The Importance of Women's Clubs in the Twentieth Century

Photo of Susie King Taylor, 1902

Depicted in this photograph is Susie King Taylor, the first African-American Army nurse, who served during the Civil War. General Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ61-1863. 

Prior to the 1860s, opportunities for women were limited. Many believed a woman's place was in the home. Education and business opportunities were virtually non-existent for most. Political activism, civic reform, and community involvement were seen by American society as outside of the role of womanhood. If women were involved in such activities, they were predominantly controlled by men or church societies.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, professions and positions traditionally filled by men were vacated as they headed to the front lines. Women began to fill in those roles, from factory and farm work to nurses in field hospitals. After the war, these women were left without an outlet for the skills and camaraderie they cultivated.

Sorosis Club Rules, 1869

In 1868 two women's clubs were founded, Sorosis and the New England Women's Club. These clubs believed that organizations controlled and administered by women would provide a means for women to become better educated and thereby improve society. They traveled the country, promoting the values of their clubs. This scan of a cover of the Sorosis Club's 1869 Constitution was provided from Wikimedia Commons.

The first women's organizations in the United States were formed in 1868 by white, middle-aged women who had more leisure time, and whose access to higher education was limited. These new organizations were mainly social clubs, focusing on liberal arts such as history and literature or specializing in subjects such as law, music, art, and the sciences. However, these organizations would move beyond social clubs and expand the customary view of a woman's domain beyond the four walls of the home to the community-at-large.  Women began to use their organizational skills honed in the domestic sphere to focus on socio-political issues such as education, suffrage, community service, and racial equity. 

Champaign County was no exception to this movement. In 1876, Mary Healy returned from a trip to Dubuque, Iowa, where women's social clubs were thriving. According to Healy, in a 1939 Courier interview, "Every woman, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, was running about with a book or an article tucked under her shawl." This visit prompted her with the inspiration to begin a women's social club in Champaign. 

Clubs Basis of Social Life, 1939

This headline appears above an article about local women's clubs by Virginia Mayer that was published on January 15, 1939 in The Sunday Courier. The article describes a few of the clubs in Champaign-Urbana, such as the Art Club, Thirty Club, and Social Science Club.

On October 30, 1876, Healy, along with several other women, formed one of the first women's clubs in Champaign County, the Art Club. From there, other social and progressive clubs would develop throughout the 19th and 20th centuries such as the Thirty Club (a literature club focused on Shakespearian and contemporary works), the Twin City Equal Suffrage Association, Champaign County Women's Political Caucus, Women Information and Resource Exchange, and the Federated Business and Professional Women's Club. 

As opportunities for women increased, a number of women’s clubs saw a decline in membership with many social clubs dissolving. However, other women’s organizations have remained strong, with new progressive clubs forming over the last few decades. As with their predecessors, these organizations continue to provide women opportunities for leadership and service in Champaign County.  

Introduction