Voices for Reform: Women Organize Outside the Home

Prior to the mid-1800s, women’s organizations were typically auxiliaries of men’s groups or church-sponsored aid societies, and men usually controlled their direction and administration. However, by the 1860s, women began to establish groups under their own direction. Women’s literary and civic clubs proliferated in the United States between the Civil War and World War II in what became known as the women’s club movement. In 1890, a national umbrella organization, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), was founded to coordinate the clubs’ activities. In the early 1900s, the GFWC was the largest national women’s organization; its membership peaked in 1914 with 1.7 million women.

Members of women’s clubs were typically from the middle and upper classes. Club leaders were well-educated, and members devoted themselves to continued learning and self-improvement, developing study plans in literature, history, and the arts. They also focused on bettering their communities by championing education, philanthropy, and civic improvement. Clubs gave women a political voice, tackling an array of issues including public health and sanitation, labor laws for women and children, municipal reform, and women’s suffrage. Women also met urgent social needs, founding orphanages and homes for women in need, as well as helping migrants relocate to urban centers.

While white women organized en masse following the Civil War, the Black women’s club movement did not gain momentum until the 1890s. In 1896, as southern white women resisted the inclusion of Black groups in the GFWC, middle-class Black women formed their own national organization, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Like their white counterparts, Black women’s clubs were interested in education and self-improvement, but they placed an additional emphasis on racial pride and advancement. Many formed in defense against lynchings and had agendas that included efforts to uplift Black men.

In part, middle-class women’s efforts to reform society were driven by their self-perception as the more “virtuous” sex. In the 19th century, it was believed that women’s place in the domestic sphere kept them removed from the corrupting influence of public life. Many women therefore believed it was their moral duty to improve their communities. However, recipients may not have always appreciated their efforts. Reformers sometimes assumed a patronizing, missionary attitude when assisting the poor. They did not always listen well, mandating change without trying to understand what communities wanted and needed.

Voices for Reform