Organized for a Cause: Social Clubs & Women’s Suffrage

In 2020, PMH joined the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment with two blogs related to a suffrage scrapbook from the museum’s collection. However, the scrapbook documents not just the saga of national suffrage, but also the trials and ultimate success that came before it in the state of California. 2021 marks the 110th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the Golden State, and PMH will mark this momentous milestone year by continuing the blog series drawing from the scrapbook of Mary A. Holmes - a woman who diligently recorded the protests, agitation, and activism of women in California.

On August 7, 1911, the Los Angeles Herald reported that “women suffragists of various organizations” were planning to fight “from the skies” for the right to vote. These women — who were members of various women’s clubs — took to the skies in hot air balloons, where they would release “suffrage literature, confetti and flowers bearing suffrage tags.” Among these flying suffragists were Mrs. George Drake Ruddy, president of the Los Angeles Political Equality League; Ms. Annie Bock, secretary of the College Woman’s Equal Suffrage League; and Mrs. Clara Shortridge Foltz and Ms. Mary Foy of the Votes-For-Women Club.

Newspaper headline and image, “SUFFRAGISTS TO GO SKYWARD THEY WILL CAMPAIGN IN BALLOON,” from July 3, 1911 that Mary A. Holmes clipped and included in her suffrage scrapbook. (Scrapbook Collection, 112)

Such organizations flourished all over the country during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their membership, largely composed of affluent white women, was expansive. By 1914, eighty-five percent of non-career American women counted themselves as a member of at least one kind of women’s club. American women used these associations and networks to carve out a public space and role for themselves at a time when they would otherwise be excluded.

The involvement of women in such groups dates back to the charity societies of the late eighteenth century. The first few decades of the nineteenth century saw these groups grow in number, evolving into societies committed to issues of “moral reform.” These issues included temperance, health, education, and — over the course of the Civil War — the abolition of slavery. After the Civil War, a number of women’s groups focused less on moral reform, and more on art and literature. Women’s literary and study groups embedded themselves as common elements of urban life. Women gathered to talk about history, literature, and art in order to cultivate their intellect and cultural education. But these small groups gradually evolved into larger and more public societies. Ultimately, they would become national and even international women’s club federations. One of the most important clubs of this kind was the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), founded in 1890 and comprising several thousand clubs of which — by the 1920s — cumulatively two million women were members. Underpinning this growth was a new desire to participate in public and political matters, and nowhere did women’s clubs thrive more than in the city of Los Angeles.

By the early 1920s, the Los Angeles branch of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs counted 172 different associations with a combined membership of over thirty thousand women. In this complicated era, race and class defined club membership. The question of whether or not women of color should be allowed to join became a polarizing issue among club women. In 1902, when the GFWC hosted its annual meeting in Los Angeles, club women left the matter to the discretion of local societies. They allowed local groups to determine membership criteria. The result was that many women of color were excluded. In response, women of color founded their own clubs and societies. In 1912, the California newspaper The Crisis reported that “Los Angeles is perhaps the greatest center of colored-club activity in California.” Such organizations included the Sojourner Truth Club, the Progressive Women’s Club, and the Married Ladies’ Social and Art Club, among many others.

Women’s clubs thrived in Los Angeles, and in the greater nation, because they allowed women to carve out their own space in society, and venture into multiple realms like politics or business that were otherwise restricted.

The largest association within the GFWC was the Friday Morning Club (FMC), founded in 1891. As an all-women’s organization committed to personal and civic improvement, the FMC counted roughly three thousand members at its peak, and had thousands more attend its meetings, forums, and events. The organization hosted numerous political and cultural dignitaries as speakers. Its members comprised women reformers, artists, philanthropists, and business leaders. The FMC stood at the center of the area’s progressive civic culture. The organization is mentioned in articles in the Pasadena Star-News and the Pasadena Evening Post in the late 1910 and 1920s.

Friday Morning Club, 938-940 South Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, 1980 (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, CAL,19-LOSAN,63-1)

At its apex, however, the FMC began its decline. The grand opening of its $600,000, six-story headquarters located on South Figueroa Street, on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, was a massive event. Thousands came to its opening which garnered significant press coverage. This growing infrastructure, however, brought major financial obligations that required larger club dues from members. This, combined with the crashing economy in 1929, caused the FMC’s membership roster to plummet. Further changes in women’s culture continued to whittle away at the FMC’s viability. The ratification of women’s suffrage in 1920 gave women many more options to participate in public life than before. No longer requiring a women’s club to influence public and political life, women moved beyond such clubs and into the issues directly. Furthermore, women gained greater access to graduate and professional schools, developing their careers while leaving them little time to take part in club life. The result was a major falling away of women from organizational activity. In 1931, FMC president Louise Ward Watkins commented that “no longer are women banded together simply because they are women, fighting for common rights and privileges.” She praised women's clubs for accomplishing its goals of giving women greater access to public and political life. Unfortunately for the FMC and other organizations, many women wanted to take advantage of their new opportunities, and decided that clubs were no longer the place to do so.

- Grant Holt