The General and Texas Federations of Women’s Clubs 

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs

La Retama Club operated in conjunction with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs within its first year, and the beginnings of both organizations are essential in understanding the Corpus Christi organization.  Through their histories, one can see the connection between local, state and nation clubs.  Often, the types of campaigns the clubwomen undertook were a result of causes that the state and national federations worked on as well, like pure food and parks and playgrounds.  In other cases, the local women’s clubs tailored state and federal messages to meet local needs like in the formation and upkeep of Corpus Christi’s first public library, La Retama Library.[1]

American women’s literary clubs date back as far as the turn of the nineteenth century.  Free black women on the East Coast organized some of the earliest women’s literary clubs.  Their purpose was “mutual aid and self-education.  Soon, white women’s literary clubs began to form.  It was at this time that the oldest known lasting literary club in the United States, the Ladies’ Association for Educating Females in Jacksonville, Illinois, held its first meeting in 1833.  This parallels a rise in women’s higher education in the South.  It was part of Southern society for young women to be educated in the arts.  Southern women of the planter class were even more likely than most of their northern counterparts to spend time in academies of higher education that offered courses in religion, Latin, literature and sciences.  “The advancement courses provided to young men were the standard by which contemporaries judged the level of education open to young women—not the courses in sewing and the decorative arts that were considered mere appendages of femininity.”  Therefore, although still scarce, women began exchanging ideas and literary discussions early in the nineteenth century that then formed into a wider reaching movement after the Civil War.[2]

After the war, it is no wonder, then, that growth in opportunity opened the doors to a wide emergence of women’s literary groups.  Jane Cunningham Croly’s Sorosis formed as part of “a widespread phenomenon, as if, one woman remarked, by mental telepathy.”  Croly, a journalist and feminist, founded the Sorosis in 1868.  Under the penname Jennie June, Croly often wrote about the subjugation of women using experiences from her and her friends’ lives as subject matter.  Other clubwomen often credited Croly's articles for inspiring them to form their own local clubs.  Because of the exclusion of women from a dinner honoring Charles Dickens by the New York Press Club, Croly began an organization to “improve women’s status.”  Therefore, in April 1868, the women’s literary society, Croly formed Sorosis.  Not open to anyone and by invitation only, original members included Anne Botta, who wrote for the New York Mirror; Josephine Pollard, with the New York Ledger; poets Alice and Phoebe Cary; and a number of other authoresses.  Throughout the club’s life, it maintained distance from men because, “It saw its work in the association of women, not in integration.”  These local organizations provided small groups of women with a forum for analysis of literature, but did little to expand their goals to include others.  This soon changed with the creation of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.[3]

The formation of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in April of 1890 through a convention of literary clubs in honor of Sorosis’ 21st birthday began the federated club movement.  On the mistaken understanding that Sorosis had been the nation’s oldest literary club, the General Federation’s founder, Jane Cunningham Croly, called together as many of the United States’ literary clubs as she could find in its honor.  This celebration was the first meeting of the General Federation.  Actually, as Frances Willard pointed out at the 1888 International Council of Women’s convention, “When it was decided to invite Sorosis [to the 1888 convention], we though it was the oldest club, but the New England Club vies with Sorosis in having been organized a little earlier; but no matter who was first, somebody must be first, and I have noticed that when any movement comes into the world it springs up in a dozen places at the same time.”  Both organizations were founded in 1886.  Actually, the first known woman’s club of this kind still in existence during the Progressive Era was founded in 1833 in Jacksonville, Illinois, under the name of the Ladies’ Association for Educating Females.  The club published their first yearbook in 1839, and in 1908, it was the oldest known club yearbook in existence.  The club joined the Illinois State Federation in 1896 under the name of the Jacksonville Ladies’ Education Association.[4]

During its first decade, the 1890’s, the General Federation was responsible for increased club activity nationwide.  The General Federation’s purpose was specifically to “bring into communication with each other the various women’s clubs throughout the world, in order that they may compare methods of work and become mutually helpful.”  It took more than a decade after the General Federations formation for an Act of Congress, with the signature of President William McKinley, to charter the organization on March 3, 1901.[5] 

The Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs

In Texas, the Woman’s Congress held its first annual convention at the State Fair in Dallas, October 31 through November 3, 1894.  At this convention, attendees changed the name of the group to The State Council of Women of Texas.  The Fort Worth Mirror gave two important reasons for this change.  According to the Mirror, the change brought “the organization into harmony with the National Council of Women” and freed “the federation from the objectionable inference that it had any political significance whatever, the word ‘Congress’ being clothed with only a political definition by some."[6]

This fear of politicization plagued the women of Texas for years to come and caused single-issue political organizations like the National American Woman Suffrage Association to remain grossly underdeveloped in the state until the years surrounding World War I.  The Woman’s Wednesday Club of Fort Worth was credited for first “suggesting The Federation of Women’s Literary Clubs of Texas into a state organization” in 1895.  Yet it took until 1897, when the Woman’s Club of Waco sent out a call to women’s clubs all over the state, for a convention to take place on May 13 and 14th in Waco.  Twenty-one clubs responded to the first meeting of Texas Federation of Literary Clubs.  The Woman’s Monday Club of Corpus Christi organized this same year.[7]

In the original constitution of the Texas Federation, the purpose of the organization stated, “to advance and encourage Texas women in literary work, to promote and encourage fraternal intercourse among literary clubs within and without the state, and to secure all the benefits resulting from organized efforts.”  This early description, although the club’s purpose changed from being solely literary, remained the same.  Its close connection with the activities of the local clubs proved to be strengthening for both sides in networking and numbers.  Contemporary writer and clubwoman, Mary Ritter Beard, succinctly described the process by which and why local clubs federated.  She wrote,

In thousands of out-of-the-way places which hardly appear on the map, unknown women with large visions are bent on improving their minds for no mere selfish advancement, but for equipping themselves to serve their little communities.  They form local associations.  These local associations are federated into state and national associations.  The best thought and experience of one community soon become the common possession of all.  Thus, we see in the making before our very eyes, a conscious national womanhood.  Here is a power that will soon disturb others than the village politician.[8]

 

The Texas Federation, also, set the precedent for the sharing of information across club lines, therefore contributing to the communication of different types of club activities.  This communication was important in the spread of activities that proved successful among local groups.  Yet the state and national federations left the implementation of such things to the local group that knew the needs and people of their community best.  In 1928, Mrs. Day Mills, the incoming Texas Director of the General Federation, communicated to local affiliates what had long been the understood rule of taking the initiative for your community.  She wrote, “The program of the Federation of the Women’s Clubs includes that study that makes for individual culture and includes everything that helps toward the betterment of humanity […] it is your duty and privilege to select the part or phase of these department or divisions of work that is suited to your individual community or state needs and study to apply that."[9]

Jessica Brannon-Wranosky

 

Notes

[1] For reference, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was the national organization for federated clubwomen, and the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs was the state organization for federated Texas clubwomen.

[2] Scott, Natural Allies, 13; Christine Farnham, The Education of the Southern Belle:  Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South (New York:  New York University Press, 1994): 126, 34.  Scott, The Southern Lady, 110-111.

[3] Scott, Southern Lady, 152; Karen J. Blair, The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Refined, 1868-1914 (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1980), 15. It is widely accepted that this source is one of the best histories of the General Federation’s beginnings.

[4] Blair, 93-96.

For discussion of a number of clubs that dated back before the formation of Sorosis see:  Helen M. Winslow, “The Story of the Woman’s Club Movement,”   New England Magazine 38 (1908): 543-557.

[5] Blair, 93-95, 141n, 15; Mc Arthur, 9.

[6] Stella L. Christian, ed., The History of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs (Houston: Dealy Adey Elgin Company, 1919), 5; The Fort Worth Mirror (Fort Worth, Texas) 10 November 1894; Blair, 93.

[7] Christian, 9; For further discussion of the problems Texan suffragists had in the state, see A. Elizabeth Taylor, “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Texas,” The Journal of Southern History, 17: 2  (May 1951), 194-215.

[8]  Mary Ritter Beard, Woman’s Work in Municipalities (New York: Arno Press, 1972) rpt. Mary Ritter Beard, Woman’s Work in Municipalities (1915), 318, Christian, 17.

[9] Christian, 17; Mrs. Day Mills, Texas Director of The General Federation of Women’s Clubs, “The General Federation of Women’s Clubs: Some Facts About It and Observations on Club Work,” (1928), located in WMC.


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