Municipal Housekeeping: The Political Activities of the Detroit Federation of Women's Clubs in the 1920s

Article excerpt

The 1931 centennial edition of the Detroit Free Press characterized the Detroit Federation of Women's Clubs (DFWC) as a politically astute entity when it stated that it was "difficult to find any civic project relating to the welfare of women, of children, and even of general import which the city federation had not helped to bring about." The article went on to describe how Detroit clubwomen used their commitment to the home as a foundation for their political activity. (1) DFWC president Jessie A. Hancock said that a common interest in the home guided club members in their search for answers to political questions. (2) The Free Press's summary quoted above emphasizes the primacy of women's and children's concerns in the clubwomen's work. It indicates that even eleven years after winning the franchise, women still focused their political work on what had been known for more than thirty years as "municipal housekeeping." (3)

Clubwomen used their concern for the home to legitimize their work in municipal affairs, transforming this notion into a concern for the city as the home of all its residents. This "city as a home" vision promoted clubwomen's conception of women as wives, mothers, and moral guardians, as well as franchised citizens. Clubwomen believed that they spoke especially for women and children, whose needs constituted an important aspect of state activity. Although Detroit was divided by racial, ethnic, and class barriers, clubwomen believed that all of the city's inhabitants shared a communal interest in and collective responsibility for its social and political health. Accordingly, the federation reached out with its educational campaigns not only to city officials, but also to the neighborhoods. These campaigns served to heighten public awareness of municipal issues, and city officials often enlisted the federation's help to do just that. Occasionally these officials consulted the DFWC on matters of public policy, but the federation remained cautious and preferred to study possible approaches to contentious issues rather than to advocate particular policies. The DFWC's political confidence was greatest when it felt its wisdom was respected, and it was most influential when it worked cooperatively with male groups. Even after women received full political rights, Detroit clubwomen of the 1920s still couched their civic-mindedness in gendered terms as an extension of women's traditional domestic responsibilities. From this perspective--persistently but cautiously--the Detroit Federation of Women's Clubs injected clubwomen's views about a wide range of issues into the city's public life.

The activities of Detroit clubwomen were consistent with those of clubwomen since the late 1800s in many cities throughout the country. Historians of women's associational life have traced how growing numbers of American women joined together in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to express their concern for the welfare of the family and the home. Women used these voluntary associations as a base of operations for political activities. Within these clubs, women could pursue their own agendas, avoiding male dominance of their ideas. These agendas often addressed educational, social, or philanthropic issues. Eventually, philanthropic work led women to recognize serious problems within society. Women who banded together to discuss their common problems as wives and mothers discovered that there was a connection between the home and public affairs. (4) Paula Baker explains that "many nineteenth century women found this vision of the home congenial: it encouraged a sense of community and responsibility toward all women and it furnished a basis for political action." (5) Women believed that urban and industrial life had changed the nature of women's domestic work and made it more public. Those who remained in the home still depended on government policies to provide services and protections for that home. …