During the late 19th and 20th centuries, millions of American women of all classes, races, and ethnic backgrounds created and joined a wide variety of women’s organizations. These were not the first women’s voluntary associations in the United States, but they marked a surge of organizing of unprecedented scale and scope.

Like-minded clubs created federations on the local, state, and national levels. And national organizations, such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the National Congress of Mothers, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), and the American Association of University Women (AAUW), supported local clubs with programming and recruitment materials.

Women joined organizations for a variety of reasons—to socialize with friends, expand their educations, improve their communities, pursue a shared interest, support philanthropic causes, demand social or political reforms. Most clubs started small and then expanded both their memberships and their objectives. And as they met and discussed and planned and acted, the “ladies of the club” emerged in American public life as never before. Historian Anne Firor Scott has suggested that women’s organizations “lay at the very heart of American social and political development.” (Anne Firor Scott, Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History, 1992, p. 2)

The women of Muncie and Delaware County were active participants in that development. Beginning with the organization of the Woman’s Club of Muncie in 1876, local women became “ladies of the club.” They created dozens of women’s organizations of all kinds. Some clubs were strictly local; others were affiliated with state or national organizations. Some organizations were exclusively social; others reflected members’ specific interests or championed a cause. Some clubs focused on community volunteerism; others sought to advance members’ professional interests and careers.

The Stoeckel Archives of Local History includes materials—ranging from single items to extensive collections—from more than 50 women’s organizations active in Muncie and Delaware County between 1876 and the present. The Ladies of the Club exhibit displays items from some of those collections, grouped into the following categories: Social and Self-Improvement; Young Women's; Special Interest; Clubs for a Cause; and Professional.

This online exhibit includes selected items from the exhibit on display in Bracken Library from April 6-June 30, 2005.

Credits: The exhibit was prepared by Jane Gastineau and graduate assistants Anne Tonne and Hannah Cox. The Web site and handout was designed by Daniel Hartwig and Nicole Warner.