In August of 2004 I walked the section with my mother-in-law. If I had been in California, I might have said I walked the neighborhood, but I was in Iowa and walking the neighborhood involved walking around the section, about 1 square mile of land. Our view was tall corn, our weather was a welcome morning breeze, and our talk was of Joan’s neighbors and their supper club.
Supper club? I asked. It was a bi monthly gathering for supper of women who lived in the section. Further questioning gave me my first introduction into women’s clubs in Iowa. They met. They discussed. They ate supper. I had difficulty thinking how I would find time for supper discussions in my busy after school mom schedule of homework, after school practices, nighttime games, and, sometimes, actually eating a dinner that wasn’t served at a high school snack bar.
I became a member of P.E.O. in 2012, signaling my first personal experience with a women’s club. My years of coaching had always put me in the midst of male dominated groups. For the first time, I experienced conversations not influenced by the stature of gender. It was an eye-opener. Even better for me, there was a long history that I could explore.
A quick search revealed that P.E.O. started in Iowa in 1869 when a group of women at Iowa Wesleyan University formed a secret society for friendship and honor. Be still my historical heart and inquisitive mind. The synapses in my brain began firing. Women. Clubs. Iowa. My mother-in-law. There was a story here, but I didn’t have the time to pursue it, so it lingered.
Little did I know then that I was entering a game of connect the dots that much like a long- distance chess game revealed itself over time and distance. Several years later, I learned about the Des Moines Women’s Club when my daughter began working at a non-profit aimed at supporting a theater built by the club. How, I thought, could a group of women in Des Moines end up owning a 1400 seat theater in 1923?
Hoyt Sherman Place Theatre, built by the Des Moines Women's Club in 1923
My intuition told me that these women weren’t only about supper and visiting. In fact, the Des Moines Women’s Club was one of hundreds of women’s clubs across Iowa that served as a way for women to support each other in education, home, culture, and suffrage.
The first record of women’s clubs in America dates back to 1840 when the girls of Lowell, Massachusetts established their improvement circles. At the end of the decade, the Seneca Falls Convention Declaration of Rights established the beginning of a movement to improve the social, civil, and religious condition of women.
It was the next generation of women, however, who carried forth the sentiments from Seneca Falls. After putting their cause aside in support of abolition and the Union, in the late 1860s women started forming clubs to support their abilities in literature, science, and philanthropy. The first being Sorosis, later called the New York Women’s Club, founded in New York in 1868. Sorosis was the beginning of a movement that would take educated, like-minded women to the far reaches of the country to form women’s clubs.
Within five years, Sorosis associations established an annual congress under the name the Association for the Advancement of Women. Its annual congresses met in a different city each year spurring the creation of women’s clubs and publicity for the women’s movement across the country.
One such congress held Des Moines in 1885 led to the formation of the Des Moines Women’s Club, which would grow to 1400 members in the first half of the 20th Century. It was through clubs like these that women rallied for their causes in their fight for suffrage, education, and opportunity.
On Welfare Day, March 31, 1920 (five months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment) Mrs. C.B. Van Slyke ended her address to the Des Moines Women’s Club with this, “Education usually precedes the law. We as a club can be a great power here in our own city, in the way of molding public opinion. Shall We Do It?”
In the case of my mother-in-law and her supper club, these clubs still serve as a foundation for women, supporting oppotunity, education and culture one Jell-O salad at a time.