IN 1956, the year John F. Kennedy published Profiles in Courage and Elvis set hips swiveling to “Blue Suede Shoes,” Barbara Belew joined the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis. At 24, she was following in her mother’s footsteps—not only up the steps, under the green awning, and through the door of one of the city’s most elegant historic buildings, but also into a close community of strong leaders with giving on their minds. ¶ “It was so much fun—such a sociable, friendly group,” says Belew, whose fellow members became enduring friends. But to Woman’s Club women, annual traditions such as children’s parties and holiday frolics were only the trimmings; social activism, education, and philanthropy were the tree. As she explains, “We set people thinking in a big way.”
The club was nearly 50 years old when Belew ducked under that awning at 410 Oak Grove Street, and one could argue that little has changed in the 50 years since. Powerful women still band together to make friends, share lives, and figure out how to make a difference. Since 1928, they’ve gathered under the high-beamed ceilings of a six-story clubhouse that the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Committee designated a cultural treasure in 1998. Here, more than 700 members (and their guests) can sit in armchaired comfort before the fireplace, dine while viewing local art exhibitions booked three years out, and plan outdoor parties on the loggia, where the views of downtown Minneapolis and Loring Park are unmatched. They can also dance in the ballroom, attend events in the 632-seat auditorium, check out books from the library, conduct business, play bridge and sew in meeting rooms, and even enjoy free Wi-Fi.
The nonprofit club’s mission—to “operate exclusively for charitable and educational purposes, civic and social services, study and friendly association”—hasn’t changed a hatpin’s worth since the 39 high-minded founders scripted it. It was 1907, the year Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the first Ziegfeld Follies opened in New York, when Mrs. Albert Rankin and Mrs. Charles Keyes Sr. approached Miss Gratia Countryman, chief librarian at the Minneapolis Public Library, to propose a newfangled “departmental club” similar to those recently initiated in Denver and Chicago. The three disclosed their dream via letters to 25 influential women, whose positive response was so gratifying that the list was expanded to 125.
In long, full skirts, high-buttoned shoes, pompadours, and mushroom hats, about 60 women attended the first meeting, held at the library on March 23. Two weeks later, Mrs. Thomas G. Winter hosted a second meeting at her home at 418 Groveland. The new club established departments (Arts and Letters, Home and Education, Social Economics) and set about its first recorded acts: to see whether the members might help clean school buildings, and to “hire a man to report engineers of locomotives which smoked.”
Smoke (not tobacco use) was high on the list of community ills to be addressed, as were dusty streets, spoiled milk, and sick people who could benefit from the care of visiting nurses. “The founders had practical minds; they were not only dreamers of dreams but they all possessed those qualities of leadership which made them prominent in the life of the community,” 46-year member Jeannette Ludcke wrote in You’ve Come A Long Way, Lady!, a history of the club’s first 75 years.
By December of that first year, the club had secured a meeting room (monthly rental, $25; phone service, 50 cents) at the Handicraft Guild Building, 89 South 10th Street. Each of the 150 charter members paid $10 in annual dues and contributed a cup and saucer. Tea followed their meetings, but crumpets and gossip were hardly their goals. Led by their first president, Alice Ames Winter, a Wellesley College graduate, teacher, novelist, and prolific public speaker, the ladies tackled the social issues of the day. They went to war on houseflies and mosquitoes; basement schoolrooms; the lack of soap, towels, and “much-needed sanitary cases for girls” at Central High School; and white-slave traffic. They fought for billboard decency and wildflower preservation. They didn’t want fireworks sold or Prohibition ridiculed in movie houses. In 1924, they implored the cantankerous T. B. Walker to please keep his art collection in Minneapolis.
Not surprisingly, their good works usually revolved around women and children. Members agitated for what became the state’s first Parent-Teacher Association, determined that school water fountains were healthier than pails and dippers, and taught English to immigrants. In early 1915, they spent $200 to hire a cook and enlisted volunteers to serve the first school lunches, ultimately dishing up nearly 14,000 that year. The women charged two cents per meal, so as not to “pauperize” the children.
“There were more really big, hard problems in the community then—safety and public health issues,” notes Belew. “The Woman’s Club got lots of innovative things started that were later taken over by other agencies or legislated into city codes. [Today,] it’s harder to find pioneering kinds of things to take on. Interests are scattered, and it’s harder to unify a group of women.”
Not that consensus was ever easy. While the club voted to join the local branch of the Woman’s Peace Party in 1914, it could never get behind women’s suffrage. Despite community pleas to endorse the 19th Amendment prior to its 1920 passage, the club members’ vote was a near-even split. Long after feminism began dominating the media, the club yearbook still referred to members by their married names; given names didn’t appear (after married names) until the mid-1960s. The Equal Rights Amendment was no slam dunk, either. When the club hosted anti-ERA leader Phyllis Schlafly in the mid-’70s, picketers showed up at the green awning but left after being assured that both sides had equal podium access.
“You’ll note that it’s ‘Woman’s Club,’ not ‘Women’s Club,’” current president Sandy Morris points out with a chuckle. “The founders were very clever. This is not a collection of women. It’s a group formed around the domestic and community interests of ‘the woman of the time.’” Supporters of club goals are always welcome, and that includes men (retired Honeywell vice-president Herb Bissell, who joined in 1990, was the first).
In accordance with its education mission, the club has always had an appetite for meaty issues—which may also explain the long-standing popularity of the Wednesday prime-rib dinner special. Members have attended diverse language classes, flower shows, and art salons; many have toured the world together. Programs have included “Shaping of the Western Culture in the Ancient and Medieval Periods” (a five-lecture series), “Strained Thoughts About Perplexing Problems,” and a salon on avian flu readiness.
Tuesday has long been Club Day, when luncheon speakers illuminate hot topics of the time, from culture and politics to art and religion. Alex Haley spoke on “What Next for Black America?” before the publication of Roots. Frank Lloyd Wright, Nelson Rocke-feller, Charles Kuralt, Hubert Humphrey, and Garrison Keillor have taken their turns at the podium, as have Baroness Maria von Trapp, Agnes Moorehead, Olivia de Havilland, and Joan Fontaine. (When Fontaine offered to disclose her face-cream brand privately after her talk, the ensuing stampede pinned club officers against the wall.)
While not all visitors were as gracious as Helen Keller—whose January 27, 1914 appearance sold out the Shubert Theater at ticket prices ranging from 24 cents to $1.50—some were every bit as memorable. In 1996, Tiny Tim collapsed on the Woman’s Club stage and died after what was to be his last rendition of “Tip-toe Thru’ the Tulips with Me.” In the early ’50s, actor Charles Laughton cancelled one appearance, then arrived late on his rescheduled date. A full house required that chairs be set on the stage, but Laughton refused to go on until they were removed. During his introduction, he paced and fumed backstage: “Don’t those women know who I am?” After his program, he refused to stay for tea, despite that stipulation in his contract.
AT ITS PEAK in the early ’50s, the club had 1,850 members, with 300 on the waiting list. While it was well known by some—charismatic New York Evening Post drama critic John Mason Brown returned to speak year after year—others mistakenly thought it represented little more than a few rich broads gathering to chat. In the late ’60s, former Miss America and TV personality Bess Myerson sat seething at the airport for three hours, waiting for reporters, photographers, and roses. When her fantasy entourage didn’t materialize, she failed to call the club to ask why; she didn’t think anyone would be there to answer the phone.
Reviewing a century of club activities is like watching history through a lattice window, each pane revealing a unique glimpse. During the Depression, membership levels were nearly double those of today. While their philanthropic efforts expanded, members themselves hardly suffered; they still got their nails done for 50 cents and feasted—albeit in fewer numbers—on the Maine lobster that arrived by express rail and was served three nights a week. The 1940 Armistice Day blizzard happened on Club Day, when 500 were expected for the regular luncheon program; the switchboard took 400 calls that morning. During wartime, members sold defense stamps and war bonds, sewed bandages, sent magazines to servicemen’s clubs, and supplied cod-liver oil to the day nurseries that cared for the children of moms working in defense plants. The club bought bomb insurance and blackout curtains, and its advertising-supported newsletter complied with government requests that every publication eliminate one staple from its binding.
Regardless of what the economy was doing, club officers were always adamant about “staying on the sunny side of debt.” Due diligence ruled, and every generation held the purse strings tight. The club quickly outgrew its rented room and, in 1913, bought the Rufus R. Rand house at 1526 Harmon Place for $40,000, which included furniture and a rebuilt garage. By 1922, it was time to move again. After 96 meetings and deliberations on 49 pieces of property, the building committee bought two lots on Oak Grove for $40,900, built the current building for $315,000, and furnished it with a 16th-century Italian stone mantel and hand-wrought andirons originally made for the Prince of Wales. Members went to Europe to buy antiques, which they could bring home duty-free. They also made napkins and doilies for their new dining room.
Fundraising has never gone out of style. Members have raised money in myriad ways, often relying on innovative alternatives to such traditional methods as rummage and bake sales. When a plan to sell peppermints for two cents each flopped, they instituted a “sale”—two for a nickel—and unloaded their entire inventory. In 1928, they took over the downtown department store Powers for one day, appointing 110 members to various retail and management positions. Five percent of sales to members that day went to the club treasury, raising $1,500 and launching a tradition that lasted for 51 years.
The bulk of the money raised went to the priority mentioned in the mission statement: charity. All told, the club has donated more than $4 million to local organizations. “What we all love about the Woman’s Club is that it gives so much to the city. It contributes to all good things,” says Mary Forney, 91. An active member for 61 years, Forney has served on nearly every committee and claims that this is the one club—“and I’ve belonged to plenty of them”—that she would never give up. She calls it “the backbone of really giving.”
Philanthropic causes have been as particular as the foreign-born boy who, in 1920, “had been praying for a violin” and “had his prayers answered, plus free lessons,” and as broad as the Old Log Theatre, which got its start in the winter of 1949-50 when the club gave up $3,000 in anticipated income by letting the nascent thespian enterprise use its auditorium for 10 weeks. Members sponsored the Minneapolis Lakers and hosted annual events for the visually impaired. They knitted layettes for newborns and gave college scholarships, beautified highways and created quiet zones near hospitals. In 1976, as a U.S. Bicentennial gift to Minneapolis, they restored the Ard Godfrey house, the city’s oldest frame structure. The house, originally built circa 1849, had been closed since 1943, which gave 102 club members on 24 committees plenty to do, from stripping wallpaper and herding cobwebs to replacing antique furnishings. (Volunteers still dress in costume to give tours—and dust and vacuum as needed.) More recently, the club raised money to build the viewing pier in Loring Park, and just this year it provided $90,000 in grants and scholarships to 17 nonprofit groups benefiting women and children.
GOOD WORKS notwithstanding, the club also values frivolity. Members have made fun of themselves from the beginning, when Alice Ames Winter and friends painted their faces and donned blanket wraps and green and blue wigs to perform a parody called “Minnehaha Squaws Club.” Year after year, Mrs. Alfred Pillsbury, once deemed “most popular speaker,” reviewed the new plays on Broadway. Members held dinner dances and put on talent shows. They considered adding a bowling alley to the club building but ultimately chose not to. Even during the Depression, when some members couldn’t pay their dues on time, fun was highly regarded.
As Mrs. Wilbur Decker, president in 1933-34, put it, “It takes steady, skillful cheerfulness to run a Club well in these hard times.”
“The zeal for betterment needs to be tempered by a thousand agreeable things,” Winter wrote in 1928. “Our music and our art and our reading together and our listening to interesting speakers, and above all our delight in our relations with each other, are not the froth on the top of an otherwise excellent organization. They are of its very essence—the yeast that sets pulses to throbbing and happiness harnessing itself to good.”
Not all presidents were as uplifting in their official comments. “Running a Club these days is like running a family in which a new child appears regularly; a new problem is born for us every few days,” groused Mrs. John Benson in 1948, when the IRS pronounced the organization a “social club” and slapped a 20-percent tax on initiation fees and dues. (The club responded by establishing a Civic Contributions committee, now known as Community Outreach.) Parking has been a perpetual bugaboo. So has building upkeep and renovation. The recent decision to spend $6.6 million on restoration and code compliance, like the decision to build the clubhouse in the first place, resulted in a flurry of departures among members who didn’t want to shoulder the financial burden. But the majority that remained have managed to raise $4.2 million so far, and they’re on schedule to retire their municipal bond early.
The larger challenge these days is figuring out how to attract new blood—to transfuse youthful vitality into a tradition-steeped culture. Membership recruitment is more difficult than it used to be; today’s business leaders are often transferees who aren’t aware of the club’s distinguished past. Dues, which average about $1,200 a year plus a $360 food minimum, aren’t cheap for those who haven’t yet reached the executive suite. Women’s lives are busier, their schedules less flexible. In her early membership days, Barbara Belew remembers only one working woman, a teacher, having to run over to catch the luncheon program, then hurry back to work. Belew herself went inactive during her 15-year stint as a Northern States Power engineer.
Yet the club has always adapted somehow. In 2006, while war rages in the Mideast and reality shows grab the public imagination, it remains an oasis of quiet power where women meet to sip a glass of wine from the bar (long gone are the liquor lockers where they stored their own bottles), dine in elegant surroundings (no shorts or sneakers, please), and decide where next to exercise their considerable resolve. Belew thinks membership is on the upswing again, with historical importance a major draw. Plus, the food is great, rumor has it, and second-, third-, and fourth-generation members have a Woman’s Club legacy to uphold. As Belew puts it, with simple eloquence: “The city would be different without it.” MM
Cathy Madison, a former editor of the Utne Reader, wrote about Twin Cities psychics in our May issue.