Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Sisters of the Clover Club

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Sisters of the Clover Club

Article excerpt

"If you are interested in the development of `woman,' you will perhaps be pleased to hear the part we are taking in her evolution," said Julia Kimbrough as she assumed the presidency of the newly-founded Clover Club in Danville, Illinois, in 1895. Mrs. Kimbrough, as she is nearly always referred to in the documents of the Club, promised that she and her sisters of the Club would devote "a larger share of [their] time to useful studies" in order to become not only companions and moral advisors to their husbands but also their "intellectual equals." Mrs. Kimbrough's name and her spirit pervade the early minutes, annual histories, and newspaper accounts of the Clover Club, which still functions today as a literary club. The reader comes to know her as a beloved founder of the Club, as a multi-term president appreciated for her cheerful and innovative leadership, and as a generous hostess.

Julia Kimbrough was, in her own words, "preeminently a club woman," and she would have found a comfortable place among the leaders in Helen Hooven Santmyer's well-researched but fictional club world described in " . . . And Ladies of the Club." In fact Santmyer's familiarity with Midwestern study clubs is exemplified by the parallels between Danville's Clover Club and her fictional Waynesboro's Woman's Club. Membership in both was exclusive; "There are only two qualifications: intelligence and education," said one of the Waynesboro ladies, but in her club as well as in the Clover Club, the legacy system was strong. Both clubs, real and fictional, developed meeting formats which required individual club members to research and present challenging "Club papers." In both worlds the women chose cultural and historical topics of study, eschewing controversial issues and community action, unless the local library needed help. Both groups received criticism for their insistence on self-development. "We women hope to provide ourselves with some food for the mind." Both groups began to worry that "the Club has hardly kept to the intellectual standard set in earlier days." In both worlds, a remarkable bond developed among the sisters of the club.1

According to Anne Ruggles Gere in Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U. S. Women's Clubs, 1880-1920, "Women who functioned in the public culture ... of clubs produced and consumed many texts on the subject of womanhood ... accepting, resisting, and modifying them to fashion new ideologies of womanhood." Gere's description fits the Clovers of Danville and other study clubs such as the Decatur Art Club, researched by Theodora Penny Martin. Club leaders were aware that they were redefining themselves as they left the confines of their homes and joined their clubs, where they "controlled their own literary practices, writing and reading as they chose. . . "2

Chautauquan Roots

The Clover Club of Danville has its roots imbedded in the literary club movement which came into fruition after the Civil War. Elizabeth Turner noted the reasons behind this widespread movement: "Suddenly. . . women... set about taking stock in their own learning. Years of benevolence to others had edified them to pressing social needs, urging them to act, but the time had come for women to see to their own education."3

Karen Blair points out that most upper- and middle-class American women had internalized the role of ideal ladies, isolated in their homes, "schooled only for service to others, powerless, and denigrated, even as they were revered." The cultural domain of the literary club was "a significant step for the autonomy of women and their flight from the confinement of the home." Club life succeeded at reaching and assisting women to grow, "by altering their expectations of both their social functions and their ability to carry out change." Women learned that silence and domesticity were no longer the virtues they once had been. As Clover Mary Blackburn challenged her sisters in 1895: "Shall women sit down to polish when they are able to reform, to entertain when they might instruct? …

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