Dr. Marty Olliff celebrates Women's History Month with a look at the history of women's groups in the Wiregrass.
The women’s club movement in the U.S. began in the 1890s and was closely associated with the New Woman of the Progressive Era though the movement lasted well into the post-World War II era. It continues today.
Local women – from the elite in the white community and fewer but more broadly based among African-Americans – organized small clubs for education, cultural, musical, social and service reasons. They also organized under names that sound funny to us, like the New Century Club, the Tintagil Club and No Name Club (both of Montgomery, Ala.), As You Like It (Dothan), and the first women’s club in the U.S., Sorosis. Many women were members of several clubs as well as similar organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Local clubs soon joined forces. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs organized in 1890 and the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs did so in 1895. In this era of Jim Crow, African-Americans organized separately, with Alabama’s Margaret Murray Washington as a preeminent leader in Tuskegee, in Alabama and in the National Association of Colored Women.
Much can be made of the records left by women’s clubs, for the clubs of the Progressive Era offered many women their first foray into the public sphere. Later women’s clubs helped professional women to promote their own professional growth along with improving their communities. Most surviving and accessible women’s club records are surprisingly similar, with runs of annual programs that contain member rosters, officers, history, and notices of the year’s meetings. Often each meeting had a speaker, and the programs list those topics, too. The collections also encompass founding documents, constitutions and by-laws, meeting minutes, and scrapbooks. Historians use such records to understand the structure of various clubs, and at least one has traced the evolution of clubs from general interest and education into war service projects as the U.S. participated in World War I beginning in 1917.
The Wiregrass Archives proudly houses the collections of at least 13 Dothan-area women’s clubs, most of which came to the Archives because the Houston-Love Memorial Library in Dothan moved into a new building and reduced its local holdings, sending the club records to us.
You can find guides to the current collections at the Wiregrass Archives webpage, https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/online.html, by searching for “women’s clubs.” You can access the information in the collections by visiting the Archives here at the Troy University Dothan Campus.
Our earliest collection is that of the New Century Club of Dothan (1908-1982) who concerned themselves with “municipal housekeeping.” Next is the Dothan Harmony Club (1911-1981) that abounds with musical scores in addition to the records described above. The records of the eponymous Dothan Study Club begin in 1917 and go through 2002.
Three clubs founded between the wars promoted the study of literature and art. The Scottie Frasier Study Club (1977-2003) began in 1930 as the Young Women’s Study Club, the Dothan Book Review Club (1936-2014) opened in 1936, and the Fine Arts Club (1940-2015) started in 1940.
After World War II, a sense of civic service seems to have motivated four clubs. The Mothers’ Club of Dothan began in 1949, though we have only its 50th anniversary scrapbook from 1999; Alpha Rho chapter of the professional educators service club, Delta Kappa Gamma, was founded in 1950; Dothan’s Sorosis Club (1951-1976) began in 1951; and the civic betterment group, Soroptimist International, founded a Dothan chapter in 1956 that became the still-active Eclectas Club (1960-2015) after 1964.
Finally, local gardeners organized to improve their neighborhoods’ beauty and their own skills. The Dothan Garden Club (1941-1959 but still active) brought together gardeners across the city while the Cherokee Garden Club (1959-2015) united hobbyists in that neighborhood of northwest Dothan.
Women in Dothan have belonged to many other organizations over the years, but even these few collections will open your eyes to the variety that existed then and today. With luck, the Wiregrass Archives will receive more club records in the future, so future researchers will be able to examine the full array of local women’s cultural and civic activities.
It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.