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Women’s Study Club brought outside world to early-day C’dale

Sections: News Published

By Justin Patrick

Sopris Sun Correspondent

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The 1880’s and 1890’s comprised Carbondale’s birth years. Pioneers were moving to the area to strike it rich in Aspen, or at least find a job in a silver mine or downvalley coal mine, or to settle the suddenly available land in the wake of the forced departure of the Utes from parts of the Western Slope. The roads were rocky, muddy and poorly maintained. But men with fiery ambitions came to build a better life, and if they could, they brought their wives and children.

It must have been odd indeed to fashion a semblance of domestic order from this frequently harsh valley that was far removed from what civilization lay to the east and further west. Families lived in log cabins with mud roofs, if they were lucky. While many of the men were spending lightless days deep in a mineshaft, or were off ranging cattle, or working the fields, the women were principally left to the domestic sphere, feeding and clothing the family, caring for children, and heroically transforming that log cabin into a home.  

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As Carbondale grew and neighbors become familiar and more abundant, women saw the necessity of creating a real community. In 1898, a handful of pioneer women founded what became known as the Women’s Study Club. The inspiration came when a Mrs. Shutt received “some literature” from North Hampton, Massachusetts, as well as a shipment of books donated by New Orleans writer George Cable. They first met at Oscar and Hattie Holland’s house (aka as the Thompson House) to explore the literary bounty and decided to make a habit of it.

The club “federated” in 1906 and became one in a network of national and statewide women’s groups, representing the “tri-county” area of Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin.  The doings of the group are tracked in newspaper clippings, correspondence and first hand accounts stored at the Mt. Sopris Historical Society. The activities and topics of exploration evolved over time, but the essential purpose of the club was for women to foster talents, friendship, social contributions, and to empower themselves through education.

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Not an echo

“The woman’s club was not an echo,” reads an undated newspaper account. “It was not the mere banding together for a social and economic purpose. It became at once, without deliberate intention or concerted action, a light-giving and seed-sowing center of purely altruistic and democratic activity. Women widest apart in position and habitats of life found much in common, and acquaintance and contact mutually helpful and advantageous.”

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The club met weekly (weather and schedules permitting) in the homes of members.  They would discuss club business matters first, then share a meal, and afterwards move on to discussions, book reviews and presentations. Then they would entertain: plays, poetry recitations, songs and musical performances were staples.  They could get funky, too. On one occasion several women staged a mock wedding and dressed the parts. On another, the club showed up for a picnic “dressed as hobos.”  

One surviving document that gives insight into the character development intended for members is a list titled “Do’s and Dont’s or Dont’s and Do’s, for Clubs and Club Members.” A sample of the extensive list includes:

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• Don’t be a knocker.

• Don’t think you have no work to do.

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• Don’t be a grouch.

• Don’t be a slacker.

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• Do get others interested.

• Do encourage new clubs and new club members.

• Do appreciate the efforts of others.

• Do be broad-minded.

Great pains

Women took pains to travel great distances, and through inclement conditions, to participate in the weekly sessions. “It filled a social place in our pioneer life,” explained one early club member. “I recall only one spring wagon in the entire community, owned by Mrs. Street, who lived in Grand Valley. And that dear woman, when the weather was disagreeable, and roads muddy, would hitch the horses to the wagon and drive for miles, gathering up the women and bringing them to the club.”

Another account describes four women from Rifle attempting to travel to Carbondale. The train was late into Glenwood, and the train to Carbondale did not wait. So, they hired a coach and slogged the additional 12 miles to a glorious reception. Clearly, these frontier women derived immense satisfaction from the Study Club, and there are accounts of older women remembering fondly and with astute clarity their youthful engagement in club life.

There is not much evidence illuminating the level of approval—or disapproval—that husbands or other male contemporaries might have felt towards the Women’s Study Club. But one woman, quoted in an undated article, stated “Clubwomen, not so very long ago, were generally thought of in the terms of the cartoonists who made so much fun at their expense … It was accepted fact brooking no discussion, in those days, that the woman who had time to gad about attending club meeting had no time for her home or family….”.

Presumably, this woman is referring to the earlier years following the club’s inception. Women were two decades from achieving suffrage and were not popularly accepted as equal members of society, so one might conclude that men frowned upon the club. But it is hard to tell. Because meetings were held in the homes of prominent women, married to prominent men, one could reasonably conclude that their husbands at least tolerated, but perhaps even enthusiastically supported, their pursuits. Furthermore, the Women’s Study Club accomplished many beneficial tasks. They pursued welfare projects, raised funds for scholarships and war bonds, organized and distributed donations, strategized to build schools, and the list goes on. Men must have recognized these worthy achievements.  

Or perhaps club members led their husbands to believe they were meeting to sew quilts and sing, activities which they did indeed do, but were not confined to. Did the men assume town ladies were toiling on a new bed cover, when their wives instead feverishly read books and discussed serious topics? We may not know, but we do know that club women certainly were tackling diverse and rich subject matter. A partial list found in the record includes:   

• “New developments in medicine.”

• “Some new uses of glass.”

• Sharing the details and impressions of trips abroad.

• Architecture.

• “The Machine Age in America and Its relation to Foreign Trade.”

• The Constitution.

• “Colorado Election Laws.”

• Types of homes.

• Buddhism.

• Pollution of our natural resources.

• Women in the White House.

The Women’s Study Club survived as an institution into the 1970s. It was a vehicle by which women isolated by geography and restricted by social norms could break barriers and connect to a society that was progressing rapidly as the 20th century unfolded. Early women of Carbondale were as much pioneers of feminist self-determination as they were of this harsh and beautiful valley.

Published in The Sopris Sun on September 15, 2016.

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