Prior to the mid-19th century, women’s clubs in America were either auxiliaries to men’s organizations or church charity groups. Two clubs founded in 1868, Sorosis and the

New England Women’s Club, promoted the concept that organizations of women could play a significant role in promoting the welfare of their communities.

The first wave of clubs were composed of predominantly white, middle-class, Protestant women and most started as social and/or literary gatherings. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded in 1890. African American women’s clubs began toemerge, and as a result of their exclusion from the GFWC, the National Association of Colored Women was formed in 1896.

Initially, most clubs focused on literary endeavors, self-improvement and social opportunities for middle-class women. Members shared ideas and realized that together they could act on them. Clubs allowed women to explore reading and make friends, with some having a focus on the law. Many clubs shared book collections among members and were instrumental in the formation of community libraries.

Both white and African American clubs focused on the same issues: education, temperance, child labor, juvenile justice, legal reform, environmental issues and the creation of libraries. There was a focus on abolition, women’s suffrage, lynching and family planning, and they helped start initiatives such as kindergartens and juvenile court systems.

Clubs allowed women to gain greater influence in their communities even before winning the right to vote. They often accomplished goals in their local town councils through sheer persistence, and they proved to be a great training ground for women wanting to become involved in the public sphere.

Membership in African American clubs began to decline in the 1920s, and by the 1960s membership in white clubs was also declining. Many clubs found their membership aging, and they were unable to recruit younger members as more women entered the workforce and had less time to spare for club work. The national organizations, GFWC and NACW, remain active and some local clubs, such as the Schubert Club in Jonesborough and the Monday Club in Johnson City, still thrive in their communities.


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