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History of Women's Clubs

Presented by Dr. Karen Blair
March 29, 2007 at the Washington State History Museum

Dr. Karen Blair, noted authority on Women's Clubs nationally and in the Northwest gives a one hour presentation on the history of the development of women's clubs arising out the aftermath of the Civil War as women stepped out of their domestic spheres towards self improvement. She details the evolution of the club movement towards civic change and municipal housekeeping in the late 19th and early 20th century. She talks about the variety of clubs, the contrast between men's and women's clubs and finally about the causes for their decline in the 1920s. Dr. Blair enlivens her presentation with stories about Washington state clubs and the views of contemporary observers as well as novelists towards the movement. Dr. Blair concludes the presentation by answering audience questions.

Dr. Blair's presentation has been divided into four segments. Each segment is outlined below. For best download results: 1) right click over link text or image 2) select "Save Target As...". 3) Download to your local machine and play.

Part One:

Dr. Blair talks about her own research into women's clubs and the variety of records available about the clubs. Although women had met in church groups for many years, she details the rise of the secular clubs after the Civil War in the 1860s when women's role outside the home had become acceptable because of their war work. She discusses the seriousness of the clubs which were aimed at self improvement and study. Dr. Blair gives sometimes humorous view of the contemporary press towards this change in women's roles—expressing alarm that women would chose to leave their homes for even brief periods. She also discusses the courage of the women who, handicapped by formal education, nevertheless chose this route of self-improvement and discussion.

Part Two:

Dr. Blair discusses the spread of women's clubs throughout the county and the middle-class nature of the club membership. She describes the change in focus from self-improvement to civic housekeeping after the turn of the 20th century. Dr. Blair cites several literary references to the clubs. She details how club activism, even before women achieved the right to vote, influenced civic improvements, pure food laws, and the provision of social services. This was in some ways a reversion back from women's self-improvement goals to their more traditional roles as home and family guardians.

Part Three:

In this segment, Dr. Blair discusses the change in clubs toward more diversity from the original Anglo-Protestant, middle-class exclusivity of the clubs. Those who had been excluded from the original movement formed their own clubs—Black, Catholic and Jewish women. She discusses the Seattle Ladies Musical Club and its role in bringing entertainment to the Northwest. She details the numbers of special interest clubs that developed during the heyday of the club movement from the 1880s to the early 1920s such as the American Association of University Women, Parent-Teacher Organizations, Soroptomists and others. Dr. Blair then discusses the decline of the club movement around 1925 as women found other options for expression in careers and society. She compares the differences in men’s and women’s clubs and concludes with a statement about contemporary clubs and their continued role for women’s interests and activism.

Part Four:

The last segment contains Dr. Blair's answers to questions posed by the audience. (Be sure to bump up the volume to better audibilize the questions from the Dr. Blair's audience.) Audience questioning broached these topics:

  • Post World War II influences on women.
  • Chautauqua meetings and their influences on women's clubs.
  • Differences between urban and rural women's clubs.
  • Role of women's clubs in developing Carnegie Libraries.
  • The Women's Book Club of Everett.
  • Suffrage and Abolition Clubs.
  • Women running for President.
  • Importance of preserving club records.

NOTES

Dr. Blair is the author of Joining In: Exploring the History of Voluntary Organizations in America. In the book, Dr. Blair reveals shortcuts she has learned in sleuthing the history of multitudes of groups, from the PTA to Kiwanis International to fraternal orders. Ellensburg and Kittitas County history are featured.