`UNITY IN DIVERSITY?': THE FEDERATION OF WOMEN'S CLUBS AND THE MIDDLE CLASS IN CLEVELAND, OHIO, 1902-1962


By: Julieanne Appleson Phillips

Using the Federation of Women's Clubs of Greater Cleveland (FWC) as a case study, this book demonstrates the incremental changes that took place in America's white, middle-class composition and culture from 1902-1962 in Cleveland, Ohio. The FWC, a federation of conservative, white, middle-class women's study and civic voluntary clubs, flourished in Cleveland from its founding in 1902 during the Great Club Movement and peaked at 50,000 women in 1929. This study argues that the FWC thrived from 1902 to 1930 because of the abundance of leisure time inherent in the American middle- class woman's lifestyle. In their leisure time, women joined female clubs in record numbers and engaged in voluntary activities that reinforced their middle-class values and interests. Voluntary associations provided an acceptable extension into the public sphere for women with leisured time and became a way for women to define their middle-class status.

However, social, political, economic, class, and ideological factors challenged the FWC's viability after 1929. Affected by the Depression of the 1930s, the FWC steadily declined to 13,000 constituents by 1940 and experienced a limited climb in members during World War II to claim 17,000 women by the 1950s. By 1962, the FWC represented only 8,100 constituents. The FWC's declining membership indi cated a notable shift in the lifestyles and interests of American middle-class women and reflects an evolving middle-class constituency. This study finds that the decrease in FWC membership can be attributed to three factors. In the 1960s, the FWC r emained entrenched in its traditional programs and ideals and failed to accommodate the transforming needs of its middle-class constituency. The FWC remained committed to its conservative agenda of fashion shows and afternoon teas and overlooked the chan ging circumstances faced by many women. The FWC neglected to address emerging and important cultural issues facing middle-class women, such as climbing divorce rates, increasing levels of education, declining fertility rates, and political agitation for women's equality.

Second, the FWC did not reach out to women from social and economic backgrounds different from their own traditional members. The FWC failed to attract the "newer" members of the middle class--women from diverse racial and ethnic l aboring backgrounds who swelled the middle-class ranks in the post-World War II period. Additionally, the rejection of the FWC by middle-class working women signified that membership in a women's club was no longer a social requirement for middle-class standing.

Last, beginning with World War II, a growing number of middle-class women entered the workforce leaving women less time for club activities. Since the FWC depended on volunteer hours for its success the increased number of employed women le d to decreased membership and involvement. The FWC's history parallels that of America's white middle class. Examining the FWC from 1902-1962 illustrates the growing heterogeneity and transformation in the composition and interests of white middle A merica within the Cleveland context. The FWC's policies, programs, activities and membership highlights the effects of race, class, and gender on the FWC's viability and depicts the trends, beliefs, and principles that shaped America's middle class from 1902 to 1962.

Existing studies suggest generalities about women's voluntary experiences and the white American middle class, but no historical scholarship focuses on the decline of women's clubs in relation to the fragmentation and shifting interests of America's middle class by the mid-twentieth century. Using considerable manuscript material of annual reports, financial records, scrapbooks and correspondence, this study begins by examining the local FWC and its national affiliate, the General Fede ration of Women's Clubs, and focuses on their activities from 1902-1940 during the time of its greatest attraction. Examining both tiers of a large women's organization furthers the scholarship on localized studies eienhances thedisplays It continues thr ough the 1940s by highlighting a gendered middle-class response to World War II featuring the Cleveland Womanpower Committee and the FWC's war service project, the Civilian Service Corps. The study concludes with the decline of the FWC and its relationsh ip to the transforming American middle class during the post-war period. An Afterword completes the study which addresses the state of women's clubs in 1998.