotary’s role had changed from ‘boosting’ to ‘service.’ Yet, with a kind of selective blindness, the men never acknowledged the role women played in 'service'.

Some important women’s milestones that occurred during this period:

1866 - The Young Women's Christian Assoc. (YWCA) founded in Boston, MA
1869 - Wyoming Territory grants women the vote in all elections, the first.
1889 - Jane Addams and Ellen Starr found Hull House in Chicago, IL
1890 - General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) - the world's oldest nonpartisan, nondenominational women's volunteer service organization - was founded in New York City by newspaperwoman Jane Cunningham Croly
1903 - Women's Trade Union League founded to support working women
1912 - Police close down Margaret Sanger's birth-control clinic
1912 - Hadassah organized
1916 - Jeannette Rankin (Montana) became the first woman elected to Congress
1917 - National Woman's Party begins picketing White House for suffrage on July 14
1920 - 19th Amendment (Woman Suffrage) ratified, August 26
1920 - League of Women Voters founded
1920 - Women's Bureau of Dept. of Labor formed

Sources include: The Women's History and Resource Center, founded by the General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1984; George, Carol V. R., "Remember the Ladies”; Charles, Jeffrey A., “Service Clubs in American Society”; Harris, Barbara J., “Beyond Her Sphere: Women and the Professions in American History”; and Hartman, Mary S. and Lois W. Banner, “Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women.”

Photo Upper Left: The executive committee of the Sorosis club of New York City appeared in an 1893 issue of Worthington's Magazine. Having sponsored the organization meetings of GFWC in 1889 and 1890, the Sorosis club was experiencing a particularly successful period of community and civic action.

General Federation of Women's clubs convention in New York

This article comes from the 'Manual of Procedure' for Rotarians - this was a supplement to the Proceedings agreed at the Atlantic City Convention 1920 and written for all members - it included a brief History; a section on use of the Rotary emblem and name; Rotary's relationship to other organizations. The article on women appears under the general heading of 'Membership in Rotary'

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