Clubwomen and the environment


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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, Women of To-day, about suffrage and the women’s club movement.

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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 reform. 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, Women of To-day, about suffrage and the women’s club movement.

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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 Flora Bergholtz, one of the protagonists in my historical novel, Women of To-day. In 1911, Flora joins a women’s club—the Athenaeum Club, the same one you belonged to, my dear Mary. For a few years, Flora experiences many events mentioned in the letters you saved.

Later in the book, during a period for which I have no letters, Flora 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 Flora’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 Flora 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,


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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 BonAppé

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.

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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:

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What’s a pandy? Who’s the tucker?

pandy-signWed. May 25th [1892]   ….After tea we took a walk to the coal pit from which place we could see the Pandy & Alltiago farm. We got a glass of fresh milk at the Alltiago farm….Continuing our walk we went to see Mrs. Johns (Nancy Willsaer) who used to work for my grandparents.

When I read, in my great-grandmother Mary Davies’ diary, that she saw “the Pandy,” I assumed she was referring to a river. At the age of 20, the girl who had grown up in Topeka, Kansas, was visiting her father’s relatives in Wales, in the town of Pontardulais. I went there this summer to see what she had seen 124 years ago.

I was also researching the family of her father, William Davies, who had emigrated from Pontardulais to Ohio with his family. I had the name of his father, Morgan, from a cemetery record, and the names of four siblings—Mary, Sarah (nicknamed Sally), Daniel, Jane–from letters, and not much else to go on, except hints in the diary, which proved to be vital.

At the West Glamorgan archives in Swansea, I found Llandeilo Talybont Parish baptism records for four children of Morgan and Mary Davies—William, Sarah, Daniel, and Jane. Morgan’s address was given as “Pandy,” his occupation as “Tucker.” The Internet revealed that a tucker is someone who processes wool, cleansing the fabric of oils and pounding it so the fibers interlock for strength and waterproofing. But I couldn’t find a town (or a river) called Pandy. And Davies is such a common surname, I couldn’t be sure I had the right family.

goppa-1-chapelMary’s diary led me to Goppa Road, on the outskirts of Pontardulais, where she attended services one Sunday at the Calvinistic Methodist chapel. It was two miles from where she was staying, but by then, two months into her visit, she didn’t blink at walking that far.

At half past nine we started for Goppa Chapel for the morning service. After the service we went to Nancy Willsaer’s for dinner. She had “cawl” [broth] for dinner. After dinner she got the key & we went in the Goppa-fach. She showed us just where Aunt Sally & she used to sit, & told us how the boys would sit behind them & tease them.

“Aunt Sally” had to be William’s sister, so his family had attended Goppa Chapel—which is still in operation, although it’s now Presbyterian. I went to the Sunday service, given in Welsh. My friend Kristin and I were greeted by a chapel elder, Eifion Davies (not my relative, as far as we know), who offered to help me with my genealogical research. Several women of the congregation heard my story and told me about the pandy, which was not a town, district, or river but a wool-processing mill—and it was located less than a mile away. Surely this Morgan Davies and his family attended Goppa Chapel!

After the service, Eifion showed us the pandy, situated on the River Dulais, which furnished power for the mill. The building is now a residence, and the woman who has lived there for the past 40 years brought out a scrapbook of historical documents. The first pandy on the site was built in 1448. It was replaced twice, the last time being in about 1750. The mill wheel drove hammers that pounded the wool. People wove their own cloth and then brought their woolen goods to the mill for processing. Surely such a business would require an employee or two–such as Nancy Willsaer.

pandy-2-outside2Two known names and an appropriate date–as represented by the 1830 baptism record of William, son of Morgan Davies—are not sufficient to establish a family relationship. But adding up the further coincidences—the names of three known siblings and the proximity to a chapel where at least one family member was reported to attend—I’m now pretty sure Morgan Davies the tucker was my great-great-great-grandfather.

I am grateful to Mary for the diary and to the people of Goppa Chapel for preserving the knowledge that led me to Morgan and his pandy.

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Off to Wales with my great-grandmother’s diary

mary davies feb 1896 sm

Mary in February 1896, at the age of 24

My mother gave me my first diary when I was 13. It had a yellow cardboard cover and a tiny lock and key. I welcomed the chance to put down my secrets, especially to spill out the doubts and longings that ached in my boy-crazy heart. Afraid some nosy person might cut the cardboard strap that connected the lock to the back cover, I hid the little book in my closet in a box of Lincoln Logs that my brother and I were too old to play with. The words were definitely for my eyes only.

Ten years later, when I lived in a New York City commune devoted to truthfulness, all of us kept journals to deal with the jealousies, guilts, and self-criticisms our intertwined lives entailed. Writing about my emotions helped keep them from clogging up and either sending me into a deep depression or exploding in anger.

My diaries, like many people’s journals nowadays, served as therapeutic tools. I get the feeling from my great-grandmother’s travel diary and her father’s Civil War diary that the medium in the 19th century had a different purpose.

There is no self-analysis in either of those precious documents, no attempt to vent grief and anger. Among the marching and camping, William Davies notes matter-of-factly that his feet are bleeding from his new, too-tight boots, that his friend John Jones died of pneumonia and was sent home in a metallic coffin, that he and his comrades spent a night burying the dead after an assault on Vicksburg, what he called “a trying time for me and the rest also.” But he goes no deeper into his emotions. In fact, when John Jones dies, he stops writing for two weeks.

Of his biggest trauma, three months as a prisoner of war in the hell of Andersonville Prison, he wrote only two sentences. Far from working through his pain, he refused to dwell on it or to inflict on his future readers anything that might be too upsetting. I think he was keeping a record, for himself and for his family, of events he knew were significant. I wonder how his wife felt about his omissions. Was she glad to be spared his suffering? Or did she long for more details, to know what had been in his heart, especially when it seemed the pain continued to haunt him after the war?

Mary Davies’ 1892 diary covers three months in Wales, her father’s birthplace. The writing is almost as restrained as William’s, although she describes places—farmhouses, ancient castles, landscape, a tin works—in extravagant detail. It reads like a travelogue she would be happy to show her mother, her brother and sister, and curious acquaintances at home. There are few conflicts and almost no descriptions of people that might offend or cause envy—although she names every person who went for a walk with her or invited her to their house. I find her reticence about her emotions intensely frustrating. Of course, I’m grateful beyond words to have both of these documents offering windows into past lives. But couldn’t Mary have spilled a few secrets of her inner world? I suppose not, if the writings were destined for other readers.

I’m about to go to Wales with a transcript of her diary in hand, seeking the places she visited 124 years ago. The book I’m writing about Mary is composed of both actual letters she kept and letters I make up to fill in the gaps—as well as letters I write to her, mulling over her life and its impact on me. Sometimes she answers my letters. I will be looking at Wales through her eyes, trying to intuit the emotions she left out of her journal. I hope she’s paying attention.

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