Reference Entry

Women's Clubs

Anja Schüler

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Women's Clubs

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Women's voluntary associations have shaped political, social, and economic life in the United States throughout most of the country's history and continue to function as an important voice for change. Many women's clubs emerged as auxiliaries to men's organizations. Others were formed independently for various social, educational, and civic purposes. Integrated women's clubs, however, were few and far between; only the civil rights movement of the 1960s started to change that.Though the black—and, for that matter, the white—women's club movement began to flourish in post–Civil War America, it dates back to the female mutual aid and self-educational societies of the early nineteenth century. One of the first black women's clubs was the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem, Massachusetts, established in 1818. The first female antislavery societies were founded in 1832 by African American women in Salem and in Rochester, New York. Unlike their white counterparts, who quickly followed suit and concentrated on agitating for the abolition of slavery only, black women's associations also drew attention to the prevailing prejudice against their race and sex.Other antebellum avenues for female club work were the temperance, moral reform, Bible, and missionary societies, as well as the mutual aid and literary societies that free black women founded in northern cities. In 1831, for example, the Female Literary Association of Philadelphia was established, not only for self-improvement, but also for the improvement of the black community. As in the antislavery movement, black women founded literary societies before white women did; their poetry readings and musical performances constituted much of the meager educational resources available to African American women at the time.The Club Movement.Immediately after the Civil War, ladies’ literary societies or “clubs,” as they started to call themselves, appeared all over the country. Though these clubs initially functioned as purely educational enterprises, many soon turned toward working for community improvement and ultimately toward political action in the national arena. Occasionally a club was founded for a specific purpose—for example, establishing a public library or playground—but the goals of most literary women's clubs, black and white, were general “intellectual improvement and mental cultivation.” The programs of these literary societies ranged from Roman law and Greek sculpture to Shakespeare and John Stuart Mill and to lectures about married women's property laws and the poor in large cities. Some clubs, like the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle set up by black women in Atlanta, drew their material from the national adult-education program of the same name. Others, like a black women's club in Kansas, alternated literary lectures with fine needlework. Often these clubs relied on traveling lecturers for their programs.However, very few black women's clubs confined themselves to the luxury of “self-culture.” Rather, they were almost forced to focus on community improvement and often joined missionary societies to deal with lynching, disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and particularly the public stereotypes of black women. It was clear to black clubwomen that their own position in American society could be assured only if the educational level and the living standard of the entire black community improved. Organizations like the Woman's Musical and Literary Club of Springfield, Missouri, or the Semper Fidelis Club of Birmingham, Alabama, were initially established as self-improvement clubs but quickly turned to charitable endeavors like raising money for a black hospital or providing scholarships to high school students. Other women's clubs were founded explicitly for community improvement, like the Harriet Tubman Club of Boston that established a home for working girls, or the numerous mothers’ clubs that set out to teach the fundamentals of child rearing and homemaking to black working-class mothers.Even more than white clubwomen, black clubwomen emphasized education, gentility, and the home as the center of social reform and “municipal housekeeping.” As urban problems multiplied, national black leaders like Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Mary Church Terrell dealt with the problems outside their doorsteps by setting up neighborhood community centers. Sometimes they modeled their work on that of white women. For example, the founder of the Atlanta Neighborhood Union, Lugenia Hope (wife of the president of Morehouse College), had spent some time at Hull-House, arguably the most famous social settlement in the United States. In Atlanta she set out to tackle the most pressing problems of the African American community. Among other things, the Neighborhood Union created kindergartens and day nurseries and provided health-care services, decent housing, and aid for troubled families. Occasionally these projects received the support of white women.Other black settlement houses like Victoria Earle Matthew's White Rose Mission in Brooklyn and Jane Edna Hunter's Phillis Wheatley Home in Cleveland provided aid to young black women who migrated to northern cities from the rural South. The resources available to black women for their “municipal housekeeping” efforts were much more limited than those of white women's clubs, and often black women made up for this deficit with much hands-on labor for their projects. Although the work of black women's clubs remained mostly invisible outside the African American community, their members nevertheless succeeded in pressuring city officials to provide playgrounds, sidewalks, and sewers. Because they were rarely included in the projects of white “progressives,” black women made up their own brand of progressivism.Education remained an important issue for black women's clubs, but it quickly grew beyond the traveling lectures of women's literary clubs. Eminent black educators like Lucy Laney, Nannie Burroughs, and Mary McLeod Bethune were also leaders in the women's club movement. Many black women's colleges were founded by missionary societies, but their students could count on scholarships from secular black women's clubs.A Double Bind.Generally, black clubwomen came from the growing black middle class and, like their white counterparts, strove for personal as well as community improvement. Unlike white women, black women faced widespread racism and had to deal with the particular gender problems of the black community. Like their white peers, black women echoed the nineteenth-century belief that women were by nature more moral and altruistic and therefore better suited for social welfare work than men were. Yet black clubwomen were dedicated to another cause: much of their work was based on the desire to refute popular sexual stereotypes of black women and to protect black women from sexual exploitation. Consequently, many club leaders were critical of black men and advocated female leadership by linking race progress to the protection of black women. They tirelessly emphasized, like Fannie Barrier Williams, that coming out of slavery “the colored man and the colored woman started even,” and many black men and women in the late nineteenth century claimed that “a race can rise no higher than its women” (quoted in White, pp. 251 and 255). Yet when facing white supremacists and the consequences of racist violence, black men often could not assume the traditional role of the male protector. Some of them cautioned black women not to try to wield influence outside the home, and others tacitly accepted the stereotype of the promiscuous black woman. In the debate over race leadership, black clubwomen faced a special kind of gender tension.Support for Ida B. Wells-Barnett's antilynching campaign reflected the desire of black clubwomen and the whole African American community to overcome those tensions and assert the morality of black women. Women's clubs helped to finance Wells's 1892 speaking tour of the United States and the British Isles and worked with cross-race and cross-gender organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to end the terror of lynching. Over time, black clubwomen increasingly cooperated with the NAACP and the National Urban League by providing much of their grassroots organizing.Black clubwomen often found themselves in a double bind. Compared to their white counterparts, black women's clubs not only had to deal with more limited resources but also with the pervasive racism within the club movement. Black women were only rarely admitted to white women's clubs, and when state federations started to be formed after 1890, it did not occur to most white clubwomen that it might make sense to include their black peers. By the turn of the century, women's club work had coalesced into a national—if by and large segregated—movement. The General Federation of Women's Clubs, founded in 1890, boasted more than a million members by 1910 and federations in all forty-six states in 1911. However, its southern members refused to admit delegates from black women's clubs or individual black women like Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin or Fannie Barrier Williams—who had joined formerly white-only clubs—to the federation's conventions. This segregation persisted even after black women founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs in 1896. According to the historian Darlene Clark Hine, it seems as though black clubwomen often shied away from joining with white women because they wanted to avoid demeaning experiences, and they developed what Hine calls a “culture of dissimulation.”There were, however, some instances of interracial cooperation in the women's club movement. Occasionally, distinguished black women were admitted to formerly white women's clubs. Fannie Barrier Williams, for example, became a member of the exclusive Chicago Woman's Club. In Athens, Georgia, the day-care center for black children was a joint project of the white and the black Woman's clubs. Interracial cooperation could also be found in some missionary societies, the temperance movement, and the occasional branch of the YWCA, but it did not become widespread before the civil rights era.The Modern Era.By the 1920s black clubwomen had contributed significantly to the building of African American communities. They had raised money for black schools, hospitals, and orphanages; run employment agencies, day-care centers, and settlement houses; and founded libraries and branches of the YWCA. Forced to create parallel volunteerist welfare structures in a more or less openly racist society, black clubwomen put the black ideology of self-help into practice, and perhaps even more important, they successfully challenged the pervasive negative stereotypes of their virtue.In the interwar period, different issues of organized women's activism surfaced. As black women migrated north, they faced severe employment discrimination if they attempted to work outside the domestic-service sector. Though the earning potential of black women and teenagers was limited, it often proved crucial for the economic survival of a black family—even more so during the Great Depression. With the leadership and organizing skills acquired in decades of club work, black women in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Harlem, and Cleveland organized Housewives’ Leagues. They sponsored local boycotts to make sure that the meager grocery and clothing budgets of black families were spent in stores that gave employment to African Americans. The historian Jacqueline Jones has estimated that these campaigns generated seventy-five thousand jobs. This new kind of women's club work not only had a significant impact on local economies but also took women's political consciousness to a new level.National League of Colored Women. Members of the National League of Colored Women visit John Brown's Fort, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, during their first national convention, 1896. Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHPAfter World War II, black women activists, more than any other group of women, could look back on a long involvement in religious and community groups. This left them both willing and able to take on central leadership positions in the emerging civil rights movement. Though this movement emphasized the leadership roles of black ministers, it also relied on powerful black women to make up the majority of young volunteers. As a new generation of political activists appeared, traditional women's club work seemed somewhat old-fashioned, if not downright outdated. Poor women, especially in northern ghettos, created new kinds of voluntary associations; their neighborhood networks and gift-giving and service exchanges contributed significantly to the economic survival of the increasing number of single-mother families.As the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened new economic opportunities for middle- and working-class black women, traditional women's work in voluntary associations was weakened further. However, increased levels of education and professionalization among black women resulted in new kinds of activism. They started to join associations like the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women, along with informal consciousness-raising or self-help groups. In the last decades of the twentieth century, black and white women alike challenged all-male organizations like the Rotary International and other service clubs, a demand that has been increasingly supported by the courts. Whereas the first black women's associations were largely dedicated to proving the respectability of their members, African American women at the beginning of the twenty-first century addressed issues that concerned them in a variety of institutional contexts.

Reference Entry.  2356 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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