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Library-Archives Home

From Literary Societies to Suffrage:

Documenting Women's Clubs in Montana


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Fortnightly Study Club yearbook

Women in the 19th century American West faced many challenges, not the least of which was maintaining cultural and social ties to their counterparts in the more "civilized" East.   As women traveled west they left behind female family members, friends, churches, schools, and women’s organizations-all part of an intricate social support system.   The popular image of women as "gentle tamers" in the West stems in part from women's efforts to maintain or rebuild those support systems.    Women’s Clubs were often at the center of these efforts.   Providing intellectual stimulation and social interaction Women’s Clubs quickly became commonplace throughout the West-garden clubs, library associations, and literary societies formed to meet western women’s social and intellectual needs.  

In time these needs would change to meet the demands of growing communities and changing roles for women-literary societies often gave way to civic improvement clubs and social reform organizations.   The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a period of intense social reform and transformation in the United States.    In response to escalating poverty, labor violence, urban slums, and spreading disease, Americans joined together to address these social "evils".   The Progressive movement, as it became known, attracted mostly young, educated, white, middle- to upper-class men and women.   Unlike their poorer counterparts, these women had the time and education necessary to successfully lead reform movements.   Their efforts were generally carried out through well-organized and defined women’s clubs.

By the start of the 1890s, the women’s club movement was thriving in the United States.   In 1892 the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) formed, encompassing five hundred clubs and one hundred thousand members. Although many women’s clubs initially organized to provide social interaction and self-improvement, by the early twentieth century the clubs began to focus on the  betterment of society.   These clubs often addressed issues such as civic improvement, libraries, and public health.   They also supported more controversial issues, including child labor laws, worker compensation, pure food and drug legislation, and occupational safety.    As the clubs became more and more active, they began to address more controversial and political issues, such as women’s suffrage and temperance.

The women’s club movement in Montana was no exception to national trends.   By 1901, according to Mrs. W. F. Christie, Director of the GFWC, Montana had over 15 women’s clubs, with at least one in every major town.   These clubs initially addressed self-improvement, through the formation of literary clubs, and home-improvement.   With the growth of the Progressive movement, however, Montana’s women’s clubs began to address public service or civic improvement issues, generally focusing on their local areas.   Women’s clubs also addressed national political causes, such as women’s suffrage, or local political issues such as the location of Montana’s capital.   As women’s clubs flourished across the state in the early part of the twentieth century, they provided a previously unknown outlet for middle- and upper-class women to exercise their organizational and leadership skills.

Women’s Clubs Records at the Montana Historical Society:

Whether providing social interaction, intellectual stimulation, or political training; women’s clubs were an important part of life for Montana’s women.   A review of the documents these groups left behindócorrespondence, membership records, minutes, and newslettersóreveal the integral role these clubs played in the personal development of individual members and the communities in which they lived.    The following paragraphs provide samples from the rich documentary heritage of Montana women’s clubs held by Montana Historical Society Archives.  

Literary Clubs

Among the earliest women’s clubs in Montana were literary clubs.   The As You Like It Club of Missoula and the Fortnightly Club of Helena, were founded to promote the intellectual, cultural, and social improvement of their members.   The clubs held regular meetings in which they discussed literary themes, current topics, and history.   In general they would outline a topic for study and follow it for a given period of time. These clubs allowed women to act in leadership roles and encouraged them to research, write, and present papers to their peers.   Literary clubs also provided civic improvement, their member often working to establish the first lending libraries in Montana.

The Fortnightly Club which was established in Helena in 1890, was, in many ways, a typical literary club. Mrs. Frances Webster Wickes founded the Fortnightly Club on October 11,1890, for the purpose of studying English literature. The Fortnightly Club was the first organization in the state to function as a literary circle. The group, whose membership was limited to women, was to meet "at half past two o'clock on the afternoons of the first and third Saturdays of each month." It was agreed that each member be required to spend not less than three hours a week in study for the club work; that for any failure to do so there be a fine of one cent per half hour; that for absence from meetings, except in cases of illness or absence from town, there be a fine of ten cents; and for tardiness, five cents. Membership fees were set at a dollar a year. As the club grew its membership was limited to 33, and eventually to 20.

Within the first few years, Club members branched out to include the study of Western literature and drama.   By 1901 the focus had expanded to include the arts in general, and in 1904 the Club's name was changed to the Fortnightly Study Class.   In 1919 the program began to include current events and philosophy. The Club was renamed the Fortnightly Club in 1931 and has continued its literary studies until the present.

Civic Improvement Clubs

As literary clubs grew and became established, a new type of women’s club emerged:   the civic improvement club.   Civic improvement clubs embodied the heart of the Progressive movement by addressing social concerns in their local areas.   These clubs promoted such improvements as public welfare, sanitation, streetlights, sidewalks, poverty, and disease.   Clubs such as the Augusta Civic Society and the Helena Improvement Society provided their members with a more active community role.  Civic improvement clubs eventually began to share membership with more national reform movement such as the temperance and suffrage movements, but in their earliest years focused on local improvements.

The Hamilton Woman's Club, organized in September 1913, serves as an example of a civic improvement club.   The club was initially organized as the Hamilton Mother’s Club in 1913 to study problems relating to homes, babies, and mothers.   At the urging of club member Mrs. W. A. McKeown, the club's name was changed to the Hamilton Woman's Club in 1913, and in 1914 it became a member of the Montana Federation of Women's Clubs.   The new club adopted as its purpose, "to promote the higher interests of its members and others, though Philanthropic, Civic, Literary and Educational work."

Early in its existence, the club began to pursue civic improvement in the areas of education and health care.   In late 1914 club members pursued their first large project.   With the assistance of town leaders, they petitioned Andrew Carnegie for money to build a library and in 1915 the library was completed. The club continued to support literacy and education throughout its over 60 years of service by purchasing children’s books for the library, providing educational programs at their meetings, and sending local girls to various educational programs around the state.

Club women also worked to improve general health conditions in their community.   In addition to sponsoring county health services, they instituted hot lunch programs for under privileged children during the 1930s and provided milk in school for undernourished children.   The club also organized other health related programs, such as a lazy eye program, providing eyeglasses for the needy, and assisting children with eye and ear problems.   They also financially supported larger programs by donating money to state institutions for the deaf, blind, and mentally impaired and by sponsoring children to attend the Montana Special Olympics.

The Hamilton Women’s Club also provided organizational and financial support for general civic improvements in their town.   They regularly gave money for beautification of the local library building and grounds.   Club members also worked to build benches, build and improve parks, and install water fountains throughout the town.   In their effort to promote civic improvement, the club joined other local organizations, including both women’s clubs and fraternal organizations such as the Grange, in joint improvement projects such as those listed above.

Political Clubs

As communities developed and prospered, due in part to the activities of the civic improvement clubs, women turned their club activity to concerns that were more political in nature.   Building upon their already strong civic improvement, women’s clubs began to address social issues on a national level, requiring political involvement.   First among these concerns was the issue of alcohol.   In 1883 the women of Montana joined together to form the Montana chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and fought not only for temperance, but also for aid for destitute mothers and other social concerns. The women fighting for temperance also often joined in the fight for women’s suffrage by joining suffrage organizations.   Both of these causes required women’s clubs to organize on a wider basis and to take their concerns to a political level.   The success of these movements demonstrates that the women of Montana were experiencing both social and political power through their club activities.

The Montana Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded inAugust 1883 as a result of a visit to Montana by National WCTU organizers Frances E. Willard and Anna A. Gordon.   The delegates attending the initial meeting, representing Butte, Helena, Dillon, and White Sulphur Springs, elected "Mrs. Dr. Clark" as territorial president. By 1889, under the      leadership of Laura E. Howey of Helena, the WCTU had grown to thirteen local unions and ten departments including Social Purity, Presentation of our Cause before Legislature and other Influential Bodies, Unfermented Wine at Sacrament, Purity in Literature and Art, and Alms House.   By 1910 the state union was growing rapidly with over 1000 members and it had diversified its concerns to include support for government aid for destitute mothers, teaching of domestic science in the schools, and opposition to the drinking of Coca-Cola which at that time contained cocaine.

With the national tide of enthusiasm for prohibition and other social reforms, the Montana WCTU membership grew to 4167 active members in 202 local unions by 1916.   In addition the WCTU had a full-time lobbyist in the 1913 Legislative Assembly and was influential in its support of reform legislation, including placing woman's suffrage and statewide prohibition on the ballot.

Racial Dissension

Although the women’s club movement sought to correct social ills of the early twentieth century, they did not address all social problems, including racial discrimination.   In response to this lack of integration, black women developed a separate but equally strong club movement that addressed their particular social concerns.   Members of this movement were generally of the same economic and social class as the white women, but they focused specifically on improving the lives of African-Americans in the United States.   As with the white women’s club movement, national federations of clubs developed in the late nineteenth century, including the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the Colored Women’s League.   These organizations allowed black women equal, if segregated, opportunities to develop their leadership and organizational skills.

When the Montana Federation of Negro Women's Clubs first met in Butte on August 3, 1921, at least nine black women's clubs were active in communities throughout the state. Representatives from seven of the local clubs attended the meeting called by Mary B. Chappell to organize the state federation as an affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, which organized in 1896.   The representatives attending the Butte meeting elected Chappell as the state federation's first president.

Women living in Kalispell formed Montana's first black women's group, the Mutual Improvement Club, in August 1913. Three years later in 1916 twelve Helena women met as the Pleasant Hour Club.   The Pearl Club formed in Butte in 1918, and two groups, the Phyllis Wheatley Club in Billings and the Dunbar Art and Study Club in Great Falls, organized in 1920.   Four local clubs that formed in 1921 prior to the state federation's first meeting were the Bozeman Sweet Pea Study Club organized on January 5, Mary B. Talbert Art Club organized in Helena on January 7, Clover Leaf Club formed in Butte on February 4, and the Anaconda Good Word Literary Club, whose first meeting was in May.

The Montana Federation participated in meetings and activities of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and the National Association's Northwest Region with offices in Seattle.   In addition to offering social activities for black women, the local clubs and the state federation supported the Claudia Bivens Scholarship Fund to help black high school students attend college, lobbied for civil rights legislation in the state legislature, and worked through a variety of programs to improve racial relations at the state and local level.   At its annual meeting in     1948 the Montana Federation voted to change its name to the Montana State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (MSFCWC).

After World War II membership in the state's local clubs dwindled as the black population in the state dropped. During the 1920s and 1930s as many as fifteen local groups were active in Montana, but by the 1970s only four clubs remained active, and on June 17, 1972, the state federation's executive board voted to disband.

Related Resources

Unpublished sources in the MHS Archives:

Current Topic Club Records, 1892-1999, Small Collection 2271
Fortnightly Club Records, 1890-1999, Manuscript Collection 203
Hamilton Women’s Club Records, 1913-1989, Manuscript Collection 212
Harrison (Mont.) Women’s Club Records, 1908-1966, unprocessed
Helena Business and Professional Women Records, 1947-1977, Manuscript Collection 297
Helena Business Women’s Suffrage Club Records, 1896-1903, Small Collection 976
Helena Garden Club Records, 1962, Small Collection 1031
Helena Newcomer’s Club Records, 1946-1986, unprocessed
Helena Women’s Club Records, 1896-1995, Manuscript Collection 303
Hill County Garden Club of Havre Records, 1972-1983, Small Collection 2117
Libby Women’s Club Records, Microfilm 310d
Madison County Federated Women’s Clubs Writings, Microfilm 125 / Small Collection 1382
McAllister Community Welfare Club Records, 1901-1967, Small Collection 1726
Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs Records, 1921-1978, Manuscript Collection 281
Montana Legislative Wives Club Records, 1943-1979, Small Collection 1935
Montana State Democratic Women’s Club Records, 1966-1986, unprocessed
Montana Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Records, 1883-1976, Manuscript Collection 160
Navy Mother’s Club #11 (Helena, Mont.) Records, 1935-1991, Small Collection 2025
Pony Women’s Club Records, 1923-1938, Small Collection 1884
Ronan Women’s Club Records, 1948-1949, Small Collection 278
Three Mile (Mont.) Garden Club Records, 1961-1985, Small Collection 1988
Women’s Helena for Capital Club Records, 1894, Manuscript Collection 48
Yellowstone Club Records, 1892-1996, Microfilm 475

Guides to related unpublished materials:

Nineteenth Century Women"
"African-Americans in Montana"

Published materials:

Christie, Mrs. W. J.   "The Women’s Clubs of Montana."   Rocky Mountain Magazine.   Vol. 2, No. 1. 1901.

Petrik, Paula.   No Step Backward.   Helena:   Montana Historical Society Press, 1987.

Riley, Glenda.   Inventing the American Woman:   An Inclusive History.   Vol. 2.   3rd edition.   Wheeling:   Ball State University, 19xx.

Tubbs, Stephanie Ambrose.   "Montana Women’s Clubs at the Turn of the Century."   Montana the Magazine of Western History.   Vol. 36, No. 1.   1986.