The Athens Woman's Club and Social Reform

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American women awakened to the power of their voices and the strength of their collective organization through the woman's club movement. The movement, which served as one of the first mass mobilizations of women into the public sphere, attracted women from all corners of the United States who shared an interest in education, self-improvement and solidarity. Women's clubs provided members with intellectually stimulating opportunities, expanded their skills and increased their self-confidence. Most importantly, women's clubs drew women away from the isolation of domestic life and into a new, supportive arena that embraced individuality as much as it encouraged autonomy and camaraderie.

As the woman's club movement gained acceptance and popularity, clubwomen directed their efforts towards the enactment of social reform. Combining their humanitarian sympathies with Progressive goals, clubwomen became the principle lobbyists behind municipal, state and national reform in the United States. Organized women embarked on crusades for the regulation of child labor, the enforcement of municipal sanitation laws, the improvement and modernization of schools, and the elevation of women's status in American society. Through the framework of women's clubs, women became the footsoldiers of early twentieth century social reform in the United States, and in doing so, managed to improve the quality of life for themselves and their communities.

The Heritage Room at the Athens-Clarke County Library of the Athens Regional Library System houses the organizational records, which includes minute books, scrapbooks and treasurers' reports relating to activities of the Athens Woman's Club. The club's minute books covering the years 1899 through 1920 are available online through GALILEO and the Digital Library of Georgia. The following essay explores the early years of the Athens Woman's Club and addresses the fundamental role clubwomen played in the enactment of social reform during the Progressive era. The essay also provides links to other related digitized collections accessible through GALILEO including Georgia Legislative Documents, New Georgia Encyclopedia and Vanishing Georgia.

Birth and Spread of the Woman's Club Movement

The woman's club movement began in the Northeast shortly following the close of the Civil War with the founding of two clubs in 1868: Sorosis in New York City, and the New England Woman's Club in Boston, Massachusetts. While women's voluntary associations and benevolent societies had been established throughout the antebellum period, most of these organizations existed as temperance and missionary societies and as such, maintained close ties to evangelical communities. The woman's club movement on the other hand, differed significantly in its secular nature and emphasis on the education and self-development of its members.


In the spring of 1868 the New York Press Club hosted a dinner honoring celebrated author Charles Dickens. When respected journalist and prominent social figure Jane Cunningham Croly tried to purchase a ticket for the event, she was refused because of her gender. This act of exclusion served as a catalyst for Croly, who in April of 1868 organized an alliance of fifteen professional, middle-class women under the name Sorosis. The women of Sorosis sought to create a fellowship that provided support for its members by promoting their personal, intellectual and professional development.

New England Woman's Club

The year 1868 also marked the foundation of the New England Woman's Club under the direction of Caroline Severance, a distinguished abolitionist and suffragist. The New England Woman's Club drew its core membership from prominent Boston reformers and philanthropists. Unlike Sorosis, which was founded with the purpose of developing the intellectual and professional skills of women, the New England Woman's Club was organized primarily to promote civic reform. Another difference between the two clubs was the inclusion of male members. Although the New England Woman's Club maintained women officers, they welcomed male members who shared their interest in the municipal improvement of Boston's streets and schools; prominent among these members were Henry James and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Federation Movement

As the number of clubs increased, women became aware of the inherent power and influence that could be attained through cooperation and organization. In 1889, Jane Cunningham Croly and the women of Sorosis called upon the support of clubwomen throughout the United States to create a national organization conceived as a centralized alliance of American women's clubs. The following year, in April of 1890, the first meeting of the General Federation of Women's Clubs was held in New York. Originally chartered by fifty-one clubs, the General Federation became widely popular among women's clubs throughout the United States, and by 1896, boasted a membership of approximately one hundred thousand women from nearly five hundred clubs.1

Clubwomen used federation machinery to shape public opinion and to provide direction and support for individual club efforts. At the first biennial conference of the General Federation of Women's Clubs held in 1892, federation officers began to push for the formation of state federations to further streamline the governing structure of women's clubs. State federations were also seen as a means of better facilitating the work of clubs by assessing and publicizing local and regional needs. Maine became the first state to federate in 1892, and other states throughout the Northeast, the Midwest, and West soon followed suit.

With the exception of Kentucky, which created a state federation in 1894, Southern states responded slowly to the federation movement. In an effort to encourage the establishment of state federations in the South, the General Federation of Women's Clubs partnered with several Atlanta women's clubs in 1895 to host a Federation Day at the Woman's Building during the Cotton States and International Exposition. Clubwomen from all parts of the United States gathered in Atlanta for Federation Day exercises, where they exchanged stories and shared experiences concerning their work with state federations. Atlanta's Federation Day was received enthusiastically, as within two years of the event, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida had all established state federations of their own. In 1907, Virginia became the last Southern state to federate its women's clubs.2

Georgia Women and the Club Movement

During the fall of 1896, less than a year following the close of the Cotton States and International Exposition, Georgia clubwomen began plans to establish a state federation. Federation efforts were initiated and led by two of the state's most prominent clubs, Georgia Sorosis of Elberton and the Atlanta Woman's Club, who organized a three-day conference in Atlanta in hopes of assembling delegates from every woman's club in the state. The conference, which began on October 27th and ran through October 29th, brought together nearly twenty clubs of distinction, including the Philomathic Club of Augusta, and Dalton's historic Leche Club. After two days of open forum, the Georgia Federation of Woman's Clubs was officially chartered, giving Georgia the distinction of becoming the twenty-second state in the United States to federate and become a member of the General Federation of Women's Clubs.

The establishment of the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs provided a solid governing structure for the woman's club movement in Georgia. While the General Federation of Women's Clubs set forth a broad reform agenda that emphasized issues of national significance, the Georgia Federation identified and addressed local and regional reform needs. Members of the newly created Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs unanimously elected Mrs. Rebecca D. Lowe of the Atlanta Woman's Club to serve as the federation's first president. Lowe, a charismatic leader who later gained national recognition as the president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, played a pivotal role in determining the types of reform the federation would pursue. During her tenure as president the Georgia Federation worked to improve the condition of rural schools and was instrumental in the creation of the State Library Commission. It was also during her presidency that the federation chose to adopt the state motto, "Wisdom, Justice and Moderation," as the official motto of the Georgia Federation.

In Georgia, the woman's club movement was often limited to white women, as African American women enjoyed less leisure time, wealth, and other advantages than their white counterparts. Atlanta provided a notable exception, boasting the largest concentration of middle- and upper-class black citizens in the South, as well as a strong network of African American women's clubs. From its inception, the Neighborhood Union, formed by Lugenia Burns Hope in 1908, achieved marked success in the establishment of playgrounds, schools, recreation centers and health facilities for African Americans throughout the city of Atlanta. Hope and the women of the Neighborhood Union were also instrumental in encouraging black women, in Atlanta and throughout the state, to organize and join in the reform effort.

Athens Women Organize

The origins of the Athens Woman's Club may also be traced to the fall of 1896 when Mary Ann Lipscomb and Rosa Woodberry, principal and instructor at the Lucy Cobb Institute, informally organized the Athens Ladies Club to address the meager conditions of rural schools in the Athens and Clarke County area. The women of the Athens Ladies Club worked with local schools to provide textbooks and supplies and awarded students with prizes and parties for their scholastic achievements.3

The Athens Woman's Club came into existence in January of 1899 when the Athens Ladies Club adopted a formal charter under the name Athens Woman's Club. Members of the club were typically well-educated, upper-middle-class, and exclusively white women whose husbands, fathers, and brothers were prominent figures in local business and government and held important positions in the university system. Many members of the Athens Woman's Club were already part of a proud tradition of women who had established voluntary associations for women in the city. Athens was already home to the Ladies Garden Club, the first garden club in the United States, established by twelve Athens women in 1891. Founding members of the Athens Woman's Club also played an active role in organizing local branches of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Originally organized as a literary club, the Athens Woman's Club was divided into five major departments: Music, Letters and Arts, Current Topics, Folklore and Fiction, and Historical Research and Biography. Members regularly prepared and listened to presentations on a vast array of topics that ranged from a discussion of the Nicaraguan Canal, to the study of Spanish literature and Assyrian art history.4 These presentations gave members the opportunity to research topics, compose essays, present their work to fellow members and engage in thought-provoking discussions. As the twentieth century progressed, however, the Athens Woman's Club gradually turned its efforts away from the pursuit of the humanities, and directed them towards social reform, community development and municipal improvements instead.

The Road to Reform

The watershed for the woman's club movement in the United States came at the turn of the twentieth century; the overwhelming majority of women's clubs, including the Athens Woman's Club, began to steer away from the study of art, history, and literature and focus their attention on the study of current events. In doing so, clubwomen became increasingly engaged with the pressing political issues and social concerns of their day, and began to conduct thoughtful discussions concerning potential local and national reform issues. As clubwomen increasingly realized the significance of their ideas, opinions, and powers of association, their once-private discussions evolved into public crusades for social reform.

Organized women in Georgia, like their counterparts in other regions of United States, took a conventional approach to reform, in that they used their socially-prescribed positions as mothers, homemakers, and caretakers as qualifying credentials for their new public roles. Nineteenth-century notions surrounding the ideas of womanhood and the cult of domesticity lingered throughout Georgia well into the twentieth century. Georgia clubwomen capitalized on these ideas, assimilating them into their movement rhetoric by coining terms such as "social mothering" and "municipal housekeeping" to describe their civic and municipal reform endeavors.

Efforts to Regulate Child Labor

By the dawn of the twentieth century, most Southerners continued to struggle through the economic devastation wrought by the Civil War. From the close of the Civil War in 1865 through the turn of the century, scores of Southern families abandoned their farms and flocked to the burgeoning textile mills in hopes of alleviating their financial burdens. Factory owners and managers welcomed the influx of these families as their arrival en masse drove down wages, increased productivity, and yielded a substantial child labor force.

Women's clubs throughout Georgia supported the regulation of child labor, and exercised their influence through organized protest and action. Clubwomen formed local committees to investigate industrial conditions, and attended anti-child labor conferences around the state where many women prepared and delivered speeches. At the annual meeting of the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs in 1902, Mary Ann Lipscomb, founder of the Athens Woman's Club, gave a powerful address entitled "Child Labor in Georgia," in which she reported on the alarming number of children employed in Georgia's mills and factories, and the illiteracy rates among these young people.5

Despite such efforts, women's clubs and other reform-minded organizations throughout Georgia experienced tremendous difficulty in moving state legislators to support the regulation of child labor. The strongest opposition came from the Georgia Industrial Association, a group comprised of the state's most powerful mill owners and managers, who believed the destruction of the child labor force would devastate the economic progress experienced by Georgia in the years since Reconstruction.

Frustrated by the opposition presented by the Georgia Industrial Association and their failure to obtain legislative action against the continued employment of young children, clubwomen looked for other ways to reform child labor conditions. One such option was to endorse a state compulsory education bill, which would require all Georgia children between the ages of eight and fourteen to regularly attend school for six consecutive months out of the year. Georgia clubwomen worked for nearly twenty years to secure a state compulsory education bill before the Georgia Assembly finally enacted one in 1916.

Another way clubwomen worked to improve child labor conditions was through the establishment and continued sponsorship of free kindergartens. The kindergarten movement began in Georgia at the end of the nineteenth century with the work of Nellie Peters Black, an influential reformer in both the Atlanta History Club and the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs. As president of the Atlanta Free Kindergarten Association, Black gained recognition for opening several successful free kindergartens that served children between the ages of three and six.

The Athens Woman's Club began making arrangements to establish a free kindergarten for young children in the East Athens mill district in the winter of 1901. During the spring of 1902, Miss Louise Lane, chairman of the Kindergarten Committee of the Athens Woman's Club, made several visits to the East Athens mill district where she conducted interviews with factory workers concerning their feelings towards the opening of a free kindergarten in their community. Encouraged by the response from the interviewees, Athens women secured a classroom in the East Athens Night School, sought the employment of a highly-trained teacher, and provided the necessary funds for the initial startup of the kindergarten. The East Athens Free Kindergarten opened in the summer of 1902 with an enrollment of fifty-four children.6 Athens clubwomen visited the school regularly, donated supplies and sponsored holiday parties for the children.

The efforts of the Athens Woman's Club were noticed by city officials, and in April of 1905, the Athens City Council agreed to incorporate East Athens Free Kindergarten into the public school system. With the financial and administrative responsibilities of the free kindergarten now out of their hands, the women of Athens immediately began assessing the need for free kindergartens in other local mill districts. Five months later, in September of 1905, the women of Athens opened the West Athens Free Kindergarten. Clubwomen continued to sponsor benefits and host fundraisers for the newly-established kindergarten until it too was incorporated into the city school system in 1907.

The Public Health Crusade

Along with the rapid industrialization of the South following the Civil War and Reconstruction came a growing awareness among reformers of the unsanitary conditions and inadequate health facilities serving Georgia's urban centers. Cities and towns throughout Georgia were fraught with inadequate mechanisms for sewage and waste disposal, tainted water supplies, and overcrowding. Coupled with the heat and humidity of the Southern climate, these conditions provided a fertile breeding ground for communicable diseases such as cholera, malaria, typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

Progressive reformers, lay organizations, such as women's clubs, and other voluntary associations served as the backbone for the public health movement in Georgia. Women's clubs, particularly in the second decade of the twentieth century, worked assiduously to increase public awareness, educate their fellow citizens and improve existing conditions. Clubwomen also lobbied state and local officials for the enactment of effective public health legislation such as the Ellis Bill, which called for the mandatory recording of vital statistics. Upon the bill's passage in 1914, clubwomen volunteered their time and service by sponsoring Better Baby and Child Welfare Days, both of which were dedicated to the collection of registration statistics.

The women of the Athens Woman's Club served as community watchdogs for both their city and county by supporting Federation-endorsed Clean-Up Weeks, regularly reporting violations of sanitary ordinances, publishing articles on public health concerns in the Athens Banner and making suggestions for improvements to local health officials. In 1907 clubwomen in Athens secured the passage of an anti-spitting ordinance and convinced local officials to increase the number of trash receptacles in the city.7 The Athens Woman's Club also worked with the Athens City Commission in 1914 to open and furnish a public restroom for women in the city.

Georgia clubwomen combined their efforts with state and national health organizations such as the Atlanta-based Raoul Foundation and the American Red Cross to educate the public and raise funds for the prevention and eradication of disease throughout the state. The Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs endorsed Red Cross efforts to fight tuberculosis, and encouraged member clubs to annually participate in the selling of Red Cross Christmas Seals. The Athens Woman's Club responded to the call of the Georgia Federation by selling over 2,250 seals in 1909 and increasing that number more than threefold to nearly ten thousand seals the following year.8

In addition to working towards the treatment and prevention of tuberculosis, Georgia clubwomen sought to eradicate insect-borne diseases such as malaria and typhoid fever. During the early twentieth century malaria and typhoid fever outbreaks reached epidemic proportions in the state of Georgia. Central to these epidemics, as believed by health reformers and women's clubs, were the state's poorly maintained and often tainted water supplies. In an effort to improve water supplies, women's clubs launched anti-fly and mosquito crusades by securing public speakers, hosting informative lectures, circulating literature on the subject and encouraging their fellow residents to install screens on their windows and place charcoal in their wells.

Throughout the country, women's clubs also worked to improve existing medical facilities and in many cases worked with local organizations and institutions to endow new hospitals, sanitariums, and infirmaries. The Athens Women's Club worked in this fashion as well, and began raising funds to erect a monument to honor one of Georgia's most esteemed physicians, Crawford Long. When Chancellor David Barrow of the University of Georgia became aware of the club's fundraising efforts, he encouraged the women of Athens to direct their resources towards the endowment of a new infirmary for the University. The clubwomen agreed, and in 1913 the Crawford W. Long Infirmary opened on the campus of the University of Georgia.

World War I: Activism and Relief Efforts

As the threat of war loomed over Europe, the peace movement took shape and gained support among American reformers. As a response to the mass destruction and economic devastation that resulted from the Crimean and American Civil wars, organizations devoted to diplomatic conflict resolution developed in small numbers during the late nineteenth century . These organizations, known as peace societies, initially captured the general public's attention with only limited success. As the political tension between European nations heightened and the threat of war became a possibility, however, American peace societies increased significantly in both popularity and visibility.

Despite their exclusion from traditionally male peace societies, clubwomen throughout the United States established Peace departments and developed programs within their organizations to educate members about the peace movement. Beginning in 1911, the Athens Woman's Club hosted a series of lectures given by Dr. Henry Clay White, husband of club member Ella F. White and president of the Georgia Peace Society, on the necessity of American neutrality and the importance of propagating the message of peace. Following the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, Athens clubwomen, at the request of Jane Addams, sent two telegrams to President Woodrow Wilson urging the president to maintain his stance on American neutrality.

The official entry of the United States into World War I in April of 1917 marked a decisive change in clubwomen's support of the peace movement. While clubwomen in Georgia continued to support the movement through the observance of National Peace Days and other similar activities, they vested their energy in the war relief effort. When the United States Treasury announced its intention of selling Liberty bonds to support the war, Georgia women's clubs, such as the Athens Woman's Club, participated in local contests and hosted fundraisers in order to raise money to purchase Liberty bonds. The Athens Woman's Club also actively promoted the national thrift and food conservation movements by establishing local canning clubs and encouraging Athens schools to plant war gardens.

In addition to homefront relief efforts, clubwomen across the country worked to improve conditions for American soldiers serving in the war. Women prepared medical kits to send to military camps abroad, and collected supplies such as clothing, books and paper. Through the General Federation of Women's Clubs, women also raised and donated money to the War Victory Commission for the creation of overseas libraries, recreation centers, and medical dispensaries.9 Clubwomen also showed their concern for civilians tragically affected by the war. Women's clubs throughout Georgia participated in the sponsorship and adoption of French children orphaned during the war. In November of 1918, the Athens Woman's Club reported it had pledged support to five war orphans.10

Improvement of Education in Georgia

By the turn of the century, the educational awakening of the South was well underway. The urban middle-class women who populated woman's clubs supplied the enthusiasm, organizational skill and mass support of the movement. Women's clubs throughout the state of Georgia worked tirelessly for the consolidation of schools, the improvement and modernization of school buildings and pay increases for teachers. Although the overwhelming majority of Georgia's club efforts were directed at the improvement of white schools, several clubs in the Georgia Federation worked to improve conditions in black schools. Clubwomen donated money, supplies, textbooks and, in several cases, pianos to African American schools.11 Additionally, many clubwomen joined efforts with local African American women's clubs to improve the quality of education for African American children by working to extend the curriculum taught in black schools.

Reformers throughout the South viewed the region's largely rural population as the greatest challenge to the reform of education. Georgia clubwomen ardently supported the improvement of rural schools and worked through local clubs and the state federation to build modern schools for rural communities. Efforts to build a school in northeastern Georgia's Mountain City were initiated by the Athens Woman's Club in 1912. Athens clubwomen worked with the citizens of Mountain City to appropriate the necessary funds to build and maintain the school, each group contributing half of the total cost of the school. After five years of fundraising, the Ella F. White Memorial School, named in honor of the former president of the Athens Woman's Club, opened on October 1, 1917 with an enrollment of 101 students. By the close of the following school year, enrollment had grown to nearly 150.12

The Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs was also successful in establishing both model and industrial training schools in rural areas throughout the state. Model and industrial schools met the needs of Georgia's rural population by providing a central site for learning. The highly-trained teachers of these schools provided children with instruction in basic elementary subjects in addition to practical training in home economics and agricultural science. Georgia clubwomen worked to raise funds, secure land, and oversee the construction and furnishing of these schools. Once established by the Georgia Federation, the ownership and administration of the schools was gradually handed over to county officials who funded the schools through local taxation. By 1915, the federation had created model schools in Danielsville, Mathis, Poplar Springs, Rome, Tallulah Falls, Bartow County, and Floyd County; an industrial school cosponsored by the Massachusetts Federation of Women's Clubs was also founded in Cass Station, Georgia.

During her term as President of the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs, Mary Ann Lipscomb initiated and supervised the establishment of an industrial school, Tallulah Falls, in the rural mountain region of northern Georgia. Lipscomb became aware of the community's need for a centralized training school in 1903 while vacationing on Cherokee Mountain and brought the issue to the attention of the Athens Woman's Club. The club immediately undertook efforts to raise the appropriate funds by organizing and sponsoring numerous teas, socials, and plays. After the club collected several hundred dollars, the money was turned over to the Georgia Federation, which began to champion the cause by appealing to other woman's clubs throughout the state. Under Lipscomb's direction, adequate funds were raised to purchase five acres of land and build a modern five-room schoolhouse. Tallulah Falls Industrial Training School opened in 1909; more than twenty children were enrolled. In less than five years' time, enrollment at Tallulah Falls had risen to eighty-six students.13

While the model and industrial schools of the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs emphasized coeducation, clubwomen throughout Georgia made concerted efforts to improve the quality of education available for girls and young women. At the turn of the twentieth century, Athens, Georgia boasted two prestigious institutions: the Lucy Cobb Institute and the State Normal School, which were dedicated exclusively to the secondary and post-secondary education of young women. The Athens Woman's Club was closely linked to each school, as the majority of its members received educations at either, or in some cases, both, institutions. Additionally, several of the most active members of the Athens Woman's Club, such as Mary Ann Lipscomb, Celeste Parrish, Rosa Woodberry, and Roberta Hodgson maintained administrative and instructional positions at either the Lucy Cobb Institute or the State Normal School.

Despite originally being organized as a literary club for local women, the Athens Woman's Club encouraged the higher education of women from its inception. In 1899, the year of the club's founding, clubwomen offered two two-year scholarships to women interested in attending Lucy Cobb Institute.14 Awarding scholarships remained an essential part of the activities of the Athens Woman's Club as well as other Georgia women's clubs throughout the early twentieth century. Each year the Athens Woman's Club awarded between two and four scholarships to eligible young women to attend Lucy Cobb Institute, the State Normal School, or Athens Business College.

Clubwomen hosted fundraisers, organized benefits, and participated in local and statewide contests in order to raise the necessary funds to support their club's scholarship fund. In addition to offering scholarships, many clubs, such as the Athens Woman's Club, established student aid programs that provided monetary loans to young women who wished to receive secondary or post-secondary educations. In its 1917 annual report the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs claimed it had extended loans to 125 young women in throughout the state.15

As the twentieth century progressed, the number of Georgia women attending college grew exponentially, largely due to the scholarships and loans made available to them through local women's clubs. However, women wishing to pursue post-secondary educations were restricted in the institutions they could attend. State universities such as the University of Georgia, reflecting the paternalism of most Southern institutions of their time, forbade the admission of women. The women of the Athens Woman's Club initiated and led the fight for the admittance of women to the University of Georgia. At the suggestion of Mrs. Gerald Green, chairman of the Education Department of the Athens Woman's Club, a committee of clubwomen drafted a set a resolutions requesting that state legislation be secured to grant equal educational facilities for women in the state. Athens women presented their declaration to the Georgia Federation at its 1916 annual meeting. The Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs took immediate action in its adoption of the resolutions and launched a statewide campaign to mobilize women in the fight for admittance to the University of Georgia. Georgia clubwomen wrote compelling articles for local newspapers, secured the printing and statewide distribution of leaflets and pamphlets promoting their position on coeducation, and lobbied University of Georgia administrators for their admittance. Finally, on September 21, 1918, after two years of active campaigning by clubwomen, university trustees approved the admission of women to junior, senior, and graduate level classes at the University of Georgia.16

The Struggle to Win Suffrage

The movement of Georgia women to win the right to equal education served as a springboard for women's support of the suffrage movement. Women's suffrage received attention in the South after the first decade of the twentieth century, due largely to the influence of the club movement. As women gained self-confidence and pride from their reform achievements, many began to ask for greater independence and more political rights. However, the road to enfranchisement was long, hard and met with the determined resistance of Georgians, male and female alike.

Those who opposed women's suffrage considered it threatening to place the economic, political and social fate of the state in the hands of women whom they considered to be physically and mentally incompetent in the ways of politics. Anti-suffragist ideology, in the North and South alike, relied heavily on specious biological research that outlined the physical deficiencies of women. Included in these studies were claims that although women were morally superior creatures, their physical weakness, inherent sensitivity and nervousness made women unfit for the rigors of political life.17

Anti-suffragist ideology was embraced alongside the social conservatism and political paternalism that prevailed in Georgia and the rest of the South during the early twentieth century. Many feared that granting women voting privileges would not only feminize the previously all-male world of politics but also destroy the orderly and secure system of gender relations. The legend of the white Southern lady operated under the pretense that she was pure, gentle, loving, and, above all, morally superior. By entering politics, women ran the risk of tainting their purity by being exposed to, as one Southern woman wrote, "the profanity, obscenity, and the detailed narration of immoral acts and doings of the lowest type of humanity."18 For Southern women who were content with their status and comfortable in their roles as mothers and caretakers, the fear of losing their elevated status was great enough to deter their support for the suffrage movement.

Of the claims forwarded by anti-suffragists on the threats posed by women's suffrage, the threat of enfranchising African Americans was the greatest source of consternation for Georgians. Anti-suffragists feared the passing of women's suffrage would not only enfranchise African American women, but would suppress the overt efforts made by Southern officials in previous years to disfranchise African American males. Many Georgians believed that blacks would use enfranchisement to improve their status, gain political power, and overturn Jim Crow laws. Anti-suffragists in the North advanced a similarly intolerant argument, claiming women's suffrage would bring so-called unqualified immigrants to the polls.

The first active suffrage organization to develop in Georgia in response to the twentieth-century suffrage movement began in Macon in 1912. Georgia suffragists, many of whom belonged to women's clubs, highlighted the influential power of clubwomen and successful social reforms, such as child labor regulation and higher salaries for teachers, which achieved success through the political lobbying of state officials. Women in favor of the vote also centered their campaign on the many reforms Georgia clubwomen had championed, but had been unsuccessful in securing legislation for: two such pushes were for a higher age of consent for marriage, and compulsory education. Using this tactic, Georgia suffragists defined a direct relationship between a woman's right to vote and successful social improvements, hoping that this strategy could change anti-suffragist perspectives and further the cause of reform.

Despite efforts to attract clubwomen, suffragists were largely unsuccessful in gaining support from Georgia's women's clubs. Georgia clubwomen were slow to warm to the idea of women's enfranchisement, and in many cases, outwardly opposed the movement. When the issue of suffrage was presented at the Chicago Biennial of the General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1914, Georgia clubwomen led the opposition with Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina supporting them. While most clubwomen supported the idea of equal rights for women, suffrage proved to pose too great a threat to Southern progress. The majority of Georgia's clubwomen valued their positions as lobbyists, and feared that a suffrage amendment would weaken their efficacy by generating resentment among government officials and, paradoxically, limit their access to important political decisions.

As the reality of a women's suffrage amendment became inevitable, Georgia clubwomen began to warm to the idea. Women's clubs throughout Georgia invited suffragists to their meetings to speak about the issue, and, in 1919, the annual meeting of the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs proved to be a turning point for the movement's support. After much debate, the Georgia Federation adopted a resolution in support of women's suffrage in a vote of eighty-five to forty-five.19 With the exception of the reaction of the Macon History Club, who, immediately following the annual meeting, withdrew its membership from the Georgia Federation in protest, Georgia clubwomen fully embraced the suffrage movement, including the Athens Woman's Club.

Upon the endorsement of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment by the Georgia Federation, Georgia women's clubs prepared their members for voting. Clubwomen wrote articles for local newspapers and conducted citizenship classes to instruct potential voters about the privileges and responsibilities of their new civic duties. In addition to offering citizenship classes, many clubs, such as the Athens Woman's Club, sponsored lecture series on parliamentary law.

The state of Georgia received the dubious distinction of being the first state to veto the Susan B. Anthony Bill during the ratification process and, in fact, did not formally ratify the suffrage amendment until 1970. Most Southern states with the exception of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas responded similarly and vetoed the amendment. Despite these efforts to keep suffrage off the books, the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the U. S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.

The Legacy of Women's Clubs

The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was the capstone for the woman's club movement in Georgia, as it was in other regions of the country. Even though women's clubs continue to prosper throughout the country today, the attainment of voting rights represented an unofficial end to women's struggle for acceptance in the public sphere.

Women's clubs were effective training and staging grounds for those committed to civic service. In the earlier days of the movement, women's clubs served as the singular place where adult women could engage in advanced academic studies and participate in thought-provoking discussions outside of their own households. Clubwomen grew to realize that their opinions were viable, that their ideas transcended the boundaries of their individual club chapters, and that by federating at both the national and state levels, they could work together and achieve significant social reforms that affected American communities nationally. Members of local women's organizations such as the Athens Woman's Club worked in collaboration to address social issues of national importance. While working on behalf of their communities, they became pioneers of national twentieth century social reform.


  1. Mary I. Wood, The History of the General Federation of Women's Clubs: For the First Twenty-Two Years of its Organization (Norwood, Mass.: Norwood Press, 1912), 76. [resume reading]
  2. Elna C. Green, Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 23; Sandra Gioia Treadway, Women of Mark: A History of the Woman's Club of Richmond, Virginia, 1894-1994 (Richmond, Va.: The Library of Virginia, 1995), 22-23; Wood, History of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, 353. [resume reading]
  3. Marguerite B. Sheffer. Memorabilia of the Athens Woman's Club: Its Projects and Interests. (Athens, Ga.: Athens Woman's Club, 1982), 2. [resume reading]
  4. April 8, 1902, Minutes, 1899-1911, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 1, Athens Regional Library ; January 27, 1902, Minutes, 1899-1911, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 1, Athens Regional Library; March 10, 1902, Minutes, 1899-1911, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 1, Athens Regional Library. [resume reading]
  5. Atlanta Constitution, "Able Addresses Heard at the Three Meetings Held Yesterday," November 7, 1902. [resume reading]
  6. September 23, 1902, Minutes, 1899-1911, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 1, Athens Regional Library. [resume reading]
  7. Atlanta Constitution, "What Its Woman's Club Has Done for Athens," May 19, 1907. [resume reading]
  8. January 25, 1909, Minutes, 1899-1911, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 1, Athens Regional Library and November 28, 1910, Minutes, 1899-1911, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 1, Athens Regional Library. [resume reading]
  9. February 1918, Minutes, 1913-1920, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 2, Athens Regional Library. [resume reading]
  10. November 1918, Minutes, 1913-1920, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 2, Athens Regional Library. [resume reading]
  11. Atlanta Constitution, "Clubs Interested in Civics Work All Over State," December 18, 1919. [resume reading]
  12. Atlanta Constitution, "Athens Woman's Club Did Great Work This Year," December 27, 1914; February 1918, Minutes, 1913-1920, Athens Woman's Club, Box 1, Volume 2, Athens Regional Library. [resume reading]
  13. Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs Yearbook, 1912-1913 (Atlanta, Ga.: Lester & Stationary, 1913), 63. [resume reading]
  14. Atlanta Constitution, "Lucy Cobb Ready to Open," September 5, 1899. [resume reading]
  15. Atlanta Constitution, "Annual Report of President Shows Wonderful Growth," November 11, 1917. [resume reading]
  16. Sara Beth Townsend, "The Admission of Women to the University of Georgia," Georgia Historical Quarterly 43, no. 2 (June 1959): 167-168. [resume reading]
  17. Green, Southern Strategies, 102-104. [resume reading]
  18. "Alabama Association Opposed to Suffrage," broadside, ca. 1920, Box 82, Davis Papers, quoted in William A. Link, The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 300. [resume reading]
  19. Atlanta Constitution, "The Federation Endorses Suffrage," November 15, 1919. [resume reading]
Leigh Ann Ripley