Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story, April 4, 2009
This is the text from a presentation I gave along with Sally Harper, President of the Progress Club of Las Cruces, on “Women’s Clubs during the Depression.” I don’t have Sally’s part of the presentation available. This was part of the “Great Depression Road Show” at the Branigan Cultural Center on April 4, 2009.
On that occasion I also showed off the 1940 Royal Aristocrat typewriter that I use for this blog.
Women’s clubs have been a part of American history and social life since the late 19th century. Today we’re going to talk about women’s clubs during the Depression, and I am going to focus specifically on southern New Mexico, even more specifically on the Mesilla Valley.
Even now we haven’t finished narrowing down our focus. There are many different kinds of women’s clubs, and one division that we can make is between those that belonged to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and those that either operated independently or constituted nationwide organizations on their own.
Of this latter type, those active in the Mesilla Valley during the 1930s included:
American Association of University Women
Delta Kappa Gamma
Wednesday Literary Club
Sew and So Club
As you might guess, even these had various missions, ranging from socializing and cultural refinement to philanthropy and professional advancement.
Today we will focus on the clubs that belonged to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which was organized in 1890 by Jane Croly. The general federation appointed a territorial committee in New Mexico in 1905 consisting of Mrs. Margaret Medler, Mrs. C.E. Mason, and local educator and historian Katherine D. Stoes. Mrs. Stoes was later replaced by Laura Frenger (Mrs. George W. Frenger), who worked tirelessly to persuade the New Mexico clubs to form a regional federation. The New Mexico Federation of Women’s Clubs was formed on March 13, 1911 with 17 member clubs. Although New Mexico was not yet a state, the New Mexico federation was still called a state federation.
The federated women’s clubs active in the Mesilla Valley during the 1930s included:
The Women’s Improvement Association, founded in 1894 in Las Cruces, later named the WIA Las Cruces Woman’s Club
The Woman’s Aladdin Club, founded in Canutillo, Texas in 1913
The Crescent Club, founded in Anthony in 1913
The Woman’s Club of State College, founded in Las Cruces in 1914, later named the Progress Club of Las Cruces
These clubs also served various purposes, and frequently combined them by means of dividing a club into various committees. A club might have literary appreciation as its founding aim but still contribute to community improvement projects and donate to causes that its members felt was important. Likewise, a club formed primarily for community improvement still would assign committees for promotion of arts and culture. The General Federation’s motto, “unity in diversity” is a fitting description to the way that clubs having various origins worked together on common projects, and also shows how the different activities of the clubs ultimately served to further the common purpose of improving the quality of life for the members of the club and community.
Women’s clubs were powerful forces for development and progress in southern New Mexico during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their members were often the wives of influential men in their communities, although in smaller towns the club memberships more often included working class women too. Singly and in concert they not only pushed forward the material development of rural communities in one of the poorest areas of the United States but also spoke out on the national level in favor of many causes. These included prohibition, public health, the creation and conservation of national parks and forests, labor laws, and women’s suffrage.
In 1934 the General Federation of Women’s Clubs began a study of the Equal Rights Amendment which ended in the federation’s passing of a resolution in favor of the amendment in 1934. Sally will tell you about another initiative the federation undertook for the equality of women around the same time, relating to property rights.
One of the contributions that women’s clubs made to the community is the building we are in right now. This building used to house the original Thomas Branigan Memorial Library, which was Las Cruces’ first free public library. Since the beginning of women’s clubs activity in the Mesilla Valley, literacy and access to books was a major concern. The Crescent and Aladdin Clubs donated books to the school library in Anthony and provided for their use by ordinary citizens as well as students. Literacy was one of two departments established in the Progress Club (or Woman’s club of State College) when it was founded. The WIA began collecting books for circulation soon after it was founded and in 1927 built their clubhouse for use as a city library.
Stacie Pritchett, a student at NMSU, wrote an article about the early history of the WIA that was published in the 2009 issue of the Southern New Mexico Historical Review. I’m going to quote from her article about how the original Thomas Branigan Memorial Library – the building we’re standing in now – was built.
The original clubhouse still stands a few blocks from here, on the edge of Pioneer Park, the first park in Las Cruces which the WIA had established in 1896. After the library was completed the clubhouse was used by the WIA and hosted a number of other groups and events, including the Progress Club.
In the early to mid twentieth century women’s club buildings were some of the most important amenities in New Mexico communities. Several of the club houses in the southern part of the state were built in the 1930s by the WPA. Today women’s clubhouses are used as church meetinghouses, libraries and for other purposes.
We don’t have a lot of images to show from the Depression era relating to women’s clubs: it seems that they took very few photos during that time. The making of detailed scrapbooks mostly started in the 1940s.
We have minutes for the Progress and Aladdin Clubs from the 1930s, but not for the WIA. What we know of their activities comes from newspapers, histories written by club members later on, and a small file of reports written by its Civic Cooperation Committee in 1936. From these sources we learn that the WIA helped install traffic lights and pave streets in Las Cruces during the Depression, and that they worked together with the WPA. Women’s clubs often worked with government agencies of various sorts and in fact their participation was in demand because they worked so effectively.
As one example of this, the club worked with the WPA in installing fly-proof toilets in the area. At the time most households still used outhouses which were not built to keep flies out. The flies spread diseases which contributed to a very high infant mortality rate. Since the fly-proof privies cost $5 dollars each (a significant amount at the time), the WIA contributed money to help those who couldn’t afford such facilities.
Child welfare and health were important goals for the women’s clubs. Besides establishing a clinic where parents could bring their children for free check-ups, local women’s clubs spent a lot of energy promoting awareness, prevention and treatment of cancer and tuberculosis. In 1934 the American Cancer Society asked the General Federation to help found a Women’s Field Army devoted to educate the public about cancer.
Another welfare-related effort of local women’s clubs during the Depression was the dedication of twenty vacant lots as gardens to grow food for local families. A club history states that “these gardens fed thirteen families with fifty-six children.” This came before the national promotion of victory gardens during World War II.
The Great Depression did not affect southern New Mexico the same as it did more developed and densely populated areas in the US. Rural New Mexico –that is, most of New Mexico – continued with the same deficiencies in infrastructure and amenities as before, in need of hospitals, roads, libraries, and so on. The women’s clubs were already accustomed to meeting such needs and their continued success in this throughout the Depression and afterwards won them recognition and admiration throughout their years of operation.
Currently the Progress Club is the only federated woman’s club still operating in the Mesilla Valley. There are other clubs outside of the federation that are also still active.