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Heterodoxy: Women without Taboos Formed a Club in Greenwich Village

The Women’s Club provided role models for me

Women passing knowledge — Pexels — Cottonbro

Carol Bly was intimidating at the breakfast round table. “Common ground,” she opined “doesn’t exist. I hate when anyone talks about common ground.”

She pronounced common ground a lost cause in the 1990s when political polarization hadn’t reached the current crescendo. Or maybe she was just looking to stir the pot, inviting a challenge, which she certainly did in conversation. Minnesota-nice was difficult to crack, and even hearty advocates could be quiet before their first cups of coffee. Not Carol.

Carol Bly was a writer, fierce conversationalist, and generous teacher. She had been married to Robert Bly, the poet, and creator of the “men’s movement” with Iron John.

The Women’s Club with no Projects

I was new to Minneapolis and had asked a woman I admired how to integrate into Minneapolis life. She suggested I join Horizon 100, a women’s club that had no projects, no minutes, and few rules.

Ten women from ten fields could join, and each woman was to speak at her turn for twenty minutes or so on new developments in her field. The breakfast meetings were held from 7 am to 9 am, alternating between The Women’s Club in Minneapolis and the University Women’s Club in St. Paul every other week.

For the first hour, we ate and chatted at our tables. In the second hour, we heard the presenter and asked questions.

I was in my 30s and found the accomplished women a decade or two ahead of me daunting. They were also terrific role models, and Horizon 100 influenced my aspirations. Like the historic women’s clubs, Horizon 100 helped women grow, moved the culture through the power of networking, and helped me become who I am.

Many women of accomplishment.

Rosalie Wahl was a member, the first woman justice of Minnesota’s Supreme Court. She spoke of attending law school at night while the mother of four children, and pregnant with her fifth child. She was tired of being outside the room where men decided public policy.

Her husband was an alcoholic. She divorced him, raised the children, and was a public defender until climbing the ranks of the judiciary.

Katherine Ridder was a member, philanthropist, and advocate for women’s athletics, particularly at the University of Minnesota. Her husband was a scion of the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers. Ridder Arena, for the women’s hockey team, is named after her.

I knew Amy Klobuchar first from Horizon 100 when she was District Attorney for Hennepin County and before she ran for the U.S. Senate and then U.S. President. I heard her tell pieces of her story at the table, long before they became part of her stump speech.

The simple rules — gathering leaders in their fields, allowing the conversation to flourish — reminded me of Heterodoxy in New York City, a radical women’s club in Greenwich Village from 1915 or so until 1940.

They are “Democrats, Republicans, Prohibitionists, socialists, anarchists, liberals, and radicals of all opinions.” Sometimes they accuse each other of being “cranks on certain subjects,” but no woman obsessed with a single issue lasts long in their proudly eclectic meetings. To give each other space to doubt and to disagree, the women keep no records of their meetings. They give their secret, unruly club a name that celebrates the difference of opinion: Heterodoxy.

We recognize many of the members’ names even today. Agnes de Mille was the noted choreographer and niece of Cecil B. de Mille. Mabel Dodge Luhan, the wealthy many-married salon host, decamped to Taos where she offered hospitality to D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda; Georgia O’Keefe, Lincoln Steffens, and many luminaries.

People like Margaret Sanger, the founder of what became Planned Parenthood, and Emma Goldman, the anarchist and organizer, spoke to the group.

Drawing Heterodoxy together more strongly than any other idea was feminism: a new word in America in the early 1910s if not exactly a new idea. Newspapers and magazines devoted extensive space to defining, explaining, and ridiculing the word, adapted from the French féminisme, and before long it was part of the common lexicon — a word that, depending on your point of view, spelled doom or liberation.

Mabel Dodge Luhan is particularly interesting to me because she always seemed to be in the middle of whatever was new. She helped organize the 1913 Armory Show that brought European modernism to the United States. She went to Paris and associated with Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. She engaged in spiritualism and had a vision of saving indigenous peoples, politically fraught now (and perhaps then). She moved to Taos and married a Navajo, husband number four.

By today’s standards, she was New Age and eccentric and brilliant and difficult, all at once.

Creating salons where she went.

I envy her ability to gather the best and the brightest, and to create salons where she went. I could emulate that, and perhaps I will.

The mix of free thought and willingness to challenge and to hear from an entrepreneur or corporate marketing strategist as well as an artist and theologian is what made Horizon 100 so valuable to me. It’s experimenting in the intellectual kitchen — a little of this, a little of that, and a new idea is brewing. The interests cross professional fields and perspectives.

It is the clear handing down of achievement from one generation to the next, with appreciation. The baton will not be dropped in this relay race.

Oh, and I must discuss the physical attributes of the clubs.

I was more than a little overwhelmed when I first drove up to the imposing edifice of the Minneapolis Women’s Club. The Club was built in 1928 and carries the cachet and luxe of that period. There are dining rooms, sitting rooms, parlors, and a theater.

The anterooms to the women’s lavatory are the coat room and the women’s lounge, filled with gilt-framed mirrors for brushing hair or applying lipstick. The couches speak to a time when the restroom’s purpose was to rest.

Club Room — Pexels — Arthouse

I had grown up in a small city in the Midwest, and such displays of status and expectation were new to me. But it was a Women’s Club, by and for women, and would, in time, become a comfortable place.

The Women’s Club was distant from and similar to the New Century Club in a village in New England. Years previous, I had been new to this small town and looking for a way to integrate into small-town life. Whether a town of 2000 or a metro area of 2 million, the cachet of the entrance to various clubs mattered.

Membership in the New Century Club was also by invitation. (The New Century referred to 1900, not 2000.) We quilted, and hosted a bake sale, and like most women’s clubs, engaged in charitable activities.

Women’s clubs grew out of the Progressive Era and provided an alternative before it was commonplace for women to work. The clubs involved women in civic issues. Those issues might be suffrage and later voter education; laws protecting children; and beautification.

I remember my mother attending Ladies Aid meetings at church, and rolling bandages out of sheets cut into strips, then always white and always cotton. Ladies’ Aid meetings were harbingers of women’s clubs.

I found out in the New Century Club that quilting stitches were small and prized, and Arlene was the best quilter in our county. My efforts were quite inadequate. But we raised money in the quilt auction and bake sale. I didn’t really fit in a small-town women’s club, but it was a way of integration and acceptance into the community.

And later, I raised hell in the environs that supported that effort, as well.

Women’s clubs like Heterodoxy and Horizon 100 brought together free thinkers and mixed community knowledge with an independent attitude.

They helped define feminism.

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  1. SingingFrogPress
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    Ah Sharon, I love your description of these women’s groups and the wonderful diversity of interests and groups they included. I vaguely remember notices for New Century Club meetings in the local paper so looked it up, and there seems to be one still in Middleburg. I think I may have, decades ago, encouraged to make some kind of presentation to a local Century Club meeting (for ACCORD? not sure) here in Cobleskill.
    wereIs that the one you belonged to? Were you aware of them?

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