Introduction

By Blair, Karen J. | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Blair, Karen J., Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


At first glance, these seven articles addressing the history of women's clubs seem quite disparate, covering a social group in colonial India, an Indian reservation association in Oregon, an alliance of modern Filipina brides in Australia, Nebraska farm women testifying to Congress, a YWCA in North Carolina, the League of Women Voters' enthusiasm for environmental protection, and the General Federation of Women's Clubs support for peace. In their totality, however, the essays reveal several common threads. Among them are the enduring collective efforts by women, over a century and a half, to be heard, help one another, and strengthen the bonds of friendship to create a safe haven to build skills and launch pressure on governments to improve the lives of women and all its citizens. From clubs, seemingly tame in contrast to more militant types of activism, are created women leaders for positions of influence. Perhaps the most persuasive lesson from this collection is the message that moderate behavior can deceive outsiders who might cling to suspicion that women's groups cannot incubate meaningful change. The organized women explored in these essays most emphatically demonstrate that they have ignited significant change in many, many corners of our world.

Terrianne K. Schulte demonstrates that the League of Women Voters addressed environmental problems a century before our contemporary period, drawing on their Progressive Era techniques of research, education, and lobbying government for enforcement of new regulations. In the early twentieth century, the League launched a Save the Redwood campaign in northern California and called for clean air in Salt Lake City. It promoted hydroelectricity in the 1920s and 30s. Claiming their right to public activism, not as feminists but as mothers and Municipal Housekeepers, the members continued to fight for clean water into the Cold War era of the 1950s and 60s. Schulte asserts that it was the feminists of the 1970s who dismissed the League as "Establishment" and marginalized league contributions to environmental history. Thus, modern reformers have remained ignorant of the long, serious, and significant work of these foremothers.

Melissa Estes Blair's examination of a particular branch of the League, in Durham, North Carolina, assesses member contributions to the Second Wave of feminism in the 1970s. Far from peripheral to the boisterous women's rights advocates of the era, the League, along with the local YWCA, cloaked its rebels, who did not find newer groups like the National Organization for Women, to be a congenial forum for change. The local League and Y supported the ERA, reproductive rights, consciousness raising, rape crisis centers, daycare, lesbian support groups, and integration of black and white women, a program identical to that of more celebrated hell-raisers of that day. To be sure, Blair exposes the strata of working-class white union women who kept their distance from racially integrated organizations, but also underlines the challenges that seemingly tame and traditional women's clubs could bring to social patterns that deserved to be shaken.

Along parallel lines, Paige Meltzer explores the General Federation of Women's Clubs, which has won wide respect by women historians for the group's great accomplishments in the Progressive Era but little attention for its post-World War II activism. Like Blair, Meltzer invites respect for the stances members took during a Cold War that invited conservatism. …

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