“By being involved in church or charitable groups, women
were able to find companionship and a way to facilitate change in their
community.” Jane Cunningham Croly,
Founder, General Federation of Women’s Clubs 1898
America has experienced a decline in “active civic
engagement,” which has been characterized by a loss in membership in
traditional women’s organizations. Many such local organizations have ceased to
This column details the history of women’s role in just a
few of the many local causes and organizations that have existed in the past.
Those organizations mentioned are just a sample of those that played an
important role in their communities.
Early gatherings of women often involved the “mutual assistance
of textile production,” such as sewing circles and quilting bees. It was an
opportunity for personal interactions beyond the family, especially essential
during the long New England winters.
After 1820, many women joined “female charitable societies.”
Their meetings included reading aloud religious publications and gathering
items for the towns’ needy. “Feeling the worth of our time” was a phrase that summed
up their efforts.
Before the 1850s, most women’s groups were either
church-sponsored aid societies or affiliated with men’s groups. Outside of the
church, women played a major role in establishing and maintaining public
libraries. Women kept libraries alive as trustees, patrons, and librarians.
In 1868 “a few
ladies” established the Newbury Village Library Association, and Martha Tenney
donated a library building. Woodsville’s Ladies’ Charitable Society was formed
in 1871 to establish a village library. In the 1870s, Orford’s Hannah Willard
Sanborn established a public library in her family’s store.
In 1874, the Bradford
Social Library Society breathed new life into “the lagging library organization
by the contribution of $1 each from 63 ladies.”
Laura Currier Whitney
created a library in her Haverhill home in 1880. In 1898, Mary Benton donated
the front room of her North Haverhill home and 500 books to create a
Women also played a significant role in 19th century reform
movements, including the abolition of slavery, the temperance movement, and
In the abolition movement, women took a substantial role in
anti-slavery petition drives and public meetings, but their role was a subject
of debate. As with many issues of the
day, many felt that women did not properly belong in male-dominated groups.
When, in 1853, activist Lucy Stone spoke in Orange County,
the local newspaper suggested, “There is something shocking in the idea of a
lady’s going about haranguing men and women on political subjects.”
In the 1870s, the creation of the Women’s Christian
Temperance Union (WCTU) in New Hampshire and Vermont gave local women a role in
the battle against alcohol. There were
local WCTU chapters in East Haverhill, Piermont, East Corinth, Newbury, and Bradford.
East Haverhill’s Ellen Ruddick Richardson was elected state
WCTU president from 1899 to 1918. She
spoke widely on behalf of the movement and was recognized nationally for her
work. Women would go on to play a major
role in the passage of the Constitutional amendment that created national
Through their leadership and advocacy, women played a
significant role in achieving rights for women. In 1869, the New Hampshire
Woman Suffrage Association was founded. A similar organization was formed in
Vermont in 1883. These groups lobbied for voting rights, access to higher
education, and equal pay for women.
Not dissuaded by early failures in lobbying efforts, these
groups continued to seek reforms. As a result of the “constant heckling of the
militant women,” voting rights in local elections for women were achieved.
Women’s service during World War I helped to tip the balance
toward expanded voting rights. In 1919, the U.S. Constitution was amended to
grant full voting rights to women. This was a women-led victory that was 70
years in the making.
In 1897, the National Congress of Mothers began what was
referred to as an “experiment in every way.” It was focused on the education
and welfare of children through the “mutual helpfulness” of local mothers’
Between 1909 and 1920, the East Thetford’s Mother’s Club was
one of the first in the area. In the
early 1920s, there was a very active club in West Fairlee Center followed by
one in South Fairlee (1927).
In 1940, the Bradford Mother’s Club was formed to promote
childhood education and parent-child relationships. By 1951, there were similar
organizations in Waits River, East Corinth, and East Topsham. Health clinics, pre-school activities and
programs on child development were common.
and South Ryegate also had active mother’s clubs.
In the mid-20th century local public schools did not offer
programs for youngsters before the first grade.
Pre-school mother’s groups were formed to provide these needed services.
In 1949, a group filled pre-school needs in Waits River and West Topsham.
Programs included health screening, and swimming and primary education lessons.
The following year, a similar group was formed in Bradford.
It operated a pre-school program for members’ children. It was very active with
both programs and fund-raising activities. Over the years it lobbied for
creating pre-school programs within the Bradford school system.
Even in the 20th century, church-related women’s groups were
the most common type of women’s organizations. These groups were often the
backbone of local churches providing workers and funding for church
Every local church had an active women’s group, known by a
variety of names, including Women’s Fellowship, United Methodist Women, Ladies’
Aid, Catholic Women’s Club, Willing Workers, and the Guild.
They offered an opportunity for church women to gather
together for mutual support in what is now referred to as women’s ministry.
Their activities range from Bible study to organizing events and activities,
mission support, and raising funds to support church programs and
As a result of their
efforts, parsonages and churches were renovated, hymnals purchased, funeral
gatherings had refreshments, shut-ins were remembered and church programs
reflected a woman’s touch.
In addition to specific church groups there was at least one
non-denominational group. Organized in 1941, Church Women United combined the
work of area church women. It was part
of a national ecumenical movement. Bradford’s Diane Smarro said the group
“encouraged church women to come together in a spirit of community with others
around the world.”
Over the years, women
of at least 14 area churches organized mission work, local charity efforts,
UNICEF drives and annual World Day of Prayer observances. The last reported
local activity was a prayer meeting in South Ryegate in 2004.
After the 1960s, there was a steep drop in the number of
women participating in church women’s groups. Locally, this resulted from fewer
potential members as church attendance declined. Mobility cut traditional ties
to local churches. As women entered the workforce, there was less time or
interest in participating in those groups. For several groups, the pandemic was
the last straw.
When asked about the decline of the women’s group at
Bradford’s Methodist church, member Connie Linnell of Topsham recalled that the
group “took care of everything in the church but declined because young people
didn’t want to go the meetings.”
Women’s auxiliary groups have formed in connection with
men’s organizations. The Women’s Relief Corps was the first of several
veterans’ auxiliary groups. That group’s local chapters helped war widows and
orphans as well as disabled veterans. In 1901, Bradford’s’ Calista Robinson
Jones was the national president of the Corps, and the group’s national
headquarters was at her home.
were formed after World War I when American Legion posts were established. They
were chartered in Bradford and Wells River in 1921. Similar groups were formed
as companion organizations for the Veterans of Foreign Wars posts following
World War II. Both auxiliary organizations played an important role in
community and veteran affairs.
There were also women’s groups attached to fraternal
organizations. The Order of the Eastern Star was established in 1869 as an
auxiliary for local Masonic lodges. While it included a few men, it was
primarily a women’s group dedicated to friendship, personal growth, and
community service projects.
Eastern Star lodges were in Wells River, Bradford, North
Haverhill, Warren, and Orford. As
membership dwindled, most of these vanished.
The Lodge in Bradford closed several years ago.
Similarly, there were women’s auxiliary lodges for the Odd
Fellows. The Rebekah Lodge #45 was chartered in Woodsville in 1887 and by 1916,
had a membership of 205. Rebekah Lodges were established in Bradford in 1890
and in North Haverhill in 1903.
Additionally, there were local units in Post Mills, Wells River, and
Barnet. All have been disbanded.
When Extension Services were established in Vermont (1913)
and New Hampshire (1915), one of the programs was local Home Demonstration or
Homemakers Clubs. In each county, a Home Dem Agent organized programs to
improve the lives of rural women.
There were clubs in each local community with some
communities having more than one. Programs included information on topics such
as cooking, health, gardening, and clothing.
In the 1890s, a new movement for women’s organizations led
to the creation of the Federation of Women’s Clubs in New Hampshire and
Vermont. By 1889 there were 97 such
local clubs in Vermont. In 1915, the
Bradford Fortnightly Club, East Thetford’s Thursday Club, and Wells River Study
Club were among the locals.
Woman’s Club, which had existed since 1900, voted to disband in 1970. Like
other woman’s clubs, it had played a significant role in the community. These clubs suffered for some of the same
reasons that caused a decline in church-related groups.
The South Ryegate Women’s Club was formed in 1927. Cindy Fraiser was the last president of the
organization in 2005. She said the group organized programs to help the
community, including building a playground and providing scholarships. “What is
missing,” Fraiser said, “is the chance to get together with your women friends
to do things for the community.”
As with many area women’s clubs and other organizations, the
only mention of past membership and activities are in obituaries as members
There are several
local women’s groups that have survived the changes that have doomed others.
One group that has continued to be active is the East Corinth Women’s
Fellowship. The online description indicates that the group is “loosely
associated” with the local church.
Sue Parmenter, who describes herself as the “head
facilitator,” said that they have expanded to be more inclusive with women who
are not necessarily church members. She said the club has about 50 members and
meets about ten times yearly.
The Oxbow Chapter of the Daughters of the American
Revolution was organized in 1892 and continues to meet at Newbury’s Oxbow
schoolhouse. Its area membership meets seasonally and contributes to
“historical, educational, and patriotic causes.”
The Rondo, centered in Orford and Fairlee, is in its 103rd
year and survived the pandemic to emerge strong. It is “dedicated to supporting women’s needs,
learning more about the world, and giving back to the community.”
Member Eva Daniels of Orford told me recently that there are
about 40 current members. She added that the organization raises funds to share
with worthy local causes and that meetings
often feature informative speakers.
The Newbury Woman’s Club celebrates its 100th anniversary
this year. The club has its roots in the
Lend-a-Hand Club organized by young women in 1910. It was initially very active and assisted the
Red Cross during World War I. Interest
waned until 1922-23 when the Newbury Woman’s Club was formed.
According to the Newbury history, the club has “continued
its interests in education, legislation, government, the fine arts, crafts,
recreation, and international relations, as well as civic affairs.”
There also continue to be informal women’s groups in the
area. Members gather to knit, garden,
discuss books or share fellowship. There
are also a number of professional women’s groups and organizations dedicated to
women’s rights and the prevention of violence against women.
Women have also taken a prominent role in political and
social advocacy organizations open to both men and women, as well as taking
positions in all levels of government.
As I write this column, there are hundreds of the world’s
most influential women meeting at an International Summit in Abu Dhabi to
celebrate International Woman’s Day.
Those women will forge new bonds and to work together to confront societal
issues and create relationships that will last a lifetime.
Those are precisely the goals that local women’s groups have
achieved for almost 200 years. In new ways, local women continue to generate
both continuity and change in our communities.