WOMEN'S CLUB MOVEMENT.
In Oklahoma as elsewhere the Women's Club Movement positively effected social change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. American social mores during the colonial and early national period had consigned women to the home and to rearing children. Excluded from politics and work outside the home, women in the early 1800s found an acceptable social outlet by forming benevolent societies and church groups to assist the needy within their communities. Women gradually became more visible, outspoken, and organized as they worked to improve social problems beyond their local environments. By the 1840s Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Sojourner Truth, and other women championed the antislavery movement. In 1848 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton campaigned for a constitutional amendment providing for woman's suffrage. During the Civil War northern and southern women organized to raise money for medical supplies. Although many women's clubs existed in the early nineteenth century, historian Karen J. Blair asserts that the term "Women's Club Movement" more accurately refers to the literary and civic clubs that proliferated between the Civil War and World War II.
After the Civil War self-improvement clubs, nicknamed "universities for middle-aged women," filled the need for continued learning for women denied a college education. Club women developed annual study plans that emphasized literature, history, or the arts. Some groups restricted membership so that they could comfortably meet in each others' homes. During the Progressive Era volunteer women's clubs shifted their attention to the betterment of their communities. They lobbied for improved labor laws for women and children, safe food and drug laws, and municipal reform. During the 1890s women's clubs federated in order to support a united effort to accomplish their goals. The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) formed in New York City in 1890, and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) organized in Washington, D.C., in 1896. Educated, urban white and black women in the Northeast dominated and directed the national organizations during their formative years. Working together under the umbrella organizations, white, black, and American Indian women made great strides in providing women and children with safe workplaces and establishing public libraries, kindergartens, playgrounds, and parks.
The 1920s brought a flurry of club activity. The NACW grew rapidly between 1924 and 1927, with membership rising from 100,000 to 250,000. Beginning in the 1920s as membership increased, women pooled their financial resources to buy and build clubhouses. The GFWC headquarters was established in Washington, D.C., in 1922, and NACW headquarters, also in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1928. Oklahoma women were active within all these contexts.
In Oklahoma women's clubs with various objectives formed during the Territorial Era, 1890 to 1907. Women who settled in Oklahoma Territory following the land openings wanted to emulate the clubs they had supported in their former home towns. One year after the Land Run of 1889 women formed clubs in Guthrie and Oklahoma City. In 1898 they established the Federation of Women's Clubs for Oklahoma and Indian Territories, which was admitted to the GFWC the same year. The first African American women's club in Oklahoma was founded at Guthrie in 1906. By 1910 state clubs formed the Oklahoma Federation of Negro Women's Clubs, later called the Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (OFCWC). Oklahoma and other state clubs federated under the NACW.
Some clubs had very specific goals, whether for community or self-improvement. The Mother's Club of Ponca City, organized in 1923, wanted to become more knowledgeable about children's health and how to improve children's quality of life. The Mother's Club helped gain the passage of Ponca City's safe-milk ordinance and started a fund to furnish milk to the community's undernourished children. In Coalgate, Oklahoma, the Edelweiss Club had programs emphasizing German culture. The Indian Women's Club of Tulsa, organized in 1930, had monthly programs focusing on American Indian religion, music, and legends.
African American women at the national and state level focused on civil rights as well as programs similar to the GFWC. In Oklahoma Drusilla Dunjee Houston led the OFCWC during its early years in determining civil rights resolutions. In 1911 they protested lynching, in 1914 they endorsed woman's suffrage, and in 1957 they promoted the hiring of African American teachers in integrated schools. A 1956–57 survey of Oklahoma African American club members revealed that 97 percent were Protestant, 72 percent were married, and 57 percent were mothers. Most were between the ages of forty and forty-nine, and the majority of the working women were teachers. In addition to club work, they were involved in church activities, the Parents Teachers Association (PTA), the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), scouting, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Through the decades the GFWC had various objectives. Accepting the 1906 GFWC nationwide campaign for a compulsory school attendance law, Oklahoma women lobbied state legislators for the compulsory education bill that passed in 1907. In 1921 the GFWC created the Indian Welfare Committee, which worked for better health care and educational facilities for American Indians. During the Great Depression club women helped with relief work through canning and sewing projects. During World War II the national federation promoted buying war bonds through the "Buy a Bomber" campaign, which raised $154 million. During the 1960s women crusaded for the installation of automobile seat belts. In the 1990s the GFWC supported the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and legislation for handgun control.
Since the 1960s more women have entered the work force, and membership in women's clubs has declined. At the turn of the twenty-first century 59 percent of American women were employed and had little spare time to spend on club work. Consequently, club membership fell. At the national level the GFWC membership peaked at 830,000 in 1955 and fell to 270,000 members at the turn of the twenty-first century. Although fewer women were involved in club work, through discussion and lobbying groups the GFWC and the NACW continued to keep women informed of important social issues that required their continued support.
Karen J. Blair, The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redefined, 1868–1914 (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980).
Jane Cunningham Croly, The History of the Woman's Club Movement in America (New York: H. G. Allen and Co., 1898).
Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, Lifting As They Climb (1933; reprint, New York: G. K. Hall, 1996).
Dorothy Salem, "National Association of Colored Women," in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1993).
Anne Firor Scott, Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
Mildred White Wells, Unity in Diversity: The History of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (Washington, D.C.: General Federation of Women's Clubs, 1953).
Mildred I. Wood, The History of the General Federation of Women's Clubs for the First Twenty-two Years of Its Organization (New York: General Federation of Women's Clubs, 1912).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Linda D. Wilson, “Women's Club Movement,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=WO002.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.