Throughout the 1800s, women in the United States began to push the societal boundaries placed upon them by moving outside of the home. Women started to become more outspoken and organized, thus making them more visible. Even before the Civil War, women began campaigning for the right to vote and advocating for the antislavery movement. The Civil War brought further progression as women took on various types of war work, further expanding their roles. In the aftermath of the war, organized clubs quickly became an outlet for many women in South Carolina.
Initially, many women’s clubs were channels for socialization; it was a time for women to be out of the home and among other women who shared similar thoughts and experiences. Women also used the time for intellectual improvement, dedicating much of their meetings to continued education. Focusing on literature, history, and arts, many of these women met under the title of literary clubs. Through the socialization and study aspects, their main purpose was self-improvement.
While studying was originally thought to be simply a method of self-improvement, it also helped connect club women to the larger world around them. They quickly saw their potential, recognizing that their organizations could not only be a means of improving their own lives, but could also affect the lives of those around them. Clubs gradually moved from just reading and discussing social issues to actively participating in the communities around them. From social events to philanthropic activities, organized women’s clubs became an avenue for women to enact change and reform.
In South Carolina, several small women’s clubs met on a regular basis in communities all across the state by the end of the 19th century. In 1898, many of the local clubs joined together to form the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs (SCFWC) as a part of the national movement known as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Responding to the call of Mrs. J. H. Adams, president of the Once-a-Week Club out of Seneca, representatives from nineteen organizations met in June to create the SCFWC, a federation that was “to bring together the several women’s clubs of the State for mutual benefit.” Following the first meeting, the Anderson Intelligencer printed a detailed account of the event.
Through the federation, women’s clubs could participate in statewide activities, bringing events to their local communities. One such event was the traveling library. Members from each participating club donated books to create a library that would travel between clubs across the state. Modeled after the efforts of women’s clubs in other states, the traveling library, although administered by the club women, was open to the public of each town that hosted it. In 1899, the Keowee Courier printed a letter from Mrs. Coleman, president of the SCFWC, about the idea of the traveling library.
Other philanthropic activities the members of SCFWC took on included providing scholarships for young women to attend college and a traveling exhibit of handmade arts and crafts. Each local club continued to meet on a regular basis, and the SCFWC met annually in different cities around the state, an event that was often written about in the state’s papers. By the 1920s, they were holding annual conventions that lasted two to three days. Through their local organizations, and with the support of the statewide federation, women advocated within their communities for many issues from healthcare for children to education for young women. As the clubs gained traction in the early 20th century, many women began using their club participation as a platform to fight for social reform on larger scale, advocating for equality through the passage of a suffrage amendment among many other issues.
While individual clubs were often made up of women from similar backgrounds and social statuses, diverse populations of women were represented in clubs throughout the country. An influential group in South Carolina, black women formed their own clubs and eventually followed in similar footsteps to the SCFWC by creating an umbrella organization of African American women’s clubs. Forming the South Carolina Federation for Colored Women’s Clubs (SCFCWC) in 1909, these women advocated for gender equality as well as civil rights and racial equality. In addition to supporting the fight for women’s suffrage, they also campaigned for issues relevant to the black population of the state such as better education, integration of schools, and ending racially-motivated violence.
One particular cause the SCFCWC fought for in South Carolina was better health and sanitation for the state’s African American community. In 1915, the Manning Times printed an article describing a speech given at a meeting on the importance of promoting health knowledge. The SCFCWC also held annual conventions when delegates from member clubs would meet and discuss important topics and decide on possible activities for the upcoming year.
Despite success in social reform, membership and enthusiasm for women’s clubs slowly fell off in the latter portion of the 20th century. However, the dedication of club women in South Carolina truly provided much needed assistance and advancements to the population of the state. Through the work of their clubs, these women were able to ensure a powerful place in the landscape of their communities, states, and the nation.
The historic newspapers in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers are a wealth of information about women’s clubs in South Carolina. Try narrowing the search to include only papers from South Carolina and search for individual club names such as the Once-a-Week Club, the Tuesday Afternoon Club, or any others. Also using variations of the terms “state federation of women’s clubs” or “South Carolina federation of women’s clubs” when searching through “all states” will bring up results showing how the federation’s news spread across the country.