In my last post I wrote about Bertha Palmer, influential Chicago socialite and aunt of Grace Potter Carroll (advanced piano teacher to David Rae Smith, subject of my latest book—check it out on Amazon). At that time I promised more information on the Chicago Woman’s Club, one of Bertha’s passions. In fact, the Palmer House, an upscale hotel built by Bertha’s husband and where the Palmers lived at the time, was one of the club’s early meeting places.
In my time I’ve encountered a few women’s clubs—from a distance. They were usually fancy, two-story, white-painted brick affairs in fancy neighborhoods, usually with a magnolia tree or two in the front yard. I always thought of them as hoity-toity organizations to which I would likely not be considered for membership.
All that may (or may not) have been the truth of the matter. I suspect membership in such clubs today is wide open—as long as a person can afford the annual dues, a factor which effectively still keeps a lot of people out. However, in the case of the Chicago Woman’s Club, founded in 1876, six years after Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, the image I had of such groups was pretty accurate.
Except for one thing: I had no idea of their impact on society. As it turns out, the woman’s club movement, which started about the time the Chicago Woman’s Club was established, quickly grew to become a social welfare and reform movement based on the philosophy that women had a moral responsibility to effect public policy for the betterment of society.
The Encyclopedia of Chicago notes the Chicago Woman’s Club, the oldest woman’s club in the city and one of the first in the country, stood out as one of the most active of all the nation’s women’s clubs. Originally, its uniformly well-to-do members focused on personal and social improvement. They studied classical literature and art while simultaneously establishing the first kindergartens and nursery schools in Chicago. (The kindergarten movement was still a pretty new thing in the United States and the Woman’s Club endeavor led the Chicago Board of Education to formally incorporate kindergartens into the school system. Also, under Bertha Palmer’s leadership of the Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a demonstration kindergarten was set up in the Children’s Building, one of the projects of the ‘Lady Managers.’)
By the late 1880s, the club’s efforts focused on “the improvement of state facilities for dependent children, orphans, and female prisoners, as well as legislation for compulsory education and against child labor,” according to The Encyclopedia of Chicago. The club largely ushered in the Illinois Juvenile Court Law of 1899 and created the first juvenile court in the United States.
A decade after Bertha Palmer’s 1918 death, the Chicago Woman’s Club began construction of its own facility, a six-story building plus basement at 72 East Eleventh Street. What began as a twenty-one member club had grown to about 1500 by this time. The clubwomen raised every penny necessary for the building and its furnishings.
As quoted on the website Chicagology, Kathleen McLaughlin of The Chicagoan wrote of the new facility, “The only fault I can find with the building is that it offers no detail with which I can find fault.” She described the rooms as beautiful, comfortable, and modern, though club members preferred the term contemporary. The ladies of the club thought through every detail, much as the Board of Lady Managers had when designing the Woman’s Building for the Chicago World’s Fair. Every element of architectural and interior design was synchronized. According to McLaughlin, “Not more than three pieces of furniture in the club were not designed especially for it.”
For instance, the large rug in the first floor reception room was designed by one if the building’s architects and was woven specifically to fit the room, carrying out the color of the room’s soft blue furnishings and matching the contemporary interior design.
Color schemes were coordinated throughout, including the stairways. Everywhere was a note of silver—silver against blue in the reception room, silver upholstered furniture against green in the main dining room on the floor above. The third floor featured the library filled with leather-bound books, the building’s main lounge—walnut paneled with violet and gold divans and two marble fireplaces, and the board room “with only its amethyst carpet to relieve the silver sheen of its walls.”
The building also featured a card room decorated in black and gold patterned paper and matching black and gold tables and chairs, “contrasting with woodwork and carpet of a tomato tint.” In addition, the club’s new home included numerous meeting rooms as well as bedrooms and “three kinds of dining rooms.”
Of course, the club was about far more than its building. McLaughlin wrote, “To catalogue the club’s activities would be to compile something comparable in size to the Chicago telephone directory. The pies in which it has had all its fingers and both thumbs have ranged from the first legislation on compulsory education and the establishment of the Juvenile Court to the genesis of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Art Institute and in 1915 the furtherance of typhoid relief work in Belgium. . . . One of the club’s proud recent achievements was the establishment of the first nursery school to be operated within a public school in the United States.” She noted that as government caught up “with one or another of the club’s modem ideas,” it took over some of the club’s projects including, in addition to kindergartens, “night schools, vacation schools, and the work for the blind, which are only a few of the enterprises which long had the support of the club.”
The club still supported personal development of its members, hosting a curriculum of no fewer than fifty classes taught by “professional teachers, lecturers, and leaders in every field of human endeavor,” putting the club “in competition with the colleges.” According to McLaughlin, members could easily spend six full days each week in educational endeavors, even if they did not immerse themselves in the club’s important civic work.
The club’s early membership read like a Who’s Who. Notable members included the following women who have left a significant legacy.
Jane Addams was a settlement activist, social reformer, author, and pacifist. A leader in the history of social work, she was co-founder of both the American Civil Liberties Union and Chicago’s Hull House, one of the country’s most famous settlement houses. Addams was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University.
The first Black woman to gain membership (in 1894, it took more than a year of debate) was Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams, educator, political and women’s rights advocate, musician, and portraitist. Williams became well known for her efforts to have Black people officially represented on the Board of Control of the 1893 World’s Fair. She helped found the League of Colored Women, the National Association of Colored Women, the National Federation of Afro-American Women, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known today by its acronym NAACP. She was both the first woman and the first Black American to be named to the Chicago Library Board. She was associated with both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and was the only Black American chosen to eulogize Susan B. Anthony and the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1907.
Ada Celeste Sweet was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to be United States agent for paying pensions in Chicago, the first such position ever offered to a woman by the federal government. In that role she established a strict system of civil service reform. Having raised money among friends to build and equip an ambulance, she gave the first police ambulance to the city of Chicago, thus becoming the founder of the Chicago police ambulance system. In addition to her philanthropic and governmental reform work, Sweet was literary editor of the Chicago Tribune.
Publisher and political activist Myra Colby Bradwell founded and published Chicago Legal News. She attempted to become the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois bar (1869), but was denied admission by both the Illinois and United States Supreme Courts. (They upheld “a separate women’s sphere.”) Meanwhile, influenced by her case, the state legislature passed a law making gender discrimination illegal in admission to any occupation or profession, excepting the military. The state Supreme Court finally granted her admission to the Illinois bar in 1890 and the US Supreme Court soon followed in its footsteps. Bradwell was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.
Education, children’s welfare, and social policy reformer Julia Clifford Lathrop, who directed the United States Children’s Bureau from 1912 to 1922, was the first woman ever to head a federal bureau. Lathrop was largely responsible for the Chicago Woman’s Club’s efforts to establish a juvenile court system.
One of the staunchest supporters for Frances Barrier Williams’ admission to the Chicago Woman’s Club, Sarah Ann Hackett Stevenson was the first female member of the American Medical Association. Dr. Stevenson was also the first woman appointed on the State Board of Health and the first woman to be on staff at Cook County Hospital. She co-founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses together with Lucy Flower, another notable member of the club. It was Stevenson who proposed to the club creating a safe home for women and children in need of shelter, and with the help of private donations and other clubs, the Woman’s Model Lodging House was opened to the public.
Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard was national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death in 1898. She was also an educator and suffragist whose influence continued as the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments (prohibition and women’s suffrage respectively) were adopted. Among Willard’s accomplishments was raising the age of consent from fourteen to eighteen in many states as well as passing labor laws including the eight-hour work day. In her 700-page autobiography, Glimpses of Fifty Years (1889), Willard wrote, “The loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day, and I have pondered much why these things were. That so little should be said about them surprises me, for they are everywhere. . . . In these days when any capable and careful woman can honorably earn her own support, there is no village that has not its examples of ‘two hearts in counsel,’ both of which are feminine.”
Novelist, Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and social reformer Celia Parker Woolley was founder of the Frederick Douglass Woman’s Club, one of Chicago’s few interracial women’s clubs. As president of the Chicago Woman’s Club, she opened its membership to Black women with the help of fellow Unitarian Fannie Barrier Williams.
The Chicago Woman’s Club met until 1999 when the group voted itself out of existence. As then vice-president Louise Pavelka told the Chicago Tribune’s Barbara Brotman, “The glory of this club was philanthropy,” but that time had passed as membership, and therefore funds, declined. Another member said the club had moved away from social justice issues “because so many other organizations had taken them up.” Member Ruth Wiener said. “We used to do those things when no one else did. . . . We served a purpose.” She laughed as she told Brotman, “We did our jobs too well.”
As one would expect, the club’s remaining assets went to support scholarships and other philanthropic endeavors.