Way Back Wednesday: West Texas Clubwoman

Tags: ,

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century many women did not have access to higher education nor were they permitted to participate publicly in leadership roles. The solution was to band together in a socially accepted format to educate each other and make contributions to their community as a group. Drawing on The Grace Museum’s history collection, personal correspondence, women’s club yearbooks, minutes, and vintage photographs as resources, a time capsule of 80 years of women’s club activities highlights the contributions of women’s organizations to the cultural and educational development of Abilene and West Texas is presented. #WayBackWednesday

Abilene Shakespeare Club, c. late 1900s-early 1910s, Collection of The Grace Museum, from the Estate of Ms. Eleanor Hutchinson

Abilene Shakespeare Club, c. late 1900s-early 1910s, Collection of The Grace Museum, from the Estate of Ms. Eleanor Hutchinson

The American women’s club movement began in 1868 when Jane Cunningham Croly, a professional New York journalist, was denied admittance to an all-male press club event honoring Charles Dickens. In response, she formed a club for women called Sorosis, a Greek word meaning “an aggregation; a sweet flavor of many fruits.”


  • In the early 1880s, Mrs. M.C. Robinson’s Sewing Center on North 2nd Street, behind S.H. Kress & Co. “five and dime” store was a place where Abilene women congregated to purchase notions and fabrics and share information. In 1880, 23 yards of fabric were required to make a day dress to be worn a home with whale bone corsets, pantaloons, petticoats and high button shoes. To be seen in public required elaborate hats perched over hidden “hair rats” (the wearer’s matted hair from a hairbrush added to create height and volume), parasols, gloves, pocket books, bows, jewelry and fans. The designation of a woman’s group as a circle is derived from early sewing circles and quilting bees.

  • The earliest organized women’s groups developed within the church focusing on socially acceptable pursuits for women, typically domestic work and the rearing and deportment of children.

  • In 1880 very few women received formal education or worked outside the home. Under state and federal law, women were considered property of their fathers or husbands and did not have the right to vote or own personal property.

  • Early women-only literary societies and self-improvement clubs were an outgrowth of the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements that arose nation-wide after the Civil War and served as a way to link rural communities to national and world issues and current intellectual thought. The tent meetings featuring politicians, writers, orators, plays, poets and preachers were attended by all members of the community.

  • Because it was not socially acceptable for women to take leadership roles in the church or community, women-only groups afforded many women their first opportunity to “find my own voice,” as one Shakespeare Club member expressed in a personal note.

  • In 1883 The Reading Club (later The Abilene Shakespeare Club pictured in the mural graphic)was organized. A few years later, the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs acknowledged this group as the first woman’s study club in Texas. Without a local library, Abilene members were required to study Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and recite or perform skits designed to educate fellow members. Many members created costumes and sets for their presentations.

  • By 1889, the Hesperian Chautauqua Circle and Cactus Chautauqua Circle (later the XXI Club) organized in Abilene as serious self-education groups for women. Club colors, official flower and lofty mottos were adopted by each club. “Scorn trifles, lift your aims, do what you are afraid to do,” guided the XXI Club.

  • The seriousness of club activities is reflected in the formality of the order of business reflected in the year books, minutes, strict adherence to Roberts Rules of Order, and requirements for membership. Meetings were held in members’ homes and the role of hostess included tea and refreshments presented on the best china, silver and linen. Attire for meetings included a fashionable day dress, hats, gloves, pocket books and appropriate jewelry. The period fashions on display reflect appropriate club woman attire for the decades from 1880-1950. In modern vernacular, these outfits represent the female power suit of the day.

  • Fashion Statement: Through the 1800s emphasis remained on the back of the skirt, with fullness gradually rising from behind the knees to just below the waist. The fullness over the bottom was balanced by a fuller, lower chest, achieved by rigid corseting, creating an S-shaped silhouette. The Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881 in reaction to the extremes of fashionable corsetry. Skirts were looped, draped, or tied up in various ways, and worn over matching or contrasting underskirts. The polonaise was a revival style, with a fitted, cutaway overdress caught up and draped over an underskirt. Long, jacket-like fitted bodices called basques were also popular for daywear. The bustle returned to fashion and reached its greatest proportions c. 1886–1888, extending almost straight out from the back waist to support a profusion of drapery, frills, swags, and ribbons. Bonnets resembled hats except for their ribbons tied under the chin; both had curvy brims


• By 1890 Abilene had five women’s literary clubs that met monthly over tea and refreshments in a member’s home to discuss topics around a set theme, issue or literary work. Strict rules for attendance and active participation were enforced with fines and dismissal for noncompliance. A telegram expressing regret for missing a meeting was not uncommon.

• In 1895 Abilene women’s clubs coalesced into the City Federated Women’s Club, with representatives from each of the local women’s organizations meeting monthly.

• The 1895 Round Table motto was “pleasant cultivation of the mind.”

• In 1897 The Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded linking national, state and city federated women’s organizations in Texas.

• Fashion Statement: Compared to the fashions of the previous decade, the styles worn by the New Woman of the 1890s were looser, simpler, and more practical. Also notable is the widespread use of the shirtwaist or blouse and skirt. In the early 1890s, the dominant skirt shape was the swooping tulip or bell form, which was snug and smooth over the hips and flared dramatically to a wide hem. The bodice was cut extremely narrow in the shoulders with a large puff expanded around the upper arm.


• Women’s organizations were considered a radical and subversive movement by much of the American population in 1900. Addressing the new women’s club phenomena, President Grover Cleveland warned in a 1905 copy of Ladies Home Journal, “they ignore the tenor of the ways of womanhood and thwart the integrity of our homes-neglecting the precious interest of home and motherhood.” Once thought of as a threat to domestic harmony, women’s clubs became a force to be reckoned with by the dawn of the 20th century.

• 20% of the American female population worked outside the home in 1900, but the numbers increased as migration from farms and rural towns to cities grew at a rapid pace. Fear that the females in the work force would be, “stripped of their modest demeanor and challenged beyond their inferior intelligence was a national concern.

• Newcomer to Abilene, Mrs. L.H. Bradfield, joined the Round Table and soon became president of the City Federated Women’s Club. The lack of available books for personal study and children’s education became a major concern for literary clubs. Bradfield along with the Literary and Library Association and the Abilene Federated Library Association worked to secure a Carnegie Library grant, It took them 9 years to raise the required $17,500 and secure books and $1,750 for an annual maintenance fund. The Abilene Carnegie Library cornerstone was laid in 1909.

• In 1905 the Texas Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs was organized by Mrs. M. E. Y. Moore in Gainesville, Texas. Taking the motto, “Lifting as we Climb,” the aim was to work together to improve the homes and the moral and social life in the communities of Texas. The Charmette Club was the Abilene chapter of the TFCWC.

• Fashion Statement: The fashionable silhouette in the early 1900s was that of a confident woman, with full low chest and curvy hips. The “health corset” of this period removed pressure from the abdomen and created an S-curve silhouette. Tall, stiff collars characterize the period, as do women’s broad hats and full “Gibson Girl” hairstyles. Skirts brushed the floor, often with a train; even for day dresses and huge, broad brimmed hats were worn trimmed with masses of feathers, artificial flowers and ribbons.


• Not all members of women’s organizations in West Texas agreed on the issue of women’s suffrage. Custom and tradition held that government was the prerogative of men and hence outside of women’s sphere, that women had no need for the ballot because men would protect them. Participation in politics would, it was thought, make women coarse and crude and would cause them to neglect their homes and their children. In the minds of many Texas woman suffrage was more than a political issue. It was a dangerous threat to the social order and several newly organized women’s clubs in Abilene such as the Mother’s Club and Kindergarten Club reflected these concerns.

• In contrast, local suffragettes pointed out that women were citizens and taxpayers and, as such, should be entitled to a voice in the affairs of government. Texas was the ninth state in the Union to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote. The Texas League of Women Voters was then organized to encourage women exercise their right to vote.

• Fashion Statement: During the early years of the 1910s the fashionable silhouette became much more lithe, fluid and soft than in the 1900s. By 1908, the earlier unnatural “S” figures that were pushed and pulled with bustles and corsets were replaced with a straight, natural figure. The waist was loosened, and a straight line was adopted. Additionally, the frills and flounces of the previous decade were minimized. Large hats with wide face-shadowing brims were the height of fashion in the early years of the decade.


• After a post-World War I slump, West Texas experienced a boom and women’s clubs grew in scope and purpose as auxiliaries for businesses such as the Taylor County Medical Auxiliary and the Women’s Public Information Committee of West Texas Utilities, Co.

• The Jazz Age came to Abilene first through the movies and newspapers and women’s fashions of the past were challenged by the latest styles featuring few if any restrictive undergarments. “Vamping”, dancing and drinking became public concerns worthy of censorship.

• In 1921 in response to this tide of social change, a small group of women headed by the mayor’s wife, Mrs. Dallas Scarborough responded by organizing a democratic club of several departments, open to all women wishing to join for study of literature, art, music, drama and civic betterment. Unlike previous women’s organizations the new Abilene Woman’s Forum, did not require an invitation to join and there was no set limit to membership.

• The Art Unit of the Woman’s Forum (later Art Forum), founded in 1921, is said to be the oldest art club in Abilene. The stated purpose was to further original art as a civic project and teach art appreciation. These active Abilene arts organizations grew to sponsor and organize annual local exhibitions in cooperation with American Art Week, fund traveling art exhibitions from across the country to come to Abilene and lead the efforts to create the Abilene Museum of Fine Arts. For 6 straight years the Art Unit won national awards for their work and was awarded paintings and sculpture for their efforts that are now part of the permanent art collection of The Grace Museum.

• Committed Abilene clubwoman and state chair for American Art Week, Frances Battaile Fisk compiled and published the earliest art historical overview of Texas art, A History of Texas Artists and Sculptors in 1928. In her chapter on Abilene, she proclaims Abilene as “the Athens of West Texas because of the schools, colleges, and private art studios that established a cultural and ar6isaivc atmosphere much earlier than some parts of the state.”

• The Abilene Woman’s Club was chartered in 1929 at the initial meeting in the Crystal Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel with stated purpose to promote the cultural and civic advancement of Abilene, Texas through the study of literature, history, science, painting, music and other fine arts. The organization continues to provide a meeting place for many women’s organizations in their current historic home on South 14th.

• Fashion Statement: In the 1920s fashion entered the modern era in which women first abandoned the constrictive corseted fashions of past years and began to wear more comfortable clothes. Clothing fashions changed with women’s changing roles in society. Although society matrons of a certain age continued to wear conservative dresses, the sportswear worn by forward-looking and younger women became the greatest change in post-war fashion. The most memorable fashion trend of the “Roaring 20s” was undoubtedly “the flapper” look. The straight-line chemise topped by the close-fitting cloche hat became the uniform of the day. Women “bobbed”, or cut, their hair short to fit under the popular hats, a radical move in the beginning, but standard by the end of the decade. Low-waisted dresses with fullness at the hemline allowed women to literally kick up their heels in new dances like the Charleston.


• The economic crisis of the Great Depression brought federal aid to the area but many did not qualify for state or federal aid. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Abilene and inspired civic involvement and inspired the formation of the Eleanor Roosevelt Club. Abilene women’s clubs took on new community aid projects such as the Milk Fund, the Sunshine Nursery, and the Negro Day Nursery to name a few. They also anonymously organized soup kitchens, clothing banks and became home health aides “to meet the essential needs of the community.” Civic health programs and the study of economics, history, and government attracted new members from rural areas.

• Women’s organizations also followed national trends and continued efforts to advance culture and beauty in the city with the founding of the Creative Sketch Club (later Creative Arts Club), the Abilene Poetry Society, and the Abilene Garden Club.

• With the support of the Art Forum, the Creative Sketch Club and other federated arts organizations, the Abilene Museum of Fine Arts was organized in 1937. Through the continued volunteer and financial support of these organizations , the Friends of Art and the American Association of University Women the Abilene Museum of Fine Art acquired artworks for a permanent collection, funded and hosted important traveling art exhibitions and visiting artist lectures, organized art competitions and art education programs.

• Fashion Statement: 1930s fashion was an era influenced by hard times. Economical home sewing was popular as patterns and zippers became readily available. In contrast, the feminine and romantic fantasy of the silver screen and the beautiful movie stars who wore sensual silks, luxurious lace and bias cut gowns also inspired feminine fashions. The boyish look of the 1920s evolved into a softer, more natural look in the 1930s and tailored suits featured the long, slim, naturally curved look enhanced by less expensive costume jewelry in matching sets of necklace, bracelet, ear screws and a lapel pin.


• Economic recovery and World War II brought a renewed emphasis of local and national pride and local women’s organizations continued to gain membership and variety of purpose. Study and book review clubs added junior and senior matron groups.

• Local women’s organizations with a patriotic mission included the Red Cross and Camp Barkeley hospital volunteers known as the Grey Ladies. On the lighter side Camp Barkeley soldiers were entertained through the USO by the McMurry Maidens all-girl orchestra and dance partners from the Bluebonnet Brigade.

• A new generation of women’s service organizations flourished after WWII. In 1948, following the model of the national organization, 24 Abilene women formed the Abilene Junior Service League (Junior League) with the goal of spearheading planned effective volunteer service for the community by enhancing the lives of local children. Their efforts resulted in initial projects that later became the West Texas Rehabilitation Center, the Grace Museum’s children’s museum and history collection among others.

• Fashion Statement: 1940s fashions were affected by war rationing. Old garments were refashioned; new clothes were constructed with as little fabric as possible and eschewed notions such as buttons, pleats or zippers. Women’s hemlines were lifted to save on fabric, and their garments kept to a slim cut with little embellishment. Brown and green dyes were heavily rationed for use in military uniforms. In response, deep maroon, gray, or undyed white or beige fabrics were available for popular use. As Rosie the Riveter entered the work force and women went to work during the war, they also began wearing pants for increased safety around heavy machinery.


• By 1954 the Abilene Federation of Woman’s Clubs numbered 34 individual clubs (more than Houston) and this does not take into account the scores of Abilene women’s clubs that were not part of the Federated network.

• In 1950, the fact that women made up 30 percent of the U.S. workforce and in Texas, 26. 8 percent of all women are paid workers is reflected in new women’s clubs such as the Abilene Secretaries’ Association. As the post-war population grew, a Newcomer’s Club was organized. Clubs with a variety of interests continued to organize and contribute to the cultural, charitable and educational landscape of the community through fundraising events and hours of volunteer service. During the 1950’s many Abilene homemakers took the role of professional clubwomen working in leadership roles in several clubs simultaneously on multiple projects with the aptitude of a corporate CEO.

• In 1953, the Abilene Junior Service League and the Music Guild formed the Symphony League in support of a local orchestra. The Abilene Philharmonic Guild was formally organized in 1954 with 75 members and continues today to support an active symphony and concerts.

• Fashion Statement: The 1950s is said to the first decade when American fashion became truly American. Easy wear versatile separates and adaptable dress and jacket suits became hallmarks of American style with sweeping longer skirts, fitted waist, and rounded shoulders. Innovations in textile technology following the war resulted in new synthetic fabrics and easy-care fabric finishes. Throughout the post-war period, a tailored, feminine look was prized and matching accessories such as gloves and pearls were popular. Tailored suits had fitted jackets with peplums, usually worn with a long, narrow pencil skirt. Day dresses had fitted bodices and full skirts, with jewel or low-cut necklines or Peter Pan collars. The total color-coordinated look from head to toe was the ultimate of fashion.