Women's Club Movement in Snohomish County

  • By Lisa Labovitch
  • Posted 10/17/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20651

In the late nineteenth century, women in the Pacific Northwest began to organize into groups to pursue social change and improvements in their communities. Their work was part of a larger, national women's club movement that helped shape American society. Within Snohomish County, clubwomen engaged in the founding of community institutions such as hospitals and public libraries. While early clubs strove to be inclusive of different viewpoints, the first ones still largely comprised white middle-class and affluent women. Women of color soon formed parallel clubs and organizations to pursue social-service and social-justice work. Snohomish County women's organizations went on to play an important role in domestic rationing and troop support during World War I.

Beginning a National Movement

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, organized women's groups were mostly auxiliaries of larger men's organizations with male leadership. Beginning in 1868 this model rapidly began to change. Journalist Jane Cunningham Croly (1829-1901) was denied entry to an all-male reception honoring Charles Dickens (1812-1870) at the New York Press Club. Croly was moved to found the Sorosis, a women's-only club that focused on educational and social activities.

Similar organizations sprang up around the country. This increase in organized women's activities coincided with the temperance movement, which brought women from all areas of society together for social reform. By 1890, so many women's groups had formed that Croly and her colleague Charlotte Emerson Brown (1838-1895) called delegates together to form an umbrella organization known as the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The founders included the word "General" to emphasize that clubs of all kinds were welcome. That being said, this federation was largely made up of white middle- and upper-class clubwomen who were assimilated into the dominant American cultural identity. Women of color, and those who strongly identified with their ethnic heritage, such as Norwegian, Italian, and Jewish women, formed their own clubs that were not part of the General Federation of Women's Clubs at its inception. In 1896, a group of notable African American women led by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924) founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs.

Much like settlers and railroads, the concept of women's clubs quickly spread west, reaching the Pacific Northwest by the 1890s. Many women already had experience organizing behind early attempts at gaining the vote, initially being granted that right in Washington Territory in 1883. The right to vote was repealed in 1889 with the ratification of the new state constitution, and that reversal is sometimes attributed to the fact that newly empowered women voters had aggressively pursued a social-reform agenda prohibiting gambling and alcohol. While they kept fighting for women's suffrage, these highly motivated and organized women also applied their talents and energy toward making life better in their hometowns. The idea of American women exercising social and political influence was still new, but the concept that the community was an extension of the home, which as a result women had a duty to maintain, empowered many to go out and collaborate with their peers. Healthcare, child welfare, and education were high on the list of priorities for clubwomen.

In Everett, a group of women was instrumental in founding the first hospital, which opened on Broadway in 1894. The mills and logging camps were dangerous places, and injured workers had had to make the long journey to Seattle for formal medical care.

Women's Club Activities in Early Everett

Another group of women rallied around the idea of creating a public reading room for the mental well-being of Everett's residents. On June 30, 1894, these women met at the home of Alice Baird (1860-1915) to elect the first officers of what came to be known as the Woman's Book Club. Founding officers included Baird as president; Mary Lincoln Brown (1849-1935), also known as C. C. Brown, as vice president; Effie Julia Swalwell (1862-1920) as secretary; and a Mrs. McBride as treasurer. There were 23 charter members of the Woman's Book Club.

The club's history from 1894 to 1940 emphasizes the impact of these founding mothers: "The names of these women are in every year-book; to the recent members, they are but names, but for many years those names stood for energy, ambition, and attainment in various directions" (Spriesterbach, 8).

This sentiment could be applied to members of women's clubs around the country, but we know from the impact of the groups operating in Snohomish County that it is accurate there. While the establishment of an Everett library remained a major concern, the Woman's Book Club met regularly to discuss and act on a range of topics. One speaker presented on the work of Jane Addams Hull-House in Chicago, and how a similar model could be useful in Everett. Another meeting addressed ways to aid victims of the Armenian genocide. The Red Cross was frequently the beneficiary of the club's efforts. In the midst of all this hard work, the women also made time for social engagements -- hosting picnics, dinner parties, children's festivals, and other entertainment.

At the helm were a handful of natural leaders. Prominent among these was Alice Baird. Early club accounts describe her as having a trained and brilliant mind whose interests went beyond the Everett peninsula, toward state and even national women's organizations. Early club member Mrs. H. D. Cooley was quoted as saying that "when Mrs. Baird asked us to do anything, it was done" (Spriesterbach, 7).

Under Baird's leadership, the club grew, and plans for a library in Everett moved steadily forward.

Forming a State Federation

In September 1896, the Aloha and Nesika clubs of Tacoma called a meeting of clubwomen from around the state. Twenty-one delegates responded to the call, including Baird, who represented the Woman's Book Club, and an unnamed delegate from the What's-in-a-Name-Club in Everett. Three of the women present at this meeting, including Baird, had attended the third annual meeting of the General Federation of Women's Clubs and were full of ideas for their fellow Washington clubwomen. After a lengthy discussion, Baird moved that the women of Washington form a state federation of women's clubs and the motion carried unanimously. By the end of the day the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs had been born; its constitution was adopted the very next day. The federation held its first annual convention the next year in Olympia, attended by a handful of Snohomish County women, including Alice McFarland (1875-1914) representing a junior women's club from Everett.

Two years later McFarland would become the first head librarian of the new Everett Public Library, located in three rooms of Everett's old City Hall, on the east side of Broadway between Hewitt Avenue and Wall Street.

Thanks to records kept in the University of Washington's Special Collections, we can learn a lot about the early work of the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs. One of the group's earliest successes was initiated by Mrs. F. H. Coe of Seattle. Inspired by a conversation she had with a highly literate family living in a logging camp around Cedar Lake, Coe started a movement to create a system of traveling libraries to serve those living in rural areas. In 1899 the annual conference created a traveling-library committee. In 1900 a list of desired titles was sent to all federated clubs seeking donations of books and funds. The Classic Culture Club of Seattle sponsored the first entire traveling bookcase, and several other clubs followed suit. Another federation member used family business connections to secure free shipping for all cases on the Seattle International Railway and a handful of steamship routes that operated in Puget Sound. The first case was sent to the town of Snoqualmie, quickly followed by Kent, Fremont, and Port Angeles. Legislation was drawn up and passed to fund the program. By 1901 there were 11 cases in circulation, and the routes grew to include Preston, Friday Harbor, Fir, Blaine, Colby, White River, and Berlin.

Mary Brown Tackles Statewide Issues

The Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs attracted member clubs and affiliate members from all over the state, including some very notable women from Snohomish County.

Mary Brown (or C. C. Brown, as she was usually referred to in archival records), who was one of the founders of Everett's Woman's Book Club, served as the third president of the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs from 1903 to 1905. During her tenure the federation pushed for legislation to improve the lives of women and children and to promote public health. One campaign pursued the outlawing of public spitting, which was linked with the spread of tuberculosis. The emerging field of domestic sciences was another big topic. Women were deeply interested in making their homes more efficient and reducing waste. Brown also involved the federation in conservation efforts, lobbying for less wasteful practices in nearby logging camps.

The interests of the federation had become so varied by this time that under Brown's direction, special departments and committees were introduced to better focus on different initiatives. Education was a high priority. The federation pushed the governor to appoint a woman to a vacant seat on the board of regents at the University of Washington -- something that didn't happen until 1917. The activities of the Consumer's League, in conjunction with the work of the federation, led to an increased awareness of the poor conditions of child laborers, and a push for new laws and better enforcement. The federation also worked with the state legislature to improve library organization, and in 1902 a new law was passed that put the state librarian in charge of all library matters within the state. In 1905 a state library association was organized, and due to its influence the University of Washington created a six-week summer-school course on library training; this was the precursor to the university's well-regarded library-science master's degree program, which was founded in 1911.

Locally, in addition to the Woman's Book Club, of which she served as the third president, Brown was instrumental in founding the Snohomish District of Women's Clubs. She also was very active with the Public Hospital Association of Everett, serving as president for several years. Even today, you can see the impact of her work displayed. A tile mosaic installed above the old fireplace at the Everett Public Library's Main Library depicts scenes from her life and the founding of the library.

Margaret McCready and the War Effort

Brown organized the Snohomish District of Women's Clubs in April 1913 with the aid of Margaret McCready (1865-1948) and a group of Snohomish County clubwomen. McCready served as president for the first three years of operation, and went on to serve as the 11th president of the state federation from 1917 to 1919. During U.S. participation in World War I combat in 1917 and 1918, many of the state federation's activities focused on supporting war efforts. McCready campaigned all around the state to encourage faltering groups to keep up membership, saying their work was vital to a United States victory. In her view, organized groups were far better in the case of an emergency than having to start from scratch. Herbert Hoover himself sent the federation a thank you telegram for its work with the Food Propaganda Campaign encouraging using substitutions that weren't in demand for the war effort. One year's federation banquet served a Hoover-inspired meal that illustrated what could be done with a reduced list of ingredients. After the banquet, most members reportedly swore off the use of wheat until the next harvest. "Women are marching side-by-side with the government in all its war activities, except doing the actual fighting," McCready said in an address to the group (Matthew, 59).

Snohomish County women were heavily involved with the Red Cross, the Council of Defense, the buying and selling of Liberty Bonds, and Minute Women organizations aimed at helping recently arrived immigrants from Europe to Americanize.

The Snohomish District of Women's Clubs not only participated in war efforts like food conservation and fundraising, but also made time to focus on home-front improvements. A resolution was passed to try to aid the plight of women and children fleeing war-torn Europe:

"Whereas owing to the conditions in Europe we believe that the immigrant question is one of the big problems in the near future and believing that more care and consideration is being shown to the male immigrant than the female whom fate is luring to our shores; therefore be it resolved that we devote more serious thought and labor toward helping women, wives, young mothers, and helpless children who have crossed the waters with little to aid them save hope and health, and who are putting up a hard struggle to make a home in our midst" (Washington State Federation..., Box 4, folder 3, Pkg. 29).

The Snohomish County District also made serious strides toward fighting tuberculosis. The district secured 20 acres of land overlooking Blackmans Lake for a sanatorium and in 1916 secured state funding for its construction. After it opened that year, the district welcomed its first superintendent, a nurse, as a speaker. She asked for donations of furniture, leisure items, bedding, and other gifts that would make life more comfortable for the patients. Local women's clubs responded throughout the course of the sanatorium's operation.

Jennie Samuels and Local African American Women's Clubs

As in other states, women excluded from the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs due to their ethnicities formed their own clubs and federations. One of the largest of these was the Colored Women's Federation of Washington, founded in 1917. One of its most prominent members was an Everett woman named Jennie Samuels (1868-1948), or Mrs. J. B. Samuels as she appears in club records. Samuels was the founder of the Nannie Burroughs Study Club in Everett, named for Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961), an African American educator, feminist, and civil rights activist.

Samuels had arrived in Everett with her husband and son shortly before the turn of the century, and spent close to 50 years as a community activist. In a cookbook compiled by the Colored Women's Federation, she is quoted as saying:

"Thank our God that we have something to do, whether we like it or not. Doing our duty brings out the best that is in us and will breed in us self-control, strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a score of virtues which idleness fails to give" (Asberry, Folder 11).

Samuels spent four years as president of the federation, and many of the regional officers' meetings were held at her home on Wetmore Avenue.

Tulalip Women's Activities

The U.S. entry into World War I also saw the emergence of organized women's activities on the Tulalip Reservation. Before the war, women on the reservation were occupied as keepers of their culture and language, even as residential schools and officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs were actively trying to suppress them. When war came, many Native American men went off to fight, and the women left at home, like their white peers, supported their service. Thanks to the diligence of Tulalip researcher and historian Lita Sheldon, who has spent years culling articles about the Tulalip Tribes from local newspaper archives, we can learn a little about some of these war efforts.

In one example, Tulalip women not only knitted boxes of socks to send to troops, but also raised the sheep for the wool, sheared them themselves, and carded and spun the wool into the yarn for their project. Postwar records from Sheldon's collection talk about the Tulalip Ladies' Club sponsoring the local 4-H Club's activities, and even hosting a fundraising dance. Salmon bakes were (and remain) another activity frequently undertaken by Tulalip women to raise funds for charitable works.

Possible Collaboration across Cultural Barriers

What is less known is to what extent clubs from different ethnic backgrounds collaborated. During World War I, a variety of groups contributed to Red Cross efforts in very similar ways. In the postwar period we find occasional images that seem to suggest deeper connections, but they can be hard to interpret without more information to give them context. One image taken at the Everett Masonic Temple in April 1938 depicts what appears to be a group of white women in faux Native American attire with exaggerated face paint in what would now be considered an inappropriate, culturally appropriative display. A closer look reveals that at the left of the photograph are three members from the Tulalip Tribes: Harriette Shelton Dover (1904-1991), her mother Ruth Sehome Shelton (1858-1958), and Annie Fredericks.

An Everett Herald article dated April 25, 1938, describes the event as a meeting of the Snohomish District Federation of Women's Clubs at which "Indian dances and a tribute" were performed for the late William Shelton (1869-1938), father and husband of Harriette Dover and Ruth Shelton, who had died on February 11 ("Delegates Chosen ..."). Dover was a fierce advocate for the preservation of her culture, and a life-long educator, as was her father. After the Tulalip women performed, a cast of white singers and actors dressed in Native American attire, wigs, and painted faces staged a production of Charles Wakefield Cadman's (1881-1946) Indianist opera, "The Sunset Trail." Cadman and his peers in the Indianist movement focused on trying to integrate Native American musical traditions with contemporary European compositions, hoping to help preserve what they considered to be endangered cultures while creating a uniquely American genre. Native American pageants became fairly common among women's clubs after the Ladies' Musical Club of Tacoma staged what was considered to be the first production of that nature in 1915.

Another image housed in the Everett Library's Northwest Room shows a gathering of dozens of women of all ages taken in front of the First Baptist Church in Everett. Some are laughing, others are serious. Many are wearing white arm bands with an unreadable insignia. Though mostly white, this group is intriguingly integrated with African American and Asian women. Other photos of the First Baptist Church in this collection from that time period show only white congregants and a mix of genders. Unfortunately the photo bears no caption other than the name of the photographer's Everett studio. Further research might explain why this group of women assembled one afternoon for what appeared to have been an exciting occasion. Perhaps the answers to these questions still lie in a photo album, scrapbook, or family story that has been passed down, or somewhere in the library's Everett Herald archives.


Mildred Tanner Andrews, Washington Women as Path Breakers (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Pub. Co., 1989); Cora Spriesterbach, "History of Everett Woman's Book Club 1894-1940," typescript dated 1940, in possession of Woman's Book Club, Everett, Washington; Serena F. Matthew, "History of the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs," Folders 10-12, Box 1, Acc. 3463-001, Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs records, 1896-1984, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington; "Classified List of Delegates to First Convention W.S.F.W.C. June 22nd and 23rd 1897 at Olympia, Washington," 1897, Folder 13, Box 1, Acc. 3463-001, Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs records, 1896-1984, Special Collections, University of Washington; Mrs. F.H. Coe, "The Early History of Traveling Libraries in Washington," ca.1956, Folder 10, Box 5, Acc. 3463-001, Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs records, 1896-1984, Special Collections, University of Washington; Box 1, Folder 14, and Box 2, Folder 1-2, Scrapbooks 1896-1972, 1927-53, Acc. 3463-001, Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs records, 1896-1984, Special Collections, University of Washington; Box 4, folder 3, Pkg. 29, and Box 8, Folder 3, 1913-1935, Acc. 3463-010, Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs records, 1896-1988, Special Collections, University of Washington; Folders 1, 11, 12, and 14, Box 1, Acc. 1081-002, Nettie J. Asberry papers, Special Collections, University of Washington; Ella Dietz Clymer, "A Century of Service: The General Federation of Women's Clubs," Women's History Network News, No 26, April 1990; Michael Berry, "Playing Indian: Performances of Indianist Movement Music in Tacoma during the Early 1900s," Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Summer 2015, pp. 27-31 (http://www.washingtonhistory.org/files/library/29-2-sumer.pdf); "Our History," National Association of Colored Women's Clubs website accessed August 20, 2018 (http://nacwc.org/history); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Everett Woman's Book Club petitions City of Everett for a free public library on November 12, 1894" (by Janet Oakley) and "Women's Club Movement in Washington" (by Karen J. Blair, Ph.D.) http://www.historylink.org (accessed May 20, 2018); Nannie Helen Burroughs, "How the Sisters Are Hindered from Helping" (speech given at the 1900 National Baptist Convention in Richmond, Virginia), The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project website accessed August 28, 2018 (http://nburroughsinfo.org/files/117745151.pdf); "Nannie Helen Burroughs," National Park Service website accessed August 28, 2018, (https://www.nps.gov/people/nannie-helen-burroughs.htm); Harriette Shelton Dover, Tulalip From My Heart: An Autobiographical Account of a Reservation Community (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014); 1912 Everett City and Snohomish County Directory (Seattle: R.L. Polk & Co. Inc., 1912), 358; "Delegates Chosen at District Meeting," Everett Herald, April 25, 1938, p. 12; "Tulalip 4-H Club to Give Dance May 7," Ibid., May 5, 1938, p. 3; "Salmon Bake June 11 to Be Served County C.C. by Tulalip Indian Women," Marysville Globe, June 6, 1940, p. 1; "Four Tulalip Indian Women Commended By Red Cross," Ibid., September 21, 1917, p. 1.

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