Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Women's Clubs

March is Women's History Month and we are going to look at some specialized resources for researching our female ancestors, starting with Women's Clubs.

Women had been meeting in groups in churches from the earliest moments our country’s history.  But it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the women’s club movement as a non-secular entity really expanded.  
The Civil War forced women to become involved outside the home.  Women had to take care of the home front, manage the farms, run the shops, roll bandages, care for the wounded, raise money for uniforms and supplies, and other patriotic activities.  Indeed, it was a woman’s duty to participate in these activities.  Once the war was over, women wanted to continue meeting and improving their communities and their minds, as they had during the war.  
But men were not so accommodating.  Women interested in pursuing literary or educational opportunities often were discouraged. Women were not welcomed in most colleges and universities.
When Jennie June, editor of Demorest’s Illustrated Monthly (a women’s fashion magazine that carried household hints) attempted to attend a Press Club dinner in honor of Charles Dickens, she was discouraged by the men of the club.  Even after Horace Greeley refused to preside over the dinner unless the ladies were allowed in, the best the club would offer is to let some of the women attend if they sat behind a curtain!

Perhaps the first women’s group, the Sorosis Club, was formed in New York City in 1868 as a direct result of this snubbing.  The club’s purpose was “to teach women to think for themselves and get their opinions first hand, not so much because it is their right as because it is their duty.” The club objective was “to promote agreeable and useful relations among women of literary and artistic tastes…entirely independent of sectionalism or partisanship.”
The women’s club movement gained momentum as word spread through family contacts and visits.  As the movement became more popular, newspaper editorials vilified the women as self-indulgent and neglectful of their domestic responsibilities for meeting for an hour once a month outside the home.
Because men’s club rooms and public meeting places were not available to the women, they met in each other’s homes.  This necessitated that the groups remained small, 10-12 women at the most. While the groups were known by many different names, what they had in common was the kinds of activities they participated in: self improvement through educational programs, service to the community, and activities related to women’s work.  Often these goals were couched in the notion that better educated mothers made for better educated and more responsible future citizens. 
Not to be overlooked was the social component in these clubs.  They afforded women who often worked in isolation in the home or on the family farms an opportunity to meet and socialize with other women with similar interests. 
Some groups used guest speakers to fill their programs.  But most clubs insisted that the members research and present their own programs.  This practice improved their members’ skills as speakers and educators.  For many women, their participation in a women’s club was their only experience in public speaking.  Occasionally, a group would designate a teacher or librarian to critique each speaker’s performance. This was not a popular practice! 
Eva Johnson

Miss Johnson was the librarian at the Medina Library from 1887 to 1927.  This made her a natural choice to be the club’s “critic.”  It was the critic’s job to point out any errors in facts or pronunciation in a member’s presentation of a topic.  It was often an unpopular position to hold.  Miss Johnson died after a car accident in 1940 at the age of  86.  She was a member of the Medina Sorosis as well as the Medina Co-Workers Club.  Mrs. Lila Thayer, also of the Club, was her sister.

The clubs took their missions very seriously.  Women could not bring their sewing or knitting to club meetings.  The time was to be exclusively devoted to listening, learning and talking.  Members were not allowed to miss their turn as speaker without a doctor’s note!  But the domestic home front was not to be neglected.  Many clubs only met from September through June, so the women could be home during the summer school recess. One local club fined their members $2 if they served dinner late on club meeting days!
Afternoon Club from 2 May 1969 Medina Gazette

In 1898, the Afternoon Club of Medina  was formed.  It is believed to be the oldest woman’s club in the county.  Just a year later, 1899, the Medina Coterie was formed.  Both of these clubs are still active and thriving.

The Montville Co-Workers Women’s Club was one of thousands of such clubs across the country.  Formed in 1922, it started with 24 members.  The Montville Club paid dues to County and State organizations. Although the records do not name these regional groups the state group was likely the Ohio Federation of Women’s Clubs and the county group was called the County Federation of Farm Women’s Clubs.  In 1965, the Montville Club ceased to exist due to “lack of interest.” 

Montville Co-Workers Club, a Farm-women's Club of Medina County, Ohio lists all the members of the club throughout its existence, in whose home they met and what the monthly programs were about.

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