Women’s Clubs were the Cauldron for Leadership and Service.
Women’s Clubs have been a predecessor place for women to experience leadership, service, grow skills, and camaraderie. Women’s clubs came into their own in the mid-19th century. Early versions were Ladies Aid Societies and auxiliaries in a variety of venues, often auxiliaries to men’s clubs.
There were also clubs for free-thinking women, like Heterodoxy in New York City. Heterodoxy means a deviation from accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.
The New Century Club (that is, 1900)
I was invited to join the New Century Club when I moved to a small town in upstate New York. The New Century referred to 1900.
The women in that club quilted and canned and baked and spearheaded service projects for the local community. Doctors’ wives and other “women of quality backgrounds” were involved in the New Century Club.
Members gushed over the home-baked treats that were supplied by the hostess, served on a table laid out with the best linens and matching napkins.
The Club reminded me of my mother’s church circles. When my mother hosted, the aroma of coffee and cookies or crumble cake wafted through the house. My siblings and I were banished to play either downstairs or in our rooms for the duration.
Women’s clubs were often hosted mid-afternoon in round-robin turns. Little pillows of pastel mints and mixed nuts were always on the menu, served in the good silver dishes. My mother had glass oval plates with insets for the glass coffee cups, especially for her hostess duties.
…And Ladies of the Club was published by Helen Hooven Santmyer in 1982.
Santmyer’s story gives all of us late-in-life writers hope.
Her book was published in 1983 when she was in her 80s. The first publishing run by a local Ohio press was 1,500 copies. Patrons of a local library raved about the book, and through word-of-mouth, it eventually became a Book-of-the-Month selection.
The 1985 paperback edition sold more copies than any paperback edition at that time. Santmyer was in her late 80s in a nursing home when she became a famous author.
The story goes that Santmyer did not like Sinclair Lewis’ cynical depiction of small-town life in Main Street. She wrote a corrective, a multi-generational account of the woman’s club in a small town.
We women of the New Century Club discussed the characters and compared them to people we knew in the town of 2,000. Some feature characters had Dutch names, and in upstate New York, Dutch-named families had social cachet as original settlers with family lineages that went back to Dutch patents, or land grants (think Roosevelt).
I felt like I was re-entering another century at the small-town women’s club. I also thought it was an essential introduction to the small-town culture I had adopted.
I was embarrassed that my sewing stitches on the New Century Club’s quilting projects were judged “large,” not tiny like the best quilters, in the Club. I also questioned what “canned goods” the women were talking about since I had never canned anything in my life. I baked instead, for the homemade goods sale.
These were two new skill sets, sewing small stitches and canning from the garden, I had never known I should master.
Heterodoxy was a transition from Suffrage to Second Wave Feminism
It was a different world to live in New York City and be in Greenwich Village during the same time as Santmyer’s novel.
Heterodoxy was a salon for free-thinking women, which met from 1912–to 1940. Famous figures like Agnes de Mille and Mabel Dodge Luhan were members. Speakers included Amy Lowell, Margaret Sanger, and Emma Goldman.
The group met for lunch every other Saturday, and today is regarded as a cauldron of thought that led to the feminist movement, out of the remnants of the suffrage movement.
I would have loved to have been present at Heterodoxy, to hear the engaged conversations of leading thinkers of the day — women — who were hashing out for themselves who they should be and what needed to change to provide women with full self-hood.
Many women’s clubs transformed into professional organizations, as women entered careers in force. I was fortunate to join a women’s club with many similarities to Heterodoxy when I worked in a large city.
Women’s club to professional organization
The club was focused on “upcoming transformations in each field,” and ten fields were identified for ten women to be nominated from each field and selected for membership of 100. Those fields included business, entrepreneurship, government, religion, non-profit, etc.
Each of us gave presentations on a rotating basis, and the steering committee was chosen out of a hat annually. We minimized structure to maximize engaged conversations.
When I first joined, I was sometimes daunted by table conversation. One better come prepared with one’s best wits and knowledge of current events; not because it was a competition, it was just the norm. I loved it, and view that association as a formative environment for me.
There were no training events on leadership, it was simply modeled by the formidable women around the table.
Whether it was Heterodoxy or the modest clubs of small-town Americana, women’s clubs are undervalued for the alternatives they provided women.
Men’s clubs have opened but are still men’s clubs which allow women.
In the 1970s and later, men’s clubs were pushed to open their doors to women as identified places of informal power. I have sat at tables of breakfast Rotarians, listening wearily to discussions of prostrates. The Elks Clubs no longer have a stripper night.
I do confess to loving the nurturing of women’s clubs and can understand that the guys want their environments, too. I never joined a traditional men’s service club and fled to the charged and welcoming environments of women’s clubs.
In large cities, the Women’s Club was often a stately brick manse of past grandeur. It might be named for that city, be an outlet of the American Association of University Women, or some other iteration. I do miss that chatty gathering in the grand dining room, or in the ladies’ powder room, a series of mirrors and lounging chairs. Linen towels were laid out to dry our hands.
Here’s to the Ladies of the Club, and the invisible legacies of leadership, service, and social change they have left.
They were places we got our hands dirty, at least metaphorically, launched thousands of local civic projects, and quietly contributed to a revolution in our culture.