The archives of the Schlesinger Library include several collections that highlight the women’s club movement and the lives of its founding members. Organized and directed by women, the mission and objectives of the clubs varied, but most provided ample opportunities for self-improvement and voluntary civic work. The earliest clubs were formed shortly after the Civil War, and by the late 19th century, clubs had rapidly spread across the nation.
The Saturday Morning Club, organized by Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910) in 1871, was unique in its approach and longevity. Howe, author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and a prolific writer of poems, essays, and children’s books, was also an abolitionist, social reformer, and founding member of the New England Women’s Club (1868), one of the first women’s clubs in the nation. Historical vignettes in the collection describe how the idea for the Saturday Morning Club was inspired by Howe’s daughter Maud, who questioned her mother about the lack of clubs for young girls. From its inception, Howe envisioned a viable alternative to the sewing clubs and debutante balls that defined the lives of middle- and upper-class young girls, choosing instead a broad range of intelligent, useful, and imaginative activities to enrich their lives. The first club members, which consisted of Maud, her friends, and her schoolmates, held informal meetings at Howe’s home on Mt. Auburn Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they learned to draft a constitution, adopt bylaws, and elect club officers.
Nicknamed the “Sat Morn Girls” by Howe, they also formed groups to discuss mathematics, science, history, and the arts, and the popular cookery group provided “culinary entertainment” that included “turkey muffins,” “hominy croquettes,” and “Quaker queer,” a dish of creamed codfish that reportedly “robbed Friday of all its terrors.”
By 1874 club members were presenting monologues, staging classical plays, and performing musical skits for members and their guests, which over the years became a lucrative enterprise.
Scholarly pursuits eventually became the cornerstone of club activities. During the club’s formative years, the young girls found many of the lectures difficult to understand and sometimes just plain boring. Group discussions, led by Howe, introduced them to critical ways of thinking. As the girls matured and club membership expanded to include adult women, they adopted the practice of writing and presenting essays on topics of interest. Minutes of the recording secretary, original lectures, and other records describe the notable visitors to the club who led discussions on diverse topics, including a well-received lecture titled “Mental Telegraphy” by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain; 1882), a lecture by the lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Louis B. Brandeis titled “Civil Rights of Women” (1883), the African American educator Maria Baldwin’s lecture about the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1904), and the need for freedom of speech offered by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1905).
By the 1920s, the women’s club movement had reached its peak and began its decline. Although there were many contributing factors, which varied by state, women’s entry into the workforce has been cited as a primary cause. In contrast, the records of the Saturday Morning Club confirm that, as recently as 2010, members regularly met at the Harvard Club and other venues. In addition to their administrative activities, members continued to write and present essays on topics of interest. In an essay titled “Endings,” one member captured the past sentiments of the Sat Morn Girls while paying tribute to the club’s venerable founder: “Everything, we know, is gravitating toward some ending—every poem and novel to its last page . . . every journey to its destination, every paper and meeting to its close, at least for this year. But we have all achieved that for which we and Julia Ward Howe before us set out in the first place.”