This year marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. While this decision was due in part to years of activism, the rise of women’s clubs across the country helped to expedite the process. These clubs were originally created as a place for women to gather to discuss literary works, spearhead community […]
This year marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. While this decision was due in part to years of activism, the rise of women’s clubs across the country helped to expedite the process. These clubs were originally created as a place for women to gather to discuss literary works, spearhead community projects and consider issues of the day that affected the lives of women. As these clubs grew, they became more and more outspoken and active in their public involvement, especially on the issue of women’s suffrage. The Wednesday Club of Cape Girardeau was no different.
The Wednesday Club began in Cape Girardeau in 1902 as a literary and social club for the well-known women of town. Throughout the school year, they met every other Wednesday at the homes of different members, hence their name.
During their meetings they held readings of famous literary works and presented their thoughts to the other club members on plays, art, music, service projects and civic necessities. In a time when women still dominated the private sphere more than the public one, the women of the Wednesday Club were able to enact social projects around Cape Girardeau, such as the establishment of the first public library, because they were well-connected. Most were married to men who had considerable influence in Cape or were connected to the Third District Normal School. Their husbands included men such as Louis N. Houck, an area entrepreneur responsible for the growth of the railroad in Southeast Missouri, Washington Strother Dearmont, the school president, and Rush Limbaugh, Sr., a well-known attorney. Other members of the Wednesday Club were often teachers or employees at the Normal School, such as Sadie Kent, the campus librarian.
Like other women’s clubs at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Wednesday Club grappled with the topic of women’s suffrage. As the suffrage movement gained attention nationwide, it began receiving more attention in Cape Girardeau as well. The club’s meeting minutes first mention the topic of women’s suffrage in 1911, although only briefly. It wasn’t until their meeting on May 6, 1914, that its members delved deeper into the issue of women’s suffrage. Three papers were presented by club members that day: “Arguments for Woman’s Suffrage,” “Anti-Suffrage,” and “Limited Suffrage,” all depicting different viewpoints on the issue. Although their papers weren’t recorded in the meeting minutes, the mixed reactions of the group were. It was evident that not all the members agreed that women should participate in public life by voting, although the secretary did note that there seemed to be general consensus that “the importance of woman’s contribution to public life lay in the fact that it was something different and essential to the general good and not a mere duplication of man’s effort.” While the women of the Wednesday Club agreed that women could bring a unique perspective to public issues, they did not agree on the best methods in which to do so. Even though not all the club members supported the idea of women’s suffrage, they did vote to invite the famous social activist and suffragist Jane Addams to visit Cape Girardeau on her nationwide lecture tour a few months later in October 1914.
As the Wednesday Club moved forward, their topics of discussion became increasingly focused on issues regarding women’s rights, and they even had paper presentations on divorce. During their meeting on November 11, 1917, over three years after their initial debate, the Wednesday Club officially endorsed women’s suffrage. After a reading of a pro-suffrage pamphlet from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, most of the members signed a petition to Congress for a federal amendment guaranteeing equal suffrage for women.
It is worth noting that the endorsement was still not unanimous; however, the majority in favor was large enough that pro-suffrage became the official club platform from 1917 onward. One member, Katherine Martin, was the driving force behind much of the pro-suffrage activism by the Wednesday Club.
Katherine Martin was married to an education professor from the Normal School, W.W. Martin, although she herself was a teacher before she was married and even taught for the Education department at the Normal School one semester. Martin was an active member of the Wednesday Club, joining during the 1907-1908 club year and served as president the following year. She brought the petition for women’s suffrage before the club in 1917 and is noted repeatedly in their meeting minutes for bringing other suffrage motions before the club. In April 1918, she was the first to mention the formation of the Cape Girardeau Suffrage Association and convinced many members of the Wednesday Club to join.
She later became one of the most accomplished members of the Wednesday Club in her own right with a career in politics. She served as delegate for the Missouri State Democratic Convention in Joplin in 1920, the 1920 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, and to the Missouri State Constitutional Convention in 1922. Although she left Cape Girardeau and the Wednesday Club in 1921, Katherine Martin is an excellent example of a local club woman turned political activist, a phenomenon that was common in women’s clubs across the United States during the Progressive Era.
Katherine Martin and the other women of the Wednesday Club of Cape Girardeau were, in many senses, a local case study in the much larger network of women’s clubs that pushed for suffrage in the first decades of the twentieth century. Their gradual move from literary enthusiasts to political activists was an experience shared by women’s clubs across the United States. Organizations like the Wednesday Club allowed women to meet and grow in a purely intellectual environment. Although the successes of the women’s suffrage movement were based on a variety of factors, the politicization of groups like the Wednesday Club of Cape Girardeau played a crucial role.
Graduate Assistant, Special Collections & Archives
The Wednesday Club of Cape Girardeau was active for just over a hundred years, from 1902-2003. The Wednesday Club Collection, located in Special Collections & Archives, contains meeting minutes, photographs, memorabilia, scrapbooks and other records documenting the club’s history. http://library.semo.edu/findingaids/Wednesday_Club_Collection.pdf
More detailed information on the early days of the Wednesday Club and their movement toward political involvement can be found in Public Action From the Private Sphere: The Wednesday Club of Cape Girardeau, a thesis written by a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University. http://semoencore.iii.com/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1370019__Spublic%20action%20from%20the%20private%20sphere__Orightresult__U__X7?lang=eng&suite=def