Women’s clubs go mainstream

 

miller ad

Ad from the 1921 Register of Women’s Clubs

In addition to ads for baking powder, shoe polish, cloth (flannels, draperies, worsteds, gabardines), and other household products, The Register of Women’s Clubs contained advertising for educational offerings aimed at clubwomen. For instance, not every club had access to a library, so publications offered articles to help women research papers. One ad read:

Every club member will find The Yale Review exceptionally useful for club papers and discussions. The Yale Review has many requests for copies containing articles for such use. “The Novels of 1920,” by Wilbur Cross in the January number, was especially good for this purpose.

The Register of Women’s Clubs listed clubs, their presidents, and the department heads of state Federations of Women’s Clubs. The national Federation had over 1.5 million members by 1914, six years before the suffrage amendment was ratified. In small towns, new clubs sought structure as they made their sometimes tentative way into existence, and domestic topics made an easy transition.

A Course of Study in Bread Facts – For the use of Women’s Clubs, Extension Workers, Schools and the Public. SUMMARY OF TOPICS 1. Bread-making—an ancient art; its development—an index of civilization. 2. Evolution of the Grain-Raising Industry. 3. The Yeast Family. 4. Old vs. New Methods of Baking….

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 9.15.19 PMSelf-improvement clubs focused on subjects that were literary or related to home life. Other clubs were devoted to social reform in the period when women’s consciences were provoked by the spread of poverty and environmental destruction during the Industrial Revolution. Club meetings tended to revolve around the reading out of papers by women who had researched specific topics, but guest lecturers or performers were sometimes invited.

A handbook entitled Woman’s Club Work and Programs by Caroline French Benton was published in 1913, giving explicit guidance to women who wanted to start clubs. Benton offers outlines for programs on The Modern Drama, The Opera, The American Women Writers, The Home, Town Improvement, Nature, and so on. Each program contained a summary of subtopics and a bibliography for suggested research, designed to fill either ten or twenty meetings.

But many clubs were self-reliant, with a committee of members selecting topics. In 1905, my great-grandmother, Mary Wingebach, wrote to her mother:

The President appointed committees for the reception and for preparing the programme of next year. Mrs. Wingebach is Chairman of the Programme Committee, and is also a member of the other committee. Am I not in it? I have been many times congratulated on the way I have been able to attend and keep up my papers this year, and all it has entailed has been to leave my blessed baby about three hours each week. That is certainly not neglect, is it?

My heart warms at the thought of my plucky ancestor leaping into the role of committee chair while embracing the intellectual life.

Violet Snow is writing a historical novel, To March or to Marry, about suffrage and the women’s club movement.

Posted in history, women's rights | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Women who didn’t want the vote

anti flyerIt’s hard for us to imagine, in the modern world, that there were women who were aware of the suffrage movement in the 1800s and early 1900s and yet were not interested in gaining the right to vote. In fact, most of the leaders of anti-suffrage organizations were women. Most women’s clubs, whose members were intent on learning and self-improvement, refused to allow discussion of the controversial issue of suffrage at their meetings.

How do we understand the reluctance, or even opposition, of women to pursuing their own right to participate in the democratic process?

It’s important to recognize the prevailing attitudes about gender in the early years of the United States. At first, men’s and women’s spheres overlapped in rural life, where the labor of wives and daughters was essential to the success of a farm. As the 1800s progressed, the Industrial Revolution created a middle class in which men were drawn into the urban and small-town workforce, while women were confined to the role of homemaker. One writer, Mrs. John Sandford, described the ideal woman in an 1838 text on domesticity:

It is not to shine, but to please, that a woman should desire; and she will do so only when she is graceful and unaffected, when her wish is not so much to be admired as to contribute to the gratification of others.*

Women were socialized to conform to nurturing, homebound roles and shamed for moving outside them. When female study circles were formed in the mid-1800s, devoted to the relatively mild goal of “cultivation and improvement of the mind,” they had to contend with opposition, as evidenced by the inaugural address of the first president of the short-lived Edgeworthalean Society of Bloomington, Indiana, organized in 1841:

It is agreed by many that mental culture unfits a woman for the performance of those domestic employments which make a part of her daily duties. That this pursuit, like everything under the sun, may be abused, perverted, cannot be denied; but surely when properly directed it has no such tendency….*

By the turn of the century, when the women’s club movement was in full swing, “mental culture” had become widely accepted as a female endeavor. However, it was a big leap from writing a paper on Sophocles to insisting that women should have the vote.

Most of the leaders of the suffrage movement were wealthy, educated women, while the members of women’s clubs were largely middle-class and conventional. Among the reasons clubwomen resisted suffrage was a belief that their strengths lay in empathy and kindness, which made them unsuited to the rough, dirty world of politics. Some bought the contention that women were too emotional to make rational political decisions, or they simply didn’t want the responsibility. The suffragettes struck them as strident, mannish, and likely to give their gender a bad name.

But when clubs moved in the direction of social reform, as many of them did, women discovered the value of having the vote, as they found it challenging to make legislators heed their requests for such measures as universal kindergarten or citywide trash collection. In 1914, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs voted to endorse suffrage for the first time.

When the 19th amendment was finally adopted in 1920, more than six decades of club activities had surely contributed to the gradual change in attitudes that made legislators agree women should have the right to vote.

Violet Snow is writing a historical novel, To March or to Marry, about suffrage and the women’s club movement.

* The quotes cited above were found in two engaging studies on women’s clubs. The first is from The Clubwoman as Feminist by Karen J. Blair, published in 1980. The second is from The Sound of Our Own Voices: Women’s Study Clubs 1860-1910 by Theodora Penny Martin, from 1987.

Posted in history, women's rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Clubwomen and the environment

logging

Image # SHS935

In 1910, the official proceedings of the convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs reported:

We read in the papers that every time one of the great Sunday journals of New York City is issued, thirteen acres of timberland are consumed to make up the paper; that every time one of the great ships crosses the ocean thousands of tons of coal were destroyed, and we began to feel like those prodigals and spendthrifts, who, at some supreme moment discover that their fortune has vanished….Every thoughtful man, and every thoughtful woman, began to devote something of their time and strength to that great crusade by which we hope to preserve these natural resources, not only for our selves, but for those who come after us….[E]very woman’s club is consecrated by the very existence of their organization, and by the very temperament of their nature, to preserve these great assets.

Women, “by the very temperament of their nature,” were seen as connected to the Earth. The clubs, dedicated to making use of women’s innate talents for the good of society, therefore felt it was their duty to speak out in favor of conservation of resources.

At the 1910 convention, recognizing the effects human intervention had had on the environment, a resolution was discussed

[t]hat we lend the weight of our influence to further the preservation and intelligent utilization of our forests; the reclamation of our arid lands through irrigation; the restoration of our rivers to navigability through the construction of deep waterways;…and the adequate protection of our bird life. (Referred to Forestry Committee.)

Another resolution stated,

[t]hat the Federation vigorously opposes the proposed destruction of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley and withdrawal of the finest part of National Park, to be used as a water supply for San Francisco. (Referred to Legislative Committee.)

True to their feminine instincts, the clubwomen also addressed aesthetic symbolism, recommending that

each State consider the question of a National Floral Emblem and take such action as it deems fit.

Environmental issues were just part of a club agenda that included improving conditions in schools, implementing workplace safety regulations and compensation for workers injured on the job, outlawing “food products that are either adulterated, preserved by antiseptics, peeled by lye or prepared by any process that will either conceal inferiority or diminish their food value,” and many other social issues that were especially of concern to mothers and wives.

At the 1910 convention, 42 years after the start of the women’s club movement, it was acknowledged that many smaller groups were still “study clubs,” devoted to self-improvement and learning about culture. But as the activity of the convention makes it clear, clubwomen did not wait to get the vote (finally granted nationwide in 1920) before lobbying for social reform.

Maybe your great-grandmother belonged to a women’s club.

Violet Snow is writing a historical novel, To March or to Marry, about suffrage and the women’s club movement.

Posted in genealogy, history, Uncategorized, women's rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Clubs and women’s moral superiority

mary davies nyc c1900 (Mrs. WA Robinson photography studio)

Mary Davies, 1900, before her marriage to August Wingebach

When the New York City Press Club gave a reception welcoming Charles Dickens to the U.S. in 1868, journalist Jane Cunningham Croly applied for a ticket. The all-male club treated her request as a joke.

The invitation they eventually extended to a small group of women, “to prevent each other from feeling lonely,” was so condescending, Croly rescinded her application. She then started a club for professional women, called Sorosis.

Also in 1868, a group of Boston women (including poet and activist Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) independently founded the New England Women’s Club, which focused on social issues. Soon clubs began to form in towns and cities around the country, giving women—mostly white and mostly middle-class–a chance to get out of the house, socialize, and learn, changing society in the process.

For my great-grandmother, Mary Davies Wingebach, joining the Athenaeum Club in New York City must have saved her sanity. She had been working as a secretary in the field of publishing since the age of 14, when she taught herself typing and shorthand. Marriage and the abrupt transition to housework, after more than a decade as a working girl, must have been a shock. What a relief to get out of the house every Tuesday afternoon, from October through June, and share the life of the mind with other women!

The Athenaeum Club, formed in 1898 for “the intellectual and social improvement of its members,” was typical of literary clubs, in which women researched writers, artists, and historical figures and wrote papers to be read aloud at club meetings. These women were not radicals, marching for the vote. They reflected the attitudes of Jane Croly, who believed women were morally superior to men due to their focus on home and family, and they therefore had an important role to play in influencing the world outside the home. According to Karen J. Blair, author of the 1980 monograph, The Clubwoman as Feminist. “Croly’s refusal to relinquish the domestic sphere and her attempt to reconcile it with public influence yielded the Domestic Feminism that club members practiced.”

Most clubwomen’s attitudes were conservative, in comparison with the suffragettes, whose picketing, hunger striking, and political lobbying led to Congress granting women the right to vote. But Blair contends that women’s clubs had more influence than the radicals gave them credit for.

By teaching skills of researching, critical thinking, and public speaking, the clubs paved the way for women to enter business and politics. Clubs that addressed social issues lobbied government to take on responsibilities we now take for granted, such as passage of pure food and drug laws and the regulation of child labor.

The clubs also gave women an identity outside the home and permission to move beyond the limited wife and mother roles expected of them. I’m proud and grateful that my great-grandmother helped lay the groundwork for changes that my life has built upon.

Violet Snow is writing a historical novel, To March or to Marry, about suffrage and the women’s club movement.

Posted in genealogy, history, women's rights | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

I hope my great-grandmother isn’t mad at me

athenaeum club 1908 cr

The Athenaeum Club, Bronx NY. Mary Wingebach is under the X.

Dear Great-grandmother Mary,

I hope you’re not upset. You might actually be flattered that I used you as the model for Abbie Bergholtz, one of the protagonists in my historical novel, To March or to Marry. In 1911, Abbie joins a women’s club—the Athenaeum Club, the same one you belonged to, my dear Mary. For a few years, Abbie experiences many events mentioned in the letters you saved.

Later in the book, during a period for which I have no letters, Abbie plunges into activities I seriously doubt you had anything to do with, and for this rashness on my part, I crave your forgiveness. The plot had certain requirements. I believe, if you had met someone like Louise Kelley, my other protagonist, a totally imaginary woman who becomes a suffragette, you might have been pushed beyond your comfort zone. You might have gone to Margaret Sanger’s first birth control clinic. You might have written a club paper on child labor, or gone to Washington, DC, to help out a friend when the suffragettes were arrested for picketing the White House.

I did my best to stay true to your personality. I believe Abbie’s reactions to Louise’s criticisms and fiery temper are similar to how you would have responded to such a person. But if I’m wrong, I apologize.

Although you might not approve of everything Abbie is up to, I suspect you might like participating in a story that will help modern readers understand just what challenges women of a century ago were up against, and how the clubs were part of the forward movement–even if many clubwomen were ambivalent about suffrage, as I suspect you were.

In any case, I thank you for the inspiration, and for leaving me documentation of your life as a clubwoman and as a wife and mother. I’ve just finished the first draft, and I’m convinced this book has real promise. It would not have been written without you.

Much love,

Violet

Posted in genealogy, history | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Election Day romance

votingBefore the commercialization of Christmas took hold, before the Easter bunny was born, and before Thanksgiving became a pig-out, Election Day was America’s big, festive holiday. Amid the Election Day celebration of 1899, my great-grandparents’ courtship began.

The history of the holiday dates back to the Puritans, who didn’t believe in having fun on Christmas or Easter. These sacred seasons were meant to be devoted to prayer, not partying. Therefore, Election Day became the party day.

George Washington’s campaign budget was entirely devoted to buying alcohol for his supporters (and potential supporters). When voters came from the Connecticut countryside to Hartford to participate in the elections, candidates’ wives baked hearty (often rum-soaked) “election cakes” to sustain the out-of-towners. This tradition is being revived in 2016 by two North Carolina bakers under the rubric “Make America Cake Again,” as reported on BonAppétit.com.

In the 1890s, when my great-grandmother, Mary Davies, was working as a secretary at the Manhattan publisher Dodd, Mead & Company, New Yorkers celebrated Election Night with bonfires, fireworks, and torchlight parades.

In the process of transcribing love letters between Mary and her husband, August Wingebach, written two years after their marriage, I discovered that they met on Election Day. I assume a party was involved.

August wrote to Mary, in October 1904:

The time is approaching that in spite of any care we will keep sacred, –the time when we were brought together. Dolly will you sometimes take me, or when I’ve taken you tell me of our ‘Election’ outing, that night, the next week, you can recall all those images, will you do so for me, Dear? Just sometimes the little Sabbaths of the soul that care ought not blight, since they are holy heritages.

On another occasion, when he’s missing her and combing nostalgically through old writings:

On page 27 of one of my Diaries I read “Miss Davies gave me the following Pome of Robert Browning to read”–(on the train that Great ‘Election Day.’ ) O my beloved Mary, hour after Hour passes yet let me but add one more excerpt from my Diary (Nov 9th, 3 days after Election).
You will recall sweet Heart that I was in Love with you before you were with me…

August had been the Sunday School teacher of Mary’s nephew. I picture an afternoon picnic, organized by the local Methodist church. After everyone has voted, they take a train ride from the Bronx up to a park in Westchester County. Maybe August catches Mary’s attention by playing his violin to entertain the group. On the way home, he sits down next to her on the train and asks what she’s reading. She shows him the Browning poem–and the rest is history.

Posted in genealogy, history | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Halfway Café

halfway-cafe-150x150Here is a podcast of my short story, “The Halfway Café,” narrated by a dead woman and examining such questions as: Do our ancestors watch us? Why would they care if we mourn? An outtake from my mystery novel, Stone’s House, it is based on beliefs of indigenous people about the persistence of consciousness after death. The story opens:

“The Halfway Café was almost empty. You might have thought it was a Monday night, but after you die, there are no Mondays, and no night.”

To listen to the story–part of the podcast series “The Strange Recital”–and a short, free-wheeling interview, click here:

http://thestrangerecital.com/index.php/episodes/

Posted in death, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment