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.

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