The Florida Women's Club Movement

By: VISIT FLORIDA staff

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Stemming from the Progressive era, the women's club movement shaped the future for generations of Florida's women.

An intrinsic part of women's history in Florida is the women's club movement. The seeds of the national women's movement were sown during the years immediately following the Civil War, a period that witnessed the emergence of the first generation of self-supporting and often unmarried, college-educated women. Between the late 1890s and World War I, during the so-called "Progressive Era," the United States experienced a period of significant development, spurred by economic forces different from those of earlier decades.

Characterized by reform movements in business, education, government, labor, politics and women's rights, the Progressive Era dramatically altered the nation's political, economic and social fabric. For the first time in American history, women emerged as a major force in directing policy at local, state and national levels. Improved technology and prosperity of the early 20th century provided many middle- and upper-class women with some freedom from domestic burdens that had previously committed them to their homes and families.

The Florida Federation of Women's Clubs (FFWC) was formed during this era. It was part of a larger national organization called the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), which was founded in New York City in 1890. The GFWC's goals were to unite a wide variety of women's organizations throughout the country to work toward common goals, including child welfare, conservation, education, equitable taxation, health and town beautification. The organization also contributed to the larger women's suffrage movement, which adopted aggressive tactics to ensure that women's voices were heard in the political process. Within five years of its founding, the GFWC had established affiliations with 500 clubs nationwide and had an enrollment of 100,000 members. By 1914, the membership was two million.

Florida's involvement with the GFWC began in 1895 when representatives of village improvement associations from Crescent City, Green Cove Springs, Jacksonville, Orange City and Tarpon Springs met in Green Cove Springs to incorporate the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs. Within a decade, 20 clubs had affiliated with the FFWC, which emerged in 1910 as the state's most powerful women-led organization with some 1,600 members. By 1917, membership had risen to 9,163 with 59 new clubs.

During Florida's Progressive Era, generally between 1905 and the start of World War I, the FFWC began to test its political effectiveness. In 1907, it drafted a child labor bill which was introduced into the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. The organization promoted Stephen Foster's Old Folks at Home as the state song and lobbied for the establishment of a State Industrial School for Girls at Ocala and a State Industrial School for Boys at Marianna. Subsequent legislation enacted in large part due to the influences of the FFWC led to reforms in the state's school systems, improvement in health care, temperance, and women's suffrage. Highway construction, land reclamation, cattle dipping legislation, and women's political and economic rights were other important activities of the FFWC in the early 20th century.

One of the FFWC's most daunting tasks was the development of Royal Palm Park southwest of Homestead. As early as 1905, May Mann Jennings, a club leader and activist, helped develop a strategy for acquiring the unprotected land. Club women worked in campaign drives, lobbied legislators, and appealed to the National Audubon Society and other organizations for assistance. Through the club's strenuous efforts, funds were raised to purchase the 960-acre tract of land and the park was dedicated in 1916. In order to keep the park open, the FFWC lobbied the Florida Legislature for annual funds, and in 1925 published 24,000 picture postcards of various park scenes which were sold throughout Florida. Additional land purchases were made and by the mid-1930s, the park had grown to some 500,000 acres.

Suffrage was also a high priority. As early as 1913, an amendment to the state constitution to enfranchise women had been introduced in the Florida Legislature. Several legislative attempts to grant women equal voting rights failed between 1911 and 1919; however, by 1918, 16 Florida towns and 20 counties had enfranchised women in municipal elections. During the national ratification process of women's suffrage, the Florida Legislature continued to resist granting women the vote. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1920, enfranchised women throughout the country without the blessing of the Florida Legislature, which eventually went through the formality of approval in 1969.

The FFWC reached its peak in membership and clubhouse construction during the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s. In 1929, the organization recorded that it represented 17,000 women in 228 clubs throughout the state. During the 1920s, the FFWC supported Prohibition, a concern the organiza¬tion had first addressed in 1914, as part of its efforts to secure federal designation for a Seminole reservation in South Florida. In 1917, the state set aside nearly 100,000 acres of Monroe County for the Semi¬noles, only about 5 percent of which was arable. The FFWC redoubled its efforts and, in 1931, the Florida Legislature deeded the Seminole's Dania Reservation in South Florida to the federal government.

Mirroring the rest of the country, the 1930s saw a downturn in the FFWC's economic fortunes, although the organization continued its work of relieving despair and promoting culture. In 1931, the FFWC surveyed Florida's county jails, recommending improvements in medical treatment, education reforms, and rehabilita¬tion measures in the state's penal system. They also undertook general education, health care and public service projects, and funded art and music programs in public schools that boards of education threatened to eliminate because of budget shortfalls.

During World War II, clubhouses were opened to assist in the war effort. Some 100,000 books were collected and sent to Camp Blanding, a 125,000-acre.U.S. Army training center in North Florida. Clubs developed victory gardens in municipal parks and around club¬houses and sold war bonds. The FFWC's Buy a Bomber bond campaign raised $3 million, making it among the nation's most success¬ful fund-raising state federations. After the war, the federation returned to projects it had been working on before the war. In 1947, Royal Palm State Park was deeded to the National Park Service as part of the Everglades National Park.

The FFWC attained its greatest popularity in the mid-1960s when enrollment hit an all-time high of nearly 33,000. During this period, the FFWC was one of the fastest-growing affiliates of the GFWC. Within a decade, however, membership began to decline because of a number of factors, including increasing numbers of women joining the work force, competing organizations such as the junior Welfare League, and more single mothers. In 1995 the state membership consisted of 210 clubs, with 114 Of those owning clubhouses. The organization continues to play an important role in voicing concerns and influencing legislation regarding children, crime, education, the environment and improving the quality of life for all Floridians.

Concurrent with the FFWC was the establishment of a national organization for African-American women's clubs. In 1896, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, the founder of the first colored woman's club in Boston, founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC). From 1899 to 1901, member clubs of the NACWC in Florida were founded in Jacksonville. They included the Jacksonville Woman's Christian Industrial and Protective Union, the Phyllis Wheatley Chautauqua Circle and the Afro-American Woman's Club. The Afro-American was the first of these clubs to be affiliated with the national organization. Among its first officers was Eartha Mary Magdalene White, who was well known for her social work in Jacksonville.

After attending a meeting of the national organization, Mrs. White and other Florida delegates issued a call for the formation of a state organization of African-American women's clubs in Florida. The State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs was established in 1908. On Oct. 27, 1927, the Florida organization was chartered as a nonprofit corporation in Tampa. The organization's stated goals included maintaining higher and nobler ideals; promoting civic movements; advocating welfare units to support moral, religious, social, literary, and interracial advancement; establishing wholesome recreational facilities for young women; and encouraging the organization of new clubs.

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the well-known educator and founder of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, served as the president of the state federation from 1916 to 1920. During that time, addressing the needs of delinquent girls was adopted as a major project area, which eventually led to the legislature's establishment of Forest Hills, a facility for delinquent African-American girls. This paralleled the support the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs rendered in establishing the Florida Industrial School for Girls, a facility for delinquent white girls, located in Ocala.

One of the new programs promoted by the National Federation in the 1930s and 1940s was the establishment of Youth Clubs. The National Association of Girls Clubs was founded in the 1930s; Florida's first Youth Club was established in Bradenton in 1939, eventually leading to the founding of the Florida Association of Girls Clubs. The National Association of Boys Clubs was established in the 1940s. The national organizations have since been combined as the National Association of Youth Clubs. Today, the Youth Clubs, which include chapters on numerous college campuses, are a strong component of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs' program.

African-American women's club membership continued to grow in Florida; by 1980, there were 91 local clubs. Six communities had clubhouses: Bradenton, Belle Glade, Fort Pierce, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and' Palmetto. Other clubs met in homes, schools or churches. Also in 1980, the Florida Association of Auxiliary of Men was established, the first boys attended a state convention as delegates, and a history of the Forest Hills Home for Delinquent Girls was published. Youth work continued, and in 1984, Youth Clubs were active in Belle Glade, Bradenton, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Lakeland, Ocala and West Palm Beach.

Today, there are 45,000 members in the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, including Youth Clubs. There are 15 chapters of the national association in Florida. They, along with the state .organization, the Florida Association of Women's Clubs, pursue universal issues related to all women, such as civic service, education, social service and philanthropy, working effectively with other organizations, both black and white.

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