Tom Dillard: History gives women’s clubs credit for libraries and more in Arkansas

The founding of the Arkansas Federation of Women's Clubs in May 1897 was an important date in the state's history. With a new century approaching, women throughout the country felt the need to work together to improve their communities.

The movement, though led mostly by middle- and upper-income white women, impacted the quality of life in towns and cities throughout the state. There's no better way to celebrate March as Women's History Month than think back on the legions of women who collectively did remarkable things for our state.

Historian Frances Mitchell Ross has written about the women who comprised the club movement as "the new woman as club woman." The concept of the "new woman" had been growing during the 1890s, a realization that women must assert themselves and challenge traditional Victorian ideals through education, work and politics. Club work allowed women with new ideas to press their work in non-threatening ways.

Without these women and their clubs, Arkansas would be a very different place today. Women's clubs engaged in a wide assortment of work, perhaps the best known being efforts to establish libraries. But they also played major roles in creating juvenile courts, lobbying for child labor laws, improving education, and belatedly, women's suffrage.

Many of these clubs began as literary societies. The Aesthetic Club of Little Rock, founded in January 1883, had the stated objective to "present programs at various meetings of a literary, artistic, musical and timely trend; to assist in educational uplift; and to bring its members together for social enjoyment." The names of other clubs hint at their emphasis, examples being the Harrison Woman's Book Club, the Culture Club of Fordyce, and the Arkadelphia Woman's Library Association.

Shakespeare was a favorite topic for many literary clubs. In February 1900, Mrs. B.H. Kuhl reported to the Arkansas Democrat that "The Shakespeare class of Texarkana [Woman's Club] is doing splendid work with the closing scenes of 'Hamlet.'" Their next topic was to be "As You Like It." The Lotus Club of Hot Springs, meanwhile, was concluding a study of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Club women throughout the state supported public education. The Educational Aid Society of Little Rock announced in January 1900 it "has assisted 30 young ladies in obtaining an education. It now has one pupil at Keys Commercial College." The Society "quietly but earnestly ... has done the duty which lies nearest to it."

The women's clubs were most effective when they were united, and they did not risk their effectiveness by taking on certain hot button reforms. For example, the movement was segregated. Black women responded by forming their own clubs, and in 1898, less than a year after the white Federation of Women's Club, they met and established their own state federation.

Another potential source of division was the growing movement to extend the vote to women. It might seem counterintuitive, but the women's clubs as a whole viewed the matter as too divisive and avoided it.

With time, the women's club leaders became more outspoken. When the state vacated the old state house in 1916 to occupy the new state Capitol building in the western part of Little Rock, women's club leaders were among the first to mount a letter-writing campaign to save the historic 1836 building.

One issue all the women's clubs could agree upon was the need for libraries. Marilyn Martin, who has published a fascinating account of how these club women almost singlehandedly created and sustained libraries throughout the state, has identified scores of libraries which got their start with women's clubs.

There is some debate as to when the first of these libraries opened. Martin reports the first was in Helena, where the Pacaha Club announced on Feb. 25, 1888, the formation of a town library. By 1891, club members had collected enough money to construct the state's first library building.

Historian David Sesser identifies the first women's library as being in Hot Springs, where the Woman's Christian National Library Association opened its doors in 1881. Sesser also wrote that between 1881 and 1990, 64 libraries were created in Arkansas by women's groups.

The Fort Smith Fortnightly Club opened a library in 1892, followed in 1895 by the Cooperative Club of Little Rock. Clubs opened three libraries in 1899 in Malvern, Van Buren and Crawfordsville.

The Fort Smith club was concerned about the lack of reading material for students other than textbooks, so the first library was housed in the Belle Grove School building.

The hardworking members of the Woman's Literary Club in Mena opened a library in 1900. This was a big undertaking for a small group of women in a new railroad town deep in the Ouachita Mountains.

Raising funds was a perpetual problem, and growth was slow at first. The Mena club held a garden party with a book being the price of admission, which produced "40 valuable books." The Stuttgart Woman's Club held a "book shower" which brought "armloads" of donations. Perhaps the most arduous fundraising was undertaken in 1923 by the Blytheville Woman's Club when the members hired-out as cotton pickers.

One of the most successful women's groups was the Pathfinder Club of Morrilton, founded in 1898 by 25 women. The club started out with a set of "The World's Best Literature," and the collection grew.

In 1914, the club purchased an unused church to serve as its library, one member recalling decades later that "the men of the town, now having become used to club wives, fell right in line and helped put up shelves, donated lumber and made themselves generally useful by subscribing money to pay the insurance."

The Pathfinder Club was well positioned to apply to Andrew Carnegie for a $10,000 grant to build a new library building. When the Morrilton Carnegie Library opened in October 1916, visitors found an imposing structure with Mediterranean influences, a red tile roof, and a front door between imposing pillars. The building still stands, and the library board deserves credit for retaining the original look and character of the building in modern renovations.

Marilyn Martin summed up the incredible accomplishments of the women's clubs of Arkansas: "Clubwomen assumed responsibility for library services, as well as such services as public sanitation, reform schools, sanatoriums, and school milk programs because state and local governments, run by men, had not yet accepted that responsibility and because women deemed these services to be essential to their communities."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Malvern where he is a member of the Friends of the Library. Email him at [email protected].

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