The Geneva Daily Times‘ 30th anniversary edition in 1925 featured a large article on the “Splendid Women’s Organizations in Geneva,” commending the groups as a big addition to social and cultural life in the community. The article listed about 12 groups which contributed their “proportionate share in making (Geneva) a most desirable city … to live.” The list included reading, art, sororal, or other activities but there were many more organizations over the years.
One of the earliest women’s clubs I could find in Geneva, the Sketch Club, was formed in 1886 with recognizable members such as Agnes Swan, Anne Fitzhugh Miller and Adelaide Prouty. Though the club didn’t quite make it into the 20th century, the women hosted their own exhibitions and organized a circulating library for Genevans.
The Art Reading Club was founded in 1889 by Catharine Foster Hopkins, “one of the most progressive and successful literary clubs of the city” according to newspapers. Its charter members totaled 21; its mission was the study of ancient and modern art for the improvement and pleasure of its members. It was later renamed the Catharine Foster Hopkins Art Reading Club and the 2019-2020 season marked its 130th anniversary.
Other reading groups followed which were less focused on artwork. The Fortnightly Reading Club got its start in 1904 with 15 charter members who all belonged to the First Presbyterian Church. The group studied countries, artists and native peoples before extending into legends, fairy tales, nature and Shakespeare in later years. They would write poems and songs, even a play titled “The Mystery of the Warming Pan.”
During a look back in a Finger Lakes Times article for their 75th anniversary, a member said “women not only gain mental stimulation from membership in Fortnightly, but they also enjoy socializing with one another, and have liked working together on worthwhile projects.”
Some members who founded Fortnightly were later involved in the Bay View Reading Club, whose Geneva chapter was founded in 1908 by 18 charter members. Bay View was part of a larger national movement consisting of around 7,000 members which used the Bay View Magazine to lead discussions on topics related to a specific country. After several years, the local club moved away from using the magazine as it declined in publication, instead choosing its own topics to discuss. Bay View would remain active until around 1965.
Formed from discrimination
The founders of the College Club of Geneva came together after women were barred from joining a group of men who were developing a university club in 1909. The wives of those men were disappointed to learn of their exclusion as there were many women in the area who had attended college and wanted to connect. With the recent founding of William Smith College, the women were also hoping to be able to support the new students; a scholarship fund would soon be created to support William Smith students and, later, Geneva High School and DeSales students.
While it started out as a group of six, the first meeting in 1910 welcomed 25 members to develop programming for the coming year. The College Club would discuss and welcome speakers on a variety of national and international subjects; programs were literary or musical in nature, with visits from well-known performers, doctors and campaigners. Our records of the Club end in the 1970s, and no exact date was found for when the group disbanded.
The Women’s Co-Operative Union (1895 to circa 1901) provided rooms in the opera house block for ladies to gather to read books, play music or converse. Additionally, a number of classes were provided for the “mutual benefit of women, intellectually, physically, socially, and financially,” as was explained in their 1896 publication of An Easter Egg which featured writings by members (e.g. Elizabeth and Anne Miller) and friends (e.g. Susan B Anthony) on a variety of subjects. At that time, membership numbered 200 and featured many more recognizable Geneva women.
Some smaller clubs would come and go. The Travel Club was formed in 1900, consisting of a membership limited to 23, some of whom had traveled extensively, and others who were interested in geographical knowledge and historic associations. This group would dissolve around the mid-1920s.
Of a similar size, The Art Circle was founded in 1902 and would disband around 1919. The Circle engaged intellectually with the CFHARC, sharing programs and ideas, but also contributed its time to making clothing for the City Hospital. The Ladies Book Club of Geneva (approx. 1899-1929) donated reading material to the City Hospital and sent books to soldiers stationed overseas.
Historically many of the clubs expanded their activities during times of need or to support local projects. The Fortnightly Club made surgical dressings for the Red Cross during World War II, sent care packages and supported local organizations such as the Geneva Free Library, Salvation Army, Geneva Nursing Service and others. The College Club backed Geneva’s Dry Campaign, the Red Cross, the Prospect Avenue Scouts and the DAR; donating monetary gifts for various community organizations like Company B for the upkeep of their truck, to help the Woman’s Club purchase their building and a desk for the library.
The Geneva Political Equality Club and the Geneva Woman’s Club have been covered in other articles by my colleagues, but are definitely worth mentioning here. The Zonta Club of Geneva was founded in 1929 and is still active today with a mission of empowering women through service and advocacy. The Geneva Business and Professional Woman’s Club (now Lake to Lake Women) would form in 1930 with 22 charter members and a mission of “women helping women.”
I’m sure I’ve missed out on dozens of clubs, but we always welcome more information and records here at the museum so don’t hesitate to contact me with your story.