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General Federation of Women's Clubs

Title page of Souvenir Program of the Ninth Bennial Convention of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (c1907), Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute
Title page of Souvenir Program of the Ninth Bennial Convention of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (c1907), Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute.

In the years following the Civil War, a growing number of women began joining clubs devoted to education, self-improvement, and community uplift. Starting with the 1868 founding of Sorosis, a club for professional women in New York, women's clubs became increasingly popular and spread across the country. Clubs started as places for women, who were almost always denied the higher education available to their brothers, husbands, and sons, to study liberal arts topics like history, politics, and literature. Jane Cunningham Croly founded Sorosis after she had been banned from a banquet held by the New York Press Association, of which she was a member. Although her club was for professional women, clubs formed around a number of different feminine identities: for example, Jewish women and black women often formed their own clubs. In their clubs, women learned to develop their own ideas, take them seriously, and then act on them.

As women taught themselves that their ideas were important, women's clubs often expanded their focus on self-improvement to wider areas of public interest: some clubs were concentrated on charity, some on politics, and others on social reform. Clubwomen embraced an ideology celebrating motherhood, and were able to use maternalist rhetoric to improve their communities.

Women's clubs set the stage for increased political and social participation in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was an outgrowth of the club movement, and the Women's Trade Union League and the Young Women's Christian Association used the skills and infrastructure established by clubwomen.

In 1889, Jane Cunningham Croly initiated the founding of the General Federation of Women's Clubs by issuing an invitation to 97 clubs to gather in New York City to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Sorosis Club. That meeting resulted in subsequent meetings which drafted a constitution adopted in 1890, and in the first Biennial Convention in 1892.

"The object of the General Federation is to bring into communication with each other the various women's clubs throughout the world, in order that they may compare methods of work and become mutually helpful." (Constitution as adopted April 24, 1890)

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