Introduction to Clubwomen
In the mid to late 1800s, middle-class women formed countless social clubs. They met in parlors, churches, and other meetinghouses across the country. Until the late nineteenth century, these clubs were primarily devoted to self-improvement and cultural activities. Clubwomen read books, listened to lectures, and hosted musical events.
However, as the social, political, and economic problems of the Progressive Era became increasingly apparent, clubwomen turned from self-improvement to reform efforts. Women’s clubs often began working at the local level, and expanded their efforts to the state and national level. Women undertook research, initiated and ran programs, and lobbied for legislation to address a countless number of social ills.
There were thousands of women’s clubs across the country. In 1890, in the city of Portland, Maine alone there were fifty women’s clubs.
These clubs worked on an almost inestimable number of issues. Some women’s clubs opened private libraries, which were eventually taken over by local governments. Others inspected schools and lobbied for the building of playgrounds. Clubs campaigned for and opened free kindergartens, and brought nurses and hot lunches into schools. Other clubwomen fought to improve public health services and sanitation. Still others worked to protect the environment, to teach household economics (the “scientific” management of the household), and to reform local government. Others lobbied for the proper inspection of food. Many worked to improve wages and working conditions for women and child workers. Professional women’s associations worked to improve the status of women in their respective fields. Other groups campaigned for temperance, or the prohibition of alcohol, and for woman suffrage. Still others worked to protect or rehabilitate female prostitutes.
Some of the important clubs of the time include the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (now the American Association of University Women), the National Education Association, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Women’s Trade Union League, the National Consumer’s League, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and the National Household Economics Association.