An important chapter in the cultural development of Abilene and West Texas has faded from our collective memory. The purpose and diligence of early women-only clubs is an untold story that lies hidden in club scrapbooks, ledgers, yearbooks and photographs in various collections in Abilene. The Grace Museum historical archives contain much of the story.
Researching the history collection, I became aware of the scope of local women’s clubs’ accomplishments. When the women’s club movement began in 1868, these groups successfully created a public library, an art museum, children and family initiatives – just to name few – all without holding public office, access to formal education, voting rights, property rights or the opportunity to speak publicly as individuals. Women’s clubs gave women a collective voice in public affairs and offered individual women an opportunity to “find my own voice.”
The earliest organized women-only groups developed as church auxiliaries and sewing circles. They were later influenced by the Chautauqua and Lyceum rural educational “camp meetings” that swept the nation after the Civil War. Formally organized women’s clubs originated as study clubs in which women took on the task of educating one another. Organized in 1883, the Reading Club (later renamed the Abilene Shakespeare Club pictured here circa 1910) is recognized by the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs as the first woman’s study club in Texas. Without a local library, club members were required to study Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and recite or perform skits designed to educate fellow members. Members could be dismissed for nonattendance or failure to complete assigned duties.
The seriousness of purpose and accomplishments of local women’s organizations active between 1880 and 1950 is the focus of the exhibition. The West Texas Club Woman 1880-1950 is designed to celebrate the collective contributions of women to the civic, cultural, and educational advantages prevalent in our community today. We should also remember that their path to success was often controversial. In 1905, President Grover Cleveland warned, “the new women’s club phenomena caused women to forget the tenor of the ways of womanhood and thwart the integrity of our homes–neglecting the precious interest of home and motherhood.” Home, motherhood and the importance of lady-like etiquette were always included the retinue of the modern club woman. This exhibition includes six ensembles of period fashions representing seven decades of club woman attire complete with the appropriate hat, dress, shoes and gloves required for a woman’s “power suit” of the day. One goal of the exhibition is to inspire women of tomorrow to fulfill an early club motto, “Scorn trifles, lift your aims, do what you are afraid to do.”