“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 exist.
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 library.
Women also played a significant role in 19th century reform movements, including the abolition of slavery, the temperance movement, and women’s suffrage.
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 prohibition.
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’ clubs.
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.
Piermont, Thetford, 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 programs.
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 facilities.
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.
Women’s auxiliaries 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.
The Bradford’s 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 pass away.
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.