Networking in the Nineteenth Century: Founding of the Woman's Press Club of New York City

Article excerpt

In March 1868, journalist Jane Cunningham Croly was stymied when she attempted to buy a ticket to attend a Charles Dickens lecture sponsored by the all-male New York Press Club. Croly, angered by this "churlish" treatment, put into action an idea that ultimately changed the lives of millions of American women -- she formed her own club.(1) This early women's club, Sorosis, attracted so many writers and professional women that the members initially debated calling the group the "Order of the Pen." The women decided against limiting their membership to only writers and to take a more broad-based approach to club life.(2) The idea of a club for women writers, however, still appealed to Croly and, more than twenty-one years after being shunned by the all-male New York Press Club, she unveiled her plan for a press club for women.

This article chronicles the founding of the Woman's Press Club of New York City.(3) It provides a first look at the club's handwritten minutes, which trace how the group evolved from a small core of prominent New York women journalists into a club that welcomed fledgling writers and encouraged their involvement in journalism. The women journalists who joined and promoted this club were part of the army of women who flocked to newspapers in the late Nineteenth Century. Most of these women are themselves lost to journalism history except as a statistic, yet, as the club archive demonstrates, they took the business of writing seriously and helped promote journalism as a career for women.(4) The club also provided camaraderie for women in a male-dominated profession and a forum to explore reforms or topics the women could later write about.

The discussion that follows is based on the thesis that women used their social clubs as a network to communicate and maintain contact with other women. Anne Firor Scott in her book Natural Allies demonstrated that "organized womanhood," i.e. the women's clubs, formed "an effective communications network."(5) Scott, who investigated the activities of numerous women's clubs, found that the women used their clubs and their national association, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, to exchange ideas and information quickly and effectively. Although the prevailing ideal for middle-class women in the nineteenth century held that their proper place was in the home, many women found in their clubs an opportunity to promote civic activities and social reform in their communities. Karen Blair, in The Clubwoman as Feminist, defined club women as "Domestic Feminists" who delighted in being "Ladies" yet learned in the safety of their clubs how to widen their sphere to include the public domain.(6)

Women journalists, whose work by definition put them into the public sphere, also sought the safe haven of club life. They were among the very first club members, joining the New York-based Sorosis and the Boston-based New England Woman's Club. These general clubs provided the women with friendships and an opportunity to involve themselves in organized reforms and activities. But unwelcome in the male press clubs, women journalists also craved an organization that could foster their professional careers.(7) Indeed, the exclusion of women from the all-male press clubs that thrived in cities in the late nineteenth century prompted the move by women to form their own groups. The Woman's Press Club of New York City, which was founded in 1889 and flourished in the last decade of that century, was one such group. Other clubs also were established to provide a vital communication network that helped women survive and make inroads in the male-dominated business of journalism.

Jane Cunningham Croly, who often used the penname "Jenny June," was, by 1889, a nationally known journalist who wrote for newspapers and magazines.(8) As one of the earliest women to brave the male bastion of the newsroom, Croly believed that women journalists could avoid feeling isolated by organizing themselves in clubs. …