Busy Women: Women’s Clubs and the Drive for Social Reform

Authored by Eva Rapoff

Newspaper clipping taken from the scrapbook of Mrs. William Grant Brown, in storage at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Women, no matter where we are in history, and how little agency we are given, will always find a way to drive social reform, and in few places is this ability to persevere, to create agency rather than to wait to be given it, shown as well as in the women’s clubs movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women’s clubs, such as Jane Cunningham Croly’s Sorosis, which formed the origin of the Federation of Women’s Clubs, were first borne out of consternation at exclusion (Scheer, 2002). These clubs were originally literary clubs, full of predominantly upper- and middle-class women, but as the concept grew, and spread across the country, the purpose bloomed into a vehicle for social reform. As well – as perhaps somewhat of an ironic legacy of Sorosis – these clubs were often unpopular, or merely tolerated by men, while women flocked to them in droves, driven by the prospect of social life and work. (Savage 1916)

With this purpose, women’s clubs – simultaneous to their social purpose – became connected to, and merged with already existing church-adjacent groups, or women’s auxiliaries to men’s organizations. This was the line that Mrs. William Grant Brown (Anna Josephine Brown née Clute) seemed to straddle during her years working towards social reform in Schenectady county, and New York State as a whole. As shown in the newspaper clipping here, taken from the scrapbook she kept between 1909 and 1916, Mrs. Brown used her position as president of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Salvation Army not simply to campaign for certain social reforms, but to work towards such goals with tangible actions.

Such a fact forms the crucial point in the value of these women’s organizations, particularly in the era before women’s suffrage. As a group, women who would otherwise have little in the way of power to enact social change were able to work towards their civic-minded goals, with women such as Mrs. Brown able to lead in the endeavor. We see in the clipping a small fraction of the greater whole that is the social justice oriented work and reform that women were able to achieve.

As an individual, Mrs. Brown exemplifies the ideas of social reform that often drove these women’s organizations, with her broad goals, and determination to see them enacted. Especially as a relatively wealthy woman, it means all the more that she would step away from a comfortable life, and make the sacrifices that always come with social works, particularly while still also balancing her home life. One can see the Vincentian spirit here, both in Mrs. Brown as an individual, and in the culture of women’s clubs as a whole, fostering and serving the community and their fellow women.

References:

Bodine, W. L. May 24, 1905. “The Value of Women’s Clubs.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/8930795/the-philadelphia-inquirer/

Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. 2018. “Club Movement.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. https://www.britannica.com/event/club-movement

GFWC. n.d. “Impact & Accomplishments.” Global Federation of Women’s Clubs. https://www.gfwc.org/what-we-do/impact-accomplishments/.

Leonard, John W. 1914. Woman’s who’s who of America: a biographical dictionary of contemporary women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915. American Commonwealth Company. 132.

Savage, Clara. 1916. “Men – and Women’s Clubs.” Brown, Mrs. William Grant Scrapbook. Schenectady County Historical Society.

Scheer, Teva J. 2002. “The ‘Praxis’ Side of the Equation: Club Women and American Public Administration.” Administrative Theory & Praxis 24, no. 3: 519-36. www.jstor.org/stable/25611597.

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