General Federation of Women’s Clubs – Issued 1966

Founded in 1890, the General Federation was both a cause and a result of the changes in women’s roles that created the club movement of the late nineteenth century.  The federation, led by June Cunningham Croly, combined many newly established women’s clubs throughout the country, most of which were aimed at literary self-improvement and local civic improvement. 

These organizations were a reflection of a deep need among women to do something more with their lives than the era’s model of virtuous womanhood had allowed.  Even women who could not bring themselves to support the movement for the vote could join a club that had as its goal, for example the study of Dickens or the creation of playgrounds and street lighting.  The federation pulled these groups together so the women in the leadership positions could learn from and mutually support each other.

While the clubs concentrated on local need and were generally apolitical, the federation did take stands on issues at the national convention and led the way on a number of progressive changes.  By 1899, for example, the GFWC had established a national model for juvenile courts; in 1906, the federation was crucial in passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act; it worked for the eight-hour work day and against child labor.

By 1915, there were so many women willing to get involved in these kinds of activities that the General Federation had more than 2 million members.  At their convention the previous year, GFWC members endorsed enfranchisment of women, for they finally saw they could better advance their civic agenda if they could vote.  That their opinions were those of mainstream American women is clear from the fact that a national suffrage amendment finally passed six years after their endorsement—and more than seventy years after its first proposal.

Membership has fallen to 350,000 today, but the organization continues to link the efforts of some 8,500 local groups.  GFWC prides itself on being “responsible for the establishment of 75 percent of America’s public libraries” and calls itself “the largest and oldest nondenominational, nonpartisan, volunteer service organization in the world.”  In addition to its concentration on local volunteerism, it has established a Women’s History and Resource Center to document these volunteer achievements.  Areas of educational emphasis include the arts, conservation, home life, and public affairs.  Its headquarters, staffed with twenty-five employees and an annual budget of over a million dollars, is in a historical building at 1734 N Street NW in Washington, D.C.




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