The next division of social reforms includes a larger number of distinct organizations, under a larger variety of names, than any other. It includes all societies which undertake to aid education, whether of the child in the slums, in the schools, in the Sunday schools, or of the adult in the various organizations which cluster about our churches, together with societies formed to foster a love and knowledge of music, art, together with societies formed to foster a love and letters. With these numbers all societies which, in addition to intellectual culture, to spiritual growth, to artistic development, or to the mutual improvement of their members along any line, seek for their members a larger social life. Thus in this division we have all clubs, unions, circles, bands, leagues, orders, etc., which are increasingly popular. Of many if not all of these, every community, small and great, has its local examples.
Of all, however, probably two have carried organization to the greatest perfection, have their work more widely diffused, and have it better in hand than any others. I refer to the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Woman’s Club. In every city the Young Women’s Christian Association has come to signify a center of activity for its members, a comfortable headquarters for all who are willing to take upon themselves the bonds which recommend them to its aid, a meeting ground, a name of respectability, the protection which that word implies, and cooperation in service. The Young Women’s Christian Association inasmuch as it provides for the religious culture of its members through Sunday services, weekday evening religious services, Bible classes, prayer meetings, conferences, and the like. It is secular, inasmuch as ordinarily it is practically a club where through cooperation the members are able to enjoy a cuisine almost infinitely superior to what they could command as individuals, a gymnasium, etc. It is educational inasmuch as its building usually becomes the center for classes in the languages in history, in current events, in subjects which enlarge the horizon and cultivate the judgment, and really enable the members to continue the education begun as it makes a social center for those who otherwise would lead isolated lives. Such a social center is in itself a protection for all who come within its radius. These organizations have had, and will continue to have, large influence in bringing about a more conscious unity among all denominations of so-called Evangelical Christendom. Thus they are an unconscious influence in the modification of social life which can hardly be overestimated.
Great, however, as is the social influence which provides for the homeless women a central hearth, far deeper is that which takes women from the narrowness of sect into the relative largeness of a united orthodoxy, which teaches them cooperation in both secular and spiritual affairs. This agency promises to develop until it shall have bridged the chasm between evangelical and non-evangelical, between Jew and Gentile.
When one thinks of the isolated condition of women in all parts of the known world up to the middle nineteenth century, the degree to which they have entered into the consciousness of companionship and camaraderie with one another, one realizes that in this transformation Young Women’s Christian Associations are not the sole cause. When one undertakes to apprise the value of the club movement, through which women have been reducing their long inculcated tendency to the limited family life and their strong sense of personality, and when one sees how far they have advanced in their unconscious evolution, one begins to realize the large secular influence exerted upon social life by the woman’s club.
The modern club! What is it? First, it is an institution which, without antagonizing the home, takes from the home at regular intervals, for the same purpose, hundreds of thousands of American women, with smaller numbers of women of their nationalities. Second, it is an institution which, so far as women are concerned, has served the purpose of a post-graduate school. Third, in many instances it has been the sole means of business training. Fourth, to thousands of women, who have had no other means for receiving it, it has taught the doctrine of cooperation, and has built the platform upon which they have seen the doctrine demonstrated. Fifth, it stands as the link between the isolated, separate domestic life of a former time and the socialistic community life toward which we are inevitably tending.
The club, ignoring class distinctions formerly respected, has brought its members together on the basis of common taste or a common aspiration. In the same club we find rich and poor, the more and less cultured, the relations and the non-religious. Without the training in cooperative effort, in reciprocal friendliness, in sympathy which has come to mediocre women, who represent the average life, through the club and kindred organizations, the twentieth century would not find women ready for the demands which its new conditions surely will bring her.
Their specific aims are almost as numerous as the clubs themselves. There is hardly any subject of thought for the study, the investigation, the discussion, and the exposition of which women may not be found united in a club. There is hardly any form of social helpfulness of which large departmental clubs are not the center. To a large degree social life outside of the club is modified by club influence. The social life which exists for the idle good time, for the pampering of luxurious tastes in dress and food, or for fostering dilettante mental habits is no longer justified. The club has imparted to social life somewhat of its own serious aims. The club has been, and remains, a training school, a lyceum, a guild — everything, in short, but a church. One function of the club has been to lift women out of sectarianism, to give them an apprenticeship in letters, and to develop within them a consciousness of common interests. In the club movement individual women and clubs have rendered conspicuous service; but, unlike any specific reform, no one individual has been the universally recognized leader of the club movement, as is the case, for instance, in the more serious temperance and suffrage movements.
It is in the United States of America that the woman’s club has had the richest, most varied development. The reasons for this fact reveal themselves to the seeker, and are most interesting, but space forbids stating them here. In other countries where the club has taken root it has suffered the modification incident to nationality and to local conditions. However unlike the clubs of different countries may be in all other respects, in two aspects their influence has been everywhere the same. It is the average women whom they have most effectively reached. They have taught women to ordinary domestic life the feasibility of amicable cooperative action. They have trained hundreds of women into the ability to rise to new levels; into the attempt to understand new thoughts; into the habit of considering as good as themselves women whose surroundings are entirely unlike their own. They have indeed given to women that knowledge of human nature, represented by their own sex, which the business life of men has given to them concerning their own sex, with this difference: generally speaking, business life brings men together as competitors, while, notwithstanding the incidental and temporary rivalry of the club, it brings women together to cooperate for a common purpose, instead of to compete in the attainment of different selfish ends.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.