The year was 1867. The Civil War had been over for two years and soldiers had returned to their homes. Ladies who had taken on a wide variety of chores to help with the war effort found themselves with more leisure time. It was a time of renewal, and a time for women to be eager to improve their minds.
It was in this setting that in March of that year, a group of twelve ladies met and decided to form a literary club. They planned to meet on a regular basis, read and discuss books, and broaden their minds. The ladies each had received the usual formal education, but desired to continue to learn.
This month, that organization which became known as the Xenia Woman’s Club, is celebrating its 150th anniversary. This is the oldest continuing club organized exclusively for women in Ohio, and perhaps one of the oldest in the country.
When the organization was founded, someone was quoted as saying that it was “a wicked waste of time and energy for women to meet with no other aim than the study of literature and no other object than self-improvement”. In spite of this, the ladies continued their plan to move forward. In the early years, the club members met every two weeks. Each of the members was expected to research a topic of her choice, write a paper and then present it to the club.
In alphabetical order, they prepared and presented their programs. Each woman was expected to have her presentation ready when her turn came. It was possible to change dates with another lady, but not appropriate, and certainly anyone who did not produce her paper on the proper date was severely criticized. And so, when one of the husbands suggested to his wife that he was planning a trip to Europe for the two of them she told him that she could not go since her paper would be due when they would be gone.
There were only a few guidelines for the papers. Politics, religion and current social concerns such as temperance and suffrage were considered inappropriate. On the occasion of the club’s 25th anniversary, the President made the following statement: “Fear not dear club member. The poor will be fed, the naked will be clothed, women will have their rights, temperance will prevail but what if you gave the whole world and lost your own soul! Phillip Brooks said: “Read many books, study them, for the soul of man in found in literature.” The Woman’s Club of Xenia is a literary club with book reviews, sketches, poems and music which fill our programs.
Membership was limited to 25 active members who were each expected to provide three papers a year. Today, membership is limited to 35 active members. Those who are no longer able to be active may be granted Associate status.
On occasion, the husbands, fathers and brothers were invited to a special presentation given by the club members. Often at these particular gatherings, a play would be performed, sometimes from a well-known author, and sometimes written by the ladies themselves. Often these were done in full costume.
The summer of 1887, the ladies decided to add to their usual activities by writing a novel. Each of the women wrote a chapter for the book, continuing the story until it was finally completed in 1889. It was titled simply “Our Novel”. Between 2005 and 2008 members wrote another book called “Taylor’s World”
The 50th anniversary was celebrated with a Greek play done in costume and then for the 60th anniversary 40 women were present, including some associate members who had come from other states. That year a play “The Rivals” by Sheridan was given. The president made this statement: “It is indeed a rare thing for an organization to be in existence for more than half a century.”
In 1947 the minutes state: “But looking forward we are confident that the enviable history of the club will continue and that its high standards will always be maintained.”
The 125th anniversary was celebrated in 1992 with a presentation of the history of the club. It was noted that Mrs. Mary Allen Kinney had served as President for 20 years and then her daughter Mrs. Lawrence (Clara) Shields served as President for the next 46 years. During those years the meetings were held at the home of Mrs. Shields on East Second Street.
Today the ladies of the club meet one afternoon a month excepting July and August. A luncheon is enjoyed in June, and a tea in December. Refreshments are not served at the meetings. One member stated: “This is food for the mind and soul and not the body.” Each December, the new program book details the year’s program and assignments.
Great formality was and still is the norm for the meetings. Each month two papers are presented on the assigned topic, and members are addressed by their surnames. Annually the Helen Hooven Santmyer Award for Excellence scholarship is awarded to a Xenia High School female who plans to pursue a college major in English Studies or Communication.
The Constitution says in part “The object of the Woman’s Club shall be the mutual benefit which may be obtained by its members in intellectual culture.”
Happy 150th Anniversary to the Xenia Woman’s Club and a wish for many more anniversaries in years to come.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and long-time historical columnist.