Women's Club Movement in Washington

  • By Karen J. Blair, Ph.D.
  • Posted 9/27/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9170

A vigorous women's club movement began to sweep the nation in the mid-nineteenth century, enjoying a heyday from the 1890s through the 1920s. Washington state women were no exception to the wide enthusiasm for  informal volunteer societies dedicated to  charitable efforts, self-improvement, and civic reform. Club activity continues to the present day, and the long and successful history of organizational activities can be seen in impressive social welfare programs, educational and cultural achievements, legislation, and thriving institutions throughout the state.  Women's organizations not only provided countless benefits to the citizens of Washington's urban and rural communities, but they also gave club members a unique venue in which to learn and exercise new skills. These new skills helped give a public voice and influence to women even before they were enfranchised as full citizens with voting power.

The Power to Do Good

Despite the Victorian dictum that “woman’s place is in the home,” Washington women, from the days of pioneer settlement, defied social constraints against public life and formed women’s clubs for their own benefit and for that of their communities. Women made the time to cooperate for the purpose of helping the needy in their neighborhoods through church-based Ladies Aid Societies and secular Ladies Relief Societies. Members raised money to provide food, clothing, medical care, or social services for destitute men, women, and children.

In Seattle, for instance, prosperous friends of Anna Herr Clise (1866-1936) gathered with her to establish Children’s Orthopedic Hospital (now Seattle Children's Hospital)  in 1907. They also launched a network of women’s guilds, which still exists today and helps provide steady funding for the maintenance of the medical facility.

Benevolent groups in Seattle also created the Children’s Home (1884) for orphans, the Florence Crittenton Home for Fallen Women, the Dorcas Charity Club, founded by African American women to help their needy neighbors, and the Neighborhood Settlement House (1915) established by the Council of Jewish Women to assist immigrant  Russian Jewish families new to the Pacific Northwest. Today’s Overlake Service League began in 1911 as the Seattle Ladies Fruit and Flower Mission, became the Seattle Milk Fund, and now raises money to aid the needy through its thrift store in the Bellevue Square Shopping Mall.

Women's Clubs Across the State

In the early years of North Bend, the Ladies Aid held fundraisers to create the Community Church. In Spokane, the Catholic Ladies Benevolent Society opened an orphanage in 1890, shortly after the club’s formation. That city’s Ladies Benevolent Society, made up of Protestant women, was formed the 1880s and continued into the 1950s. It succeeded at serving both the elderly and impoverished children and at providing needlework classes to women in need of wage-earning skills.

Also in Spokane, the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society (formed 1893), the Ladies Scandinavian-American Aid Society (1895), and the  African American women’s societies at  Calvary Baptist and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Churches (founded in the1890s) provided charitable assistance to those in need. Throughout the state, women’s auxiliaries to fraternal orders, such as the Daughters of Eastern Star of the Masons and the Rebekahs of the International Order of Odd Fellows, raised funds and provided social services for destitute members and their families through lodge orphanages and old-age homes.

Going to War Against Alcohol

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) won adherents in the Pacific Northwest soon after the organization’s founding in the 1870s. Women often met in Methodist churches to advocate the prohibition of alcohol because of the social effects of its abuse, especially ill-treatment by husbands against wives and children.

WCTU  members targeted Olympia taverns in 1874, praying outside the establishments and singing hymns to discourage business within. Temperance supporters worked tirelessly, but with spotty effectiveness, for local-option legislation that would permit individual communities to “vote dry” by closing saloons. After decades of effort, they finally secured their goal in 1914, when Washington citizens voted to effect a dry Washington by 1916, four years ahead of the federal Prohibition amendment to the constitution.

WCTU members also addressed a wide array of other social problems, including the need for kindergartens, raising the age of consent, and woman suffrage. In fact, so intertwined was the support for women’s enfranchisement and the prohibition of alcohol that activist Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915) warned that brewers, bartenders, and men who frequented gin mills would surely halt the cause of the women's vote unless  suffragists tempered their attacks on drunkards.

From Jail Reform to Self Improvement

The WCTU in Spokane championed still another reform, petitioning their City Council as early as 1889 for a woman jail matron, to prevent sexual advances on women inmates by male wardens. They rallied other women’s groups to the cause, winning permission in 1902 for a police matron to be called to the jail on an as-needed basis.

During the Free Speech Movement of 1909 there were massive arrests in Spokane, including radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), who exposed sexual abuses against women prisoners like herself. The embarrassed city government finally agreed to the calls of women's clubs for a resident woman matron in the jails.

Many women turned to clubs for a purpose other than good works. In an era when educational opportunities were sparse and few girls enjoyed access to private academies, public schools, or institutions of higher learning, some clubs decided to create self-improvement groups. Adult wives and mothers, for whom an eighth grade diploma might have been a privilege, set up “universities for middle-aged women” and undertook monthly literary club gatherings to broaden their minds.

Elite women in Olympia are generally credited with forming the first reading group in Washington, the Olympia Woman’s Club, in 1883. They modeled their society on book clubs thriving in more populated parts of the nation. Founded by Abbie H. H. Stuart, the group hosted 50 invited participants bi-monthly from September through June to hear members’ reports on contemporary culture and current events.

To Learn and to Mingle

The format spread quickly throughout the state and women in large cities and small towns formed local woman’s clubs to examine American novels, English poetry, French history, Asian art, or U.S. foreign policy. The Aloha Club of Tacoma, Spokane Sorosis, the Nineteenth Century Literary Club of Seattle, the Women’s Reading Club of Walla Walla, the Everett Book Club, the Port Angeles Society of Literary Explorers, the St. Helena Club of Chehalis, Centralia's Ladies of the Round Table, and the Woman’s Literary Club of Hoquiam are among the groups described in Jane Croly’s gigantic 1898 compendium of American women’s clubs.

While the state’s farm women labored in isolated settings with unrelenting burdens, they too made time for similar activity, in such groups as the Orchard Ridges Club, Riverside Woman’s Club, Union Flats Women’s Club near Pullman, the Don’t Worry Club in Mockonema, the Stitch and Chatter Club in Clinton, the Get-Together Club in Hooper and the Get-Acquainted Club in East Mabton, the North Country Club in Selah, and the multitude of Granges in the region.

Adult enthusiasm for club study prompted women to launch similar groups for young women in their schools, YWCAs, and churches; for immigrants in ethnic neighborhoods; and for working girls in cities. The Woman’s Industrial Club (1895), for example, started by Mrs. Homer Hill of the Woman’s Century Club, offered discussion among domestic workers in Seattle. 

Members profited from literary club activity in numerous ways. In addition to acquainting themselves with major authors and ideas from the past and present, they enjoyed the regular social interaction with their peers at each meeting over tea and cookies. They developed public-speaking skills when they took a turn informing their fellow club members about a selected topic. They mastered parliamentary procedure through Roberts’ Rules of Order, and applied those rules to discuss club themes in an orderly fashion. In addition, they began to build the confidence and organizational skills needed to embark on a new path, that of addressing the many social problems they observed in their communities.

Books for the People

Among the earliest social issues that women’s literary clubs examined was the need for public libraries. Committed to learning among themselves, members began to contribute small collections of books for their neighbors to borrow. They also created traveling libraries, shipping boxes of books to remote logging camps, prisons, and rural schoolhouses.

Not surprisingly, women’s literary clubs by the dozens launched local movements to obtain the $10,000 Carnegie Library buildings offered by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). To meet the requirements of his gift, the clubs successfully raised large sums of money, acquired new volumes and periodicals to circulate, and pressed their mayors and city councils to support a new tax to finance books and a librarian’s salary. Among the women’s clubs that initiated their local public library were the Duvall Women’s Civic Club, Ballard WCTU, Auburn WCTU, Kirkland Woman’s Club, Danish Sisterhood of Enumclaw, Seattle Ladies Library Association, Ellensburg’s Municipal Improvement Society, Tacoma’s Women’s Library Society, Aberdeen Woman’s Club, Everett’s Woman’s Book Club, Puyallup Woman’s Club, Hoquiam Woman’s Club, and Kalama Woman’s Club.

Mothering and Schooling

Additional educational issues attracted the attention of Washington’s women’s club members. In fact, the topic of good mothering ignited the earliest known aggregation of Northwest women, a group of missionary wives. Among them were Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847), Eliza Spalding (1807-1851), Myra F. Eells (1805-1878), and Mary Richardson Walker (1811-1897). They agreed, soon after arriving in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1830s, to study modern ideas on child-raising through their Columbia Maternal Association. When their work took them to distant parts of the region, they agreed to set aside the same hour to read the same materials, uniting  with their far-away club sisters in the pursuit of advanced notions of mothering.

Mother’s Clubs became popular in the late nineteenth century and evolved into Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) in the 1920s, bringing much-needed educational materials to sparely furnished rural schools. Until mother’s groups undertook fundraising to supply such “amenities," most one-room schoolhouses offered no books, maps, globes, window shades, hot lunches, pianos, outhouses, graduation festivities, Christmas pageants, or playground equipment.

The White Salmon Woman’s Club, started in 1900, founded a permanent PTA after they donated $100 to furnish the city’s first “high school room” and contributed the school’s first dictionary. Tacoma’s Aloha Club bought reproductions of Old Master paintings to decorate the local schools and uplift the student body with notable works of art. Women’s clubs also raised money for loans and scholarship to school girls, with the knowledge that many families prioritized their sons’ education, while daughters struggled without financial assistance.

The improvement of Washington’s library and educational systems by women’s groups was facilitated by the creation of the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs (WSFWC) in 1896. An alliance of many clubs, it sponsored annual conventions at which representatives of each club could confer about techniques for effecting civic reform and social change. These meetings also permitted many clubs to unite behind a particular cause, with conservation emerging as an especially compelling issue.

Women's Clubs Go Green

Admiration for Thatuna Park (purchased by Pullman’s Fortnightly Club), Tillicum Park and Sutton Park (created by the Cheney Woman’s Club), Pioneer Park (established by Puyallup’s Teacup Club), and Ravenna Park (founded by Seattle’s Woman’s Century Club) led the state network of women’s clubs to become drawn to environmental protection. Cross-club cooperation enabled federation leader Esther Stark Maltby to collect the funds in 1925 to acquire a 63-acre virgin forest in the Cascade Mountains, east of Snoqualmie Pass, from the Snoqualmie Lumber Company. Later, this protected land was sold to finance the purchase of a more ambitious park, a 612-acre forest on state route 140, 17 miles east of Enumclaw, known today as Federation Forest.

Well ahead of today’s environmental movement, members of the state federation called for tree planting on Arbor Day, school-yard gardens, street trees for neighborhood beautification, pure food and drug laws, and clean-water legislation. The federation also successfully pressed for a woman member on Washington’s Conservation Commission, placing its 1902 president, Elvira Elwood of Ellensburg, on the state agency's board.

Less Literature, More Lobbying

By the early twentieth century, enthusiasm for civic reform issues diminished the early literary concerns of women’s clubs. Members used their clubs to rally behind solutions to improve the lives of less-fortunate women, attacking the dance halls that perpetuated prostitution, funding a low-cost residence for single women, and establishing Woman’s Exchanges, stores where housebound women could support themselves by selling their handicrafts and home cooking for pure profit, without paying overhead for the facility.

The women also pushed government to become more responsive to social needs, laying the groundwork for the government's assumption of responsibility for social welfare in the 1930s. Their call for a state reformatory for girls, mothers' pensions (a forerunner of Social Security), an eight-hour day for women workers, minimum wage, and child labor laws predated New Deal legislation.

The Suffrage Campaigns

Public wariness of programs initiated by women in clubs sometimes alerted members to the need to restore suffrage to Washington women, who had briefly been granted the vote in territorial days, from 1883-1887. Woman suffrage organizations, employing a range of tactics from lady-like to militant, worked vigorously for enfranchisement, until victory came on election day in 1910 with two-thirds of the state’s men endorsing the vote for the women.

Washington became the fifth state in the United States to grant women the vote. This achievement inspired other states to rejuvenate their campaigns during the period from 1911 to 1920.

Having a Little Fun
The twentieth century saw a tendency of women to form new special-interest clubs. Music lovers created the Seattle Ladies Musical Club in 1891. The Drama League in Tacoma performed amateur theatrical productions, as did the Spokane Negro Dramatic Club.

Garden clubs inspired and facilitated the exchange of home and community landscaping information. Girl Scouts, 4-H Club, and Camp Fire Girls grounded young women in club activity. The Daughters of Norway, Vasa Lodge, the Slavonian Women’s Lodge, and the Italian Fidelia Club created venues for immigrants.

In the 1920s club women identified lobbying needs through the Washington Woman’s Legislative Council, whose regular newsletter alerted members to legislative bills likely to impact the lives of women and children. 

Work, War, and Remembrance

Career women established the  Washington State Teachers Association, sororities for women lawyers, and the League of American Pen Women for writers and painters. Altrusa, Soroptimist, and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women facilitated networking among businesswomen, who were not admitted to businessmen’s alliances like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions until the 1970s. The American Association of University Women attracted alumnae of institutions of higher learning.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 and World War I sparked Red Cross organizations to provide war relief. Heritage groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of the Confederacy, and Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington sprung up.

Multitasking Members

Club activity was attractive to many women and examples of those holding multiple memberships abound. One example is suffrage supporter Jessie E. Atkinson of Spokane, who served as president of the state WCTU and editor of its newsletter, but also as treasurer of her YWCA.

And that's not all. In addition to being a board member of the Florence Crittenton Home, Atkinson organized two garden clubs and was active in the Shakespeare Club, the Spokane Art Association, and the PTA while her two daughters were in school. Canadian-born, she somehow found time to start the Daughters of the British Empire.

Twenty-First Century Legacy 

Although today’s women enjoy additional venues for social outlets, study, and community-mindedness, evidence of Washington’s vigorous women’s club life remains visible. Women’s clubhouses still stand, including Seattle’s Woman’s Century Club (now the Harvard Exit Theater), Women’s University Club, Sunset Club, Daughters of the American Revolution (modeled after George Washington’s Mount Vernon), Spokane’s Woman’s Club on South Hill, and the Yakima Woman’s Club.

On our highways, tourist facilities, like Indian John Rest Stop on I-90 east of Cle Elum offer markers of the Blue Star Memorial Highway from the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs, a tribute to the Armed Forces. The YWCA buildings of Seattle, Yakima, and Bellingham developed from early efforts to assist working girls and college women.  In Ellensburg, the downtown clock comes courtesy of the Friday Morning Club.

The cooperation among women inherent in clubs provided the foundation for the women’s rights movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and resembles the sisterhood resurrected during the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.  The creativity and the commitment of members to find solutions to social problems, and their tenacity in institutionalizing those solutions, have won women’s clubs a significant place as a force inshaping American community.   

Sources: Mildred Tanner Andrews, Washington Women as Path Breakers (Dubuque: Kendall-Hunt, 1989); Jane Cunningham Croly, The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America (New York: Henry G. Allen, 1897); Karen J. Blair, Northwest Women: An Annotated Bibliography of Sources on the History of Oregon and Washington Women, 1787-1970 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1997); Karen J. Blair, “The Limits of Sisterhood: the Woman’s Building in Seattle, 1908-1921,” in Women in Pacific Northwest History, ed. Karen J. Blair (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001); Karen J. Blair, “The Seattle Ladies Musical Club, 1890-1930,” in Women in Pacific Northwest History, rev. ed., ed. by Karen J. Blair (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988); Nancy Arlene Driscol Engle, “Benefiting a City: Women, Respectability and Reform in Spokane, Washington, 1886-1910” (Ph.D. diss., University of Florida, 2003); Sandra Haarsager, Organized Womanhood: Cultural Politics in the Pacific Northwest, 1840-1920 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997); Shanna Stevenson, Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices: The Campaign for Equal Rights in Washington (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 2009).

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