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Women’s Clubs in California: Architecture and Organization, 1880-1940

  • Author(s): Crary, Amelia
  • Advisor(s): Shanken, Andrew
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation explores the role of architecture—specifically, clubhouses—in the construction and institutionalization of modern, organized womanhood in early twentieth-century California. Beginning in the 1870s women began gathering in groups across the country for self-education, self-discovery, and civic work. They called themselves “clubs,” a term borrowed from male culture indicating a new, more formal endeavor than existing women’s circles. By 1900 some one million women made up this vast, organized, and effective network. Through clubs women successfully fought for the right to vote, for juvenile courts, kindergartens, public libraries, drinking fountains, street lights, urban parks, improved sanitation, and other civic accomplishments we now consider essential public goods.

The achievements of women’s clubs have become so seamlessly incorporated into our notion of American civic amenities that they appear inevitable, natural—almost innate. The purpose-built clubhouses that played host to these efforts are equally unrecognized. Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, clubwomen abandoned their private parlors and rented rooms to build expensive new buildings for themselves to facilitate their social action and interaction. More than one thousand clubhouses were built nationwide between 1890 and 1940, and many still stand today. California, due to tremendous Progressive Era population growth and development and property laws allowing women to own real estate, led the nation in clubhouse construction.

To raise funds to build, purchase a lot, hire an architect and contractor, and dictate and iterate upon a building program, as well as to operate, maintain, and often expand a clubhouse, was a massive, and massively symbolic undertaking. Initially the buildings centered on a single large, multipurpose assembly room used for meetings, performances, and lectures. As the institution matured many clubs built monumental structures that were part hotel, part restaurant, part YWCA, part country-club-in-the-city, and part social action headquarters. Through their clubhouses women gave material expression to the evolving meanings of womanhood, conveying their particular status as property and business owners, athletes, ambitious professionals, hardworking civil servants, or sophisticated urbanites, in turn. Clubhouses are an architectural type representative of women’s influence in turn of the century cities, and they represent both the ambitious scope and the shortcomings of organized womanhood.

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