The Women Who Built America: What an 130 year-old book club can tell us about our future
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon the ladies of the Yesterday, Today, & Forever Book Club gather in a small dining room overlooking the golf course at Appleton, Wisconsin’s, Butte des Mortes Country Club. Some are pushing walkers and others are embracing fellow members they haven’t seen during the group’s three-month summer break. This September meeting marks the group’s 129th year of operation.
To fully understand the scope of those 129 years, however, you must venture about seven miles southeast to the Victorian city of Neenah.
Neenah is in many ways the quintessential American city. Founded in the late 1870s to support the area’s booming paper industry (the Neenah Paper Company is still in business after 145 years), Neenah’s shaded streets and historic downtown seem like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Neenah’s most stunning feature is perhaps the idyllic string of Victorian mansions that hug the shores of Lake Winnebago.
Neenah’s citizens are proud of their town’s history, as evidenced by the reverential care given to Doty Cabin, a relocated log cabin that once belonged to Wisconsin’s second territorial governor, James Duane Doty, which sits on an island named for him. Though Doty Cabin is no longer in use, Neenah’s lengthy history is still being quietly honored in the homes of Y., T., & F. members in the same manner it has been for over a century.
Since the club’s first meeting at the home of Mrs. S.E. Hayward in October of 1889, Y., T., & F. meetings have always taken place in members’ houses, save for special events like this Butte des Mortes luncheon.
“We always meet in one another’s homes,” said President Jean Leu, “which is always kind of nice because it adds a friendlier atmosphere than if you’re meeting in a restaurant. It’s a whole totally different atmosphere. Some members have big homes, some members have small homes and it doesn’t make any difference.”
Y., T., & F. was originally founded as the Doty Island Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, or the Doty Island C.L.S.C, which met from 2:15 to 5:00 every Tuesday afternoon. Its members, all women, studied material distributed by the Chautauqua Institution, a Methodist adult education movement that was popular at the time. After the Chautauqua curriculum was discontinued in 1894, Doty Island C.L.S.C. continued under the name “Yesterday, Today & Forever”, because, then-president Dolly Lewis said, it was a name that would last forever.
And so far it has.
Today’s Y., T., & F. meetings carry on traditions that have been passed down for over a century. Each meeting centers on a 30-to-45-minute review given by one member followed by a discussion in which all members participate.
The book club’s sprawling archives, preserved by the Neenah Historical Society, help bring those early meetings back to life. Stacks of yellowing notebooks record former members’ speeches, attendance and even tardy arrivals. (Allowances were made for members who arrived late due to the city’s notoriously unreliable streetcars.)
In the beginning, Y., T., & F. adhered to a year-long curriculum. In its first year the club embarked on an expansive survey of the history of the Roman Empire. The club’s early members also studied mathematics, economics and Shakespeare. At one meeting members debated the question “Shall Goethe’s Faust have a place on the table in our home with other reading?” (The consensus was yes.)
The piles of ink-blotted notebooks in the archives demonstrate the women of Y., T., & F.’s desire for personal and academic growth.
At the time of The Doty Island C.L.S.C.’s founding women-only clubs and associations were becoming more common throughout the country. Like the salons of previous decades, these clubs provided middle- and upper-class women with opportunities for discussion and intellectual growth.
“Most women didn’t have a college degree so these reading groups were the only way in the late 19th century for them to gain an education and speaking skills,” said Dr. Daphne Spain, author of Constructive Criticism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City.
The club’s original eleven members consisted of women from prominent families in Neenah and nearby Menasha. Y., T., & F.’s first president was Mary Hewitt, whose husband was a woolen mill owner and Bank of Menasha president. During meetings, a member would deliver a review or lecture followed by a rebuttal from another member. Eventually the rebuttal was dropped in favor of the current single-review format.
Many contemporary members will say that the review is what makes the club unique, if not a little intimidating.
“I was scared to death to give my first review,” Leu said. Leu, who has been a member for a decade and is serving her second term as president, has reviewed about five times.
For many members, reviews offer a chance for creative expression within the more rigid confines of the club. Leu recalled one memorable occasion when a member reviewed a biography of the Astor family while dressed — and in character — as Mrs. Astor.
The 10-article Y., T., & F. constitution, which is read aloud every October, dictates that each of the 24 members either hosts or reviews once per year. Part of Leu’s job as president is to enforce the constitution and make sure every member pulls her own weight.
“It’s an unwritten rule that you accept any assignment or any duties that you’re asked to do,” Leu said.
These duties range from securing event spaces to serving as a club officer.
Additionally, members pay $10 annual dues, mainly used for philanthropy such as book donations to domestic violence shelters and children’s hosiptals. A few members take it upon themselves to handpick the books. This philanthropy is part of the Y., T., & F. tradition. The club’s 1943–1944 annual report shows, among others, $10 donations to the Red Cross and YWCA.
Today’s members exhibit their founding mothers’ same zeal for learning, accomplishment, and experience. Many members hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They’re world travelers with fascinating backstories. Peg Dickson, a member since 1979, was born to missionary parents in China and attended Wellesley College before going to work for the CIA. At the time, compelled to keep her job a secret, she told her family that she worked for the State Department. Dickson moved to the Neenah area in 1955 when her husband took a job with the Marathon paper company.
The diverse educational backgrounds of Y., T., & F.’s members creates a unique, and somewhat intense, air of sophistication.
“This group is very smart. And that’s the intimidating factor,” Leu said.
Even a small sample of the club’s reading list demonstrates its versatility. This year alone they will tackle Andre Agassi’s biography Open, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann, and Ron Chernow’s sizable biography of Alexander Hamilton.
Despite their somewhat gritty reading lists, members of the club are insistent that their discussions are never political, a choice they say helps facilitate, rather than hinder, discussion and growth within the group.
“[We discuss] very little politics and very little religion,” Leu said. “And [with] our books we try to stay away from politics just honoring the fact that many people in the group have a diverse thought and we don’t want to lose friends just because people are so one way or the other.”
Even though Y., T., & F. members rarely discuss their own partisan political views, their meetings continue a long, political tradition of giving women spaces of their own in which to learn and speak.
Spain emphasizes the differences between the political and the partisan.
“Any time that people organize to gain more knowledge, that’s a political act,” Spain said.
Spain points to Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking essay A Room of One’s Own, which connects women’s spaces with politics and creativity.
Forty years after Y., T., & F. was founded, Woolf wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. She reasoned that this independence and solitude can only be feasible when women are granted equality under the law.
The founders of Y., T., & F. recognized the value of women carving out their own spaces in a world where women-only learning spaces were few.
Y., T., &, F. members were fortunate to have the financial means to leave their houses and their children for three hours every week and participate in an academic forum.
The club’s neat, detailed minutes show instances where club members discussed domestic and international politics. During their October 14, 1924, meeting members participated in a discussion entitled “Sidelights on the Coming Election”, which consisted of two hours of discussion on the platforms of the Republican, Progressive, and Democratic Parties. Y., T., & F. members were informing themselves on only the second presidential election in US history in which Wisconsin women were guaranteed the Constitutional right to vote.
Y., T., & F. members didn’t shy away from discussing political topics that affected their everyday lives. During a study of the opinions and functions of the Supreme Court, which took place through their 1930–1 season, members discussed divorce, inheritance and property law — topics that directly impacted their lives.
By creating an environment in which women could inform themselves about contemporary women’s issues, Y., T., & F., and other women’s groups like it, laid the groundwork for the shift of women’s groups from private spaces, such the parlors in Neenah’s lakeside mansions, to the public arena.
Only about forty years after Y., T., & F.’s “Sidelights on the Coming Election” came the birth of second-wave feminism, the movement instrumental in bringing women’s groups out of the home and endowing them with a political voice.
Declaring that the personal was political, second-wave feminists worked to bring public attention to women’s issues — such as domestic violence — that had long been considered private matters.
“[Public women’s spaces] were a product of second-wave feminism and they were groups of women who got together to create a women’s center and used this term, or practiced this term: the personal is political,” Spain said. “So they were trying to break out of the privacy of the home to make some subjects public like domestic abuse.”
As a result of second-wave feminism, domestic violence shelters and women’s health clinics opened. Second-wave feminists also used reading and book clubs to foster more public spaces for women, notably through the establishment of feminist bookstores.
“Reading has been an integral part of women identifying themselves [and] identifying their roles in a larger world, whether that’s political or artistic or cultural,” Spain said.
Since the 1960s, the societal role of the book club has continued to transform. Perhaps the most influential moment in the recent history of the American book club has been the establishment of the Oprah Book Club in 1996.
As dominant and buzzworthy as the woman whose name it bears, the Oprah Book Club has the power to send books to the top of bestseller lists virtually overnight.
Recently book clubs have made their way onto screens across the world. Netflix’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society recounts the struggles of a fictional book club on the real Nazi-occupied channel island of Guernsey during World War II. Meanwhile, The Book Club, starring Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda, chronicles the adventures of book club members reading E.L. James’s viral romance novel 50 Shades of Grey.
The natural heir to Y., T., & F.’s progressive reading circle may not be found in the boozy, schmoozy book clubs of pop culture, however. Instead, to understand the changing role that women’s groups have today, we must take a journey from the home to the House.
Last November’s midterm elections sent a record number of women into the US House of Representatives, as well as various governorships across the country. Many states sent women to the Senate or House for the first time ever. This was in part due to all-women’s groups encouraging women to run in the election.
In a 2017 article, Politico found that many women rule out running for public office because they don’t feel like they’re qualified — or will ever be qualified.
Amy Zucchero is the chief of resource development & communications at Ignite, a non-partisan group founded in 2010 that seeks to encourage more women to run for public office. Zucchero says Ignite’s goal is to get more women to run at a younger age.
“We have to start having these conversations much younger with young people and show them that political leadership is a viable career opportunity as well as a viable way to give back to your community and you don’t have to wait until you’re 45,” she said.
Organizations such as Ignite, Emily’s List, and Pantsuit Nation hope to close “the confidence gap” in American politics. They see women’s spaces as vital to that closure.
“Most of the young women we started to work with were looking for a women-only space. A space to kind of voice their opinions and perspectives on community issues,” Zucchero said.
The women-only groups that have sprung up in US politics during the last few decades are taking a centuries-old approach to changing the way women fit into society. Spain sees these organizations as a historic and effective tool for political and social progress in the country.
“Establishing a separate space where women can talk about ideas without being interrupted by men is part of continuing that tradition of reading groups of women only. They’re a smaller version of a women’s college,” she said. “They couldn’t go to college so they had these reading groups. And they didn’t have to compete with men or defend their ideas — they did among themselves, possibly — but particularly back then women were more likely to be intimidated by men because they had less economic security than they do now.”
Today’s women’s political organizations prove just how far outside of the home women’s groups, and women’s voices, have come. Living in an era with stark divides between the private and public spheres — and strict rules governing where women belonged — Y., T., & F.’s early members were left no other option but to learn and discuss in their homes. Today, as women have pushed into public arenas, women-only groups have also migrated to the public domain, though with the same goal of promoting the education and welfare of women.
Meanwhile Y., T., & F. continues as it always has.
At their September meeting, the ladies of Y., T., & F. still find time to talk about current events. The Sunday before the club’s September meeting, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, little less than a minor deity in the dairyland, had come back from an injury to help the Packers defeat the rival Chicago Bears 24–23. A member says she attended the infamous Ice Bowl: the 1967 championship game between the Packers and the Cowboys where the temperature at Lambeau Field dipped into the negative 10s.
This balance of the new and the old, of yesterday and today, is what keeps Y., T., & F. going. Members have noticed subtle changes taking place within Y., T., & F.’s constitutional confines. But, in the spirit of the club’s motto, these changes happen “Gradually, Step by Step”.
For the first time in recent memory, an outsider has been invited to speak to the group, a local author named Corey J. Popp. Popp writes young adult horror and tells the group that for a true literary horror experience they should read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. For many other groups of women in their 70s and 80s this recommendation would seem amiss, but not here. This is, after all, the group whose Christmas tea will include a lengthy discussion of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.
Leu can sense a desire for further change.
“Some members have thought even now we have relaxed our rules a little bit and do historical fiction if it’s based on historical facts. And I have mixed emotions about it because there are so many books that are non-fiction that we haven’t reviewed. So why are we bending the rules to go to a novel-type thing? I can see the value of both but I kind of like the fact that we’re so unique. I would have a hard time voting for that,” she said.
A change to Y., T., & F.’s constitution would have to pass by unanimous vote, so the threat of reading fiction is for now neutralized.
Additionally, finding members who are available for these Tuesday afternoon meetings is more difficult than it used to be and, in recent years, has raised the group’s average age.
“We’re an older group than it used to be, but I find it enjoyable,” said Phyllis Goodenough, a retired chemist who has been a member for nearly 20 years.
One thing that won’t change is the sense of camaraderie the group fosters.
“I think it’s broadened my friendships. Plus, it just expands your knowledge,” Leu said.
This mix of learning and sisterhood is perhaps best explained by an entry in the club’s minutes following an 1891 banquet: “The club was summoned by the hostess to the banqueting room, where the physical nature was regaled with danties fit for a Chautauquan and the hour thus spent, the intermingling of the soul and feat of reason was one long to be remembered.”