Oregon Women’s Clubs

By Karen J. Blair

From the early beginnings of Oregon Territory and then the State of Oregon, women residents demonstrated enthusiasm for forming literary and civic clubs to accomplish self improvement and community reform. Women settlers from eastern locales brought experience in church and secular organizations and transplanted that volunteer activity to the Pacific Northwest. Associational life took hold and flourished, providing women with skills to accomplish institution building for cultural development and social welfare in their communities. Club members also applied their talents to achieve their own political autonomy, in the form of woman suffrage, which was won in 1912 after five failed campaigns for the vote, in 1884, 1900, 1906, 1908, and 1910.

The Columbia Maternal Association is the earliest woman’s society formed in Oregon Territory (now Walla Walla, Washington). Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, wife of missionary Marcus Whitman, MD, joined with other missionary wives during the 1830s to discuss modern child-raising ideas. As churches of every denomination were established in the region, women in the congregations formed ladies’ aid societies to raise money for charitable endeavors, church needs, and missions abroad. The Civil War of the 1860s, though distant from Oregon settlements, spurred women to form relief societies to provide for soldier needs. One example was the McMinnville Ladies’ Sanitary Aid Society, founded in 1863 to support Union troops by raising hundreds of dollars from sewing, knitting, and extracting financial pledges from local patriots. Wartime contributions alerted women to the roles they might play outside the domestic arena. Taxing as housekeeping and child-raising were on the frontier, women sought to effect greater change outside the home to enhance their communities. Defying the conventional dictum, “woman’s place is in the home,” Oregon’s pioneer women found the time and energy to shape the world in which they lived.

A powerful force for women’s reform of their society was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was founded back East in the 1870s to diminish alcohol consumption or even abolish its sale altogether in “dry” towns. As women had done in Ohio, Portland women launched assaults on saloons in the belief that drinking triggered social dysfunction, causing domestic violence and straining family relations. Members prayed, sang hymns, and demonstrated in front of the Webfoot Saloon in 1874 to discourage conviviality inside and create awareness about alcohol abuse. Activist efforts were met with attacks by tavern owners. The Brewers’ and Wholesale Liquor Dealers’ Association of Oregon responded by undermining efforts for women’s rights for decades, in the (correct) assumption that voting women would enforce Prohibition. Indeed, immediately after women won the vote in Oregon in 1912, they went to the polls to endorse Prohibition in 1914, years before the nation went dry with the Volstead Act of 1920. The WCTU thrived in Oregon, often in church meeting halls, and held its first state convention in 1883, with 33 unions (669 members) represented. Its heyday, in 1891, saw 83 locals with a membership of 2,000 women. The members expanded their goals well beyond the call for moderate drinking habits. Among the many issues members supported in Oregon were reading rooms for sailors and soldiers on leave, prison reform, juvenile justice, woman suffrage, kindergartens and day-care centers for working mothers, and education about the evils of tobacco, alcohol, and sexual freedom in Sunday schools, prisons, schools, and immigrant communities. They sponsored Florence Crittenton Purity Circles in Pendleton, Grants Pass, Eugene, Roseburg, The Dalles, Oregon City, and McMinnville to fund homes for unwed “fallen women” who needed refuge until they delivered babies who they would give up for adoption.

A staggering range of additional women’s groups arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These included benevolent groups such as the Children’s Flower Mission of Portland, created in 1885 as the first day-care center in the city. Mothers clubs eventually developed into the PTA. The Albina district of Portland enjoyed music appreciation instruction as early as the 1890s through the Monday Musical Club. Women formed auxiliaries to fraternal orders, such as the Women’s Degree of Pocahontas associated with the Reformed Order of Redmen. In Portland (1855) and The Dalles (1856), groups named Rebekah’s formed as women’s divisions of the all-men’s Independent Order of Odd Fellows, as did Eastern Star to the Masons and Women of Woodcraft to the Woodmen of the World. Farmers’ wives used the Grange to address common interests. Heritage societies emerged, including the Multnomah Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, forming in 1896. The Native Daughters of Oregon required ancestry from overland trail pioneers who had settled before the advent of the railroad. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Portland women formed a branch of the Red Cross. Mountain climbing attracted women to the co-ed Mazamas Club after 1894 and to the Mountaineers after 1906.

When minority women found themselves unwelcome in groups largely populated with a white, Protestant membership, they formed separate groups. The Lucy Thurman Union, a WCTU branch of African American women in Portland, evolved into the Colored Women’s Council. The African American Woman’s Co-op (later Multnomah Women’s Club), Harriet Tubman Club, and Oregon Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs seeded civic reform as zealously as any clubs in Oregon. Likewise, the Portland branch of the National Association of Jewish Women’s Clubs created a sewing school for 60 to 80 girls, classes in domestic science and manual training, and Neighborhood House, a settlement house (community center) to provide services that eased the transition to American life for immigrants to the city.

Club fever flourished throughout the state. Historian Sandra Haarsager’s research has shown that a town as tiny as The Dalles, with a popular of 3,000 in 1900, boasted twenty women’s organizations, including those at the Congregational, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic churches; in women’s auxiliaries to the Odd Fellows, Masons, and Woodmen of the World; and the WCTU, German Ladies Aid, women’s Relief Corps (auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic), King’s Daughters sewing group, two literary clubs, The Dalles Women’s Club, and Sorosis.

One focus of women’s clubs was the conditions of working women. Sometimes, workers created their own interest groups. Alliances of teachers emerged, such as the Priscilla Club at Western Oregon Normal School. An all-women’s Portland Medical Club united physicians, and the Women’s Card and Label League lobbied for laboring women and for improved working conditions for their husbands. The Portland Women’s Union created an evening school for laboring women and a boarding house (in 1887), providing inexpensive and decent lodging for earners far from home. Of national importance was the research of the Portland branch of the National Consumer’s League (founded 1901), which supported the labor law prohibiting women laundry workers from workdays longer than ten hours. This protection was affirmed by a 1908 Supreme Court decision, Mueller v. Oregon, opening the way for a spate of protective legislation for working women, on the grounds that potential mothers deserved safe conditions of employment. The League conducted a 1912 survey, under Caroline J. Gleason (later Sister Miriam Theresa), that surveyed 8,736 women factory, laundry, and cannery workers; chambermaids; and waitresses, determining the inadequacy of their wages. Members took jobs in twelve factories in several Oregon towns to collect their findings, which aided the 1913 passage of a minimum wage law in Oregon.

Many literary clubs formed in late nineteenth-century America for the purpose of educating women. Limited opportunities for learning caused Oregon women to meet in small groups on a weekly or monthly basis to tutor each other on topics in history, literature, and geography and offer scholarships or loans to young women students. Members drew a variety of advantages from such meetings, beyond acquaintance with major authors and ideas from the past. Social interaction, over tea and cookies, nurtured networking to assess community needs. Members gained public speaking skills when they took their turns delivering their research findings to their peers. They mastered Parliamentary Procedure via Roberts’ Rules of Order to discuss club themes in an orderly fashion. Most importantly, they built confidence and organizational skill to embark on a new path, that of addressing the many social problems they had observed in their communities.

The need for public libraries enjoyed early club attention. Committed to learning among themselves, members built on the idea of tiny reading rooms that the WCTU had initiated to draw sailors, soldiers, and other imbibers from saloons for recreation. In town after town, women’s clubs donated books and staffed these small collections in downtown storefronts for the general public to borrow. Soon, they approached Andrew Carnegie’s foundation for permanent buildings, agreeing to his bargain to stir up local support for new taxes to acquire books and periodicals and hire staff to manage the facility. The Eugene Fortnightly (founded 1893) established a free library in 1902; Pendleton Library Club raised funds in 1908. Ontario’s Work and Win Club (later Ontario Stud Club) opened a reading room that became the public library.

Additional educational priorities absorbed societies of women. Sororities formed at institutions of higher learning to assist women students in networking to succeed at their studies. Western Oregon Normal School expected its future teachers to participate in the Vespertines, a literary society that encouraged recitations that would benefit their poise in their classrooms. Colleges and normal schools encouraged alumnae associations to support the alma mater. The Eugene branch of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae aided the University of Oregon’s Women’s League to fund a Woman’s Building on the campus.

The Portland Woman’s Club was a prominent group, founded in 1895 by the city’s movers and shakers. By 1900, its membership of 129 included leading women in voluntary organizations and the professions but also admitted stenographers, teachers, artists, and housewives. Renowned suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway served as its president from 1902 to 1903. A department club, it offered subcommittees that enabled small groups of members to study German, French, Oregon history, Parliamentary Law, Shakespeare, Browning, Music, Philanthropic Needs, the Home, or Pottery. Embracing the spirit of civic reform that invigorated most clubs by the early twentieth century, the members also endorsed higher salaries for teachers, regulation of newsboy employment, free textbooks for school children, public health improvements, improved parks, and Traveler’s Aid for newcomers at railroad and boat terminals. In 1901, the club endorsed the selection of a member, Mrs. C.E. Sutton, for school board, a position she held until 1911. The club membership made an impact on the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, despite marginalization by the men who planned the fair, by raising funds for a bronze statue sculpted by Alice Cooper of Indian guide Sacajawea, which was unveiled at the fair and remains in a Portland city park.

Success for club reforms was enhanced by the creation of federations, which permitted Oregon’s many clubwomen to confer regularly and share techniques for change. The Oregon Federation of Women’s Clubs was established in 1901, although early clubs had already joined the national General Federation of Women’s Clubs in the 1890s — the Thursday Afternoon Club in Pendleton, Twentieth Century Club in Portland, Baker City Woman’s Club, and the Fireman’s Coffee Club in Corvallis, which served refreshments to firemen during fire-fighting. By 1910, the Oregon Federation boasted 51 clubs with a membership of 4,000 women. Such cooperation facilitated many legislative reforms, including mothers’ pensions, minimum wage laws, pure food and drug inspections, kindergartens, funding for public libraries, and sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” Even before women won the vote, they collectively influenced lawmakers with insistent pressure by their growing memberships.

Women were ambitious to re-shape society and registered frustration with government reluctance to embrace social reforms proposed by their clubs. This moved some members to work for woman suffrage. Activist Susan B. Anthony had toured Portland, Oregon City, Eugene, Roseburg, and Jacksonville in 1871, lecturing widely to win support for women’s enfranchisement. She returned in 1905, when the Lewis and Clark Exposition hosted the conference of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The legendary activist was accompanied both times by Oregon’s Abigail Scott Duniway, a life-long supporter of Women’s Equal Suffrage Associations, if a controversial strategist for achieving the vote. Six campaigns were staged by women to gain full citizenship, success arriving with the 1912 effort to persuade Oregon voters to support women’s enfranchisement.

Although Oregon women have enjoyed additional venues for social and political impulses, study, and community-mindedness since they won their suffrage fight, evidence of Oregon’s vigorous club life remains visible today in the Sacajawea statue in Portland’s Washington Park, YWCA buildings, the Garden Club–sponsored Memorial Highway signage at highway rest stops, and the Woman’s building on the University of Oregon campus. Women’s clubs continue to attract Oregon membership, carrying on the educational and reform impulses of their forebears a century ago.

Further Reading

Lucia H. Faxon Additon, Twenty Eventful Years of the Oregon Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1880–1900 (Portland: Gotshall Printing Company, 1904).

Jane Cunningham Croly, The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America (New York: Henry G. Allen and Company, 1898).

Sandra Haarsager, Organized Womanhood: Cultural Politics in the Pacific Northwest, 1840–1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997).

Rebecca J. Mead, How the Vote was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868–1914 (New York: New York University Press, 2004).

Deborah M. Olsen, “Fair Connections: Women’s Separatism and the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 109:2 (Summer 2008): 174–203.

Carli Crozier Schiffner, “Continuing to ‘Do Everything’ in Oregon: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1900–1945” (Ph.D. diss., Washington State University, 2005).

About the Author

Karen J. Blair has been a professor of history at Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington since 1987. Much of her research has focused on the history of Pacific Northwest women.

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