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[Detail] Suffragettes procession after release from prison.

The Women’s Club Movement

After the Civil War and up to World War II, the Women’s Club Movement was an important part of the social and political landscape in the United States. At that time, few women were able to go to college; clubs, with annual study plans, offered an opportunity for ongoing education. Clubs also offered an outlet for women’s interests in improving their communities through social and legal reform. Some clubs had both male and female members, although women were the driving forces behind club activities.

The Geneva Political Equality Club, led for many years by Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller, was an example of such a club:

The Geneva Political Equality Club is, as its name implies, not a social but a political organization and welcomes members from all ranks, trades and professions. Its list of active members includes the names of mechanics, physicians, lawyers, clergymen, bankers and literary men; while among the women enrolled there are practicing physicians, trained nurses, teachers and clerks connected with various business houses. Membership is acquired by signing the constitution and the payment of the yearly fee of 50 cents. The club has introduced to the people of Geneva many eminent speakers (over fifty in less than five years) including some from foreign parts. … The last meeting of each year, called the Piazza Party is held at the home of the President, where, on the broad verandas of the spacious mansion, the sight of lawn and garden and grove and the sparkling waves of the blue Seneca Lake delights the eye, music charms the ear, and the crowning pleasure of the day is always a talk from some interesting speaker.

From “A Notable Club”

Read the newspaper articles about the formation of the Geneva Political Equality Club in Scrapbook 1897-1904 (pages 18-20). Based on the articles and the excerpt above, answer the following questions:

  • What was the purpose of the Geneva Political Equality Club?
  • What were the requirements for membership in the Geneva Political Equality Club? What can you deduce about the members of the club from the article?
  • What was the primary focus of the speeches given at the first meeting? Based on the reasons for creating the club and the focus of the first meeting, make a list of topics that might have been covered at meetings of the club in its first year. Search the Scrapbook to see if your predictions were correct.

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During  the years covered in the scrapbooks, the Geneva Political Equality Club heard speeches on an array of topics. Read the report of Mrs. Maud Gillespie’s presentation to the Geneva Political Equality Club on the topic “Our Working Women.”

  • Why were women encouraged to work outside the home?
  • According to Mrs. Gillespie, what accounted for the shifting attitudes toward women in the work force?
  • How did she describe the working conditions for women in the shirt waist factories of New England? Compare these conditions with those in Scotland described by A. Mason Brown in a letter to the editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, January 21, 1909. How did Mrs. Gillespie and Mr. Brown link conditions for working women with the issue of women’s suffrage?which is it, woman or women’s suffrage? I think woman suffrage, as used above, sounds very awkward
  • What responsibility did Mrs. Gillespie say that women who did not work had toward those who did? Do you think this principle has any applicability today? Explain your answer.
  • Find and read an account of another speech given at the Geneva Political Equality Club. Write a brief summary of the main ideas conveyed in the speech and explain how those ideas might still be important in today’s world.

A newspaper clipping described the Geneva Political Equality Club’s annual “Piazza Party” at Lochland in May 1903. Mrs. Florence Perkins Gilman was the featured speaker at what the newspaper called “A Politico-Social Event”:

photo of Lochland and lawn

Residence of Mrs. Elizabeth Smith Miller, Lochland.