MENDOCINO Co., 5/14/23 — After 115 years, the nonprofit Mendocino Study Club (MSC), which created and originally staffed the Mendocino Community Library, is calling it quits. The club meets for the last time on May 19. Distributions of the scholarship fund will now be handled by the Community Foundation of Mendocino County. The organization promoted literacy for generations and was part of the creation of the Kelley House Museum and began the Mendocino Community Library, managing it for many years. The organization gave scholarships to girls from Mendocino High School. Women’s clubs empowered change in America for more than a century but are slowly fading from the scene.
Longtime member Jane Person said the Study Club was once the “place to be” for women, but times have changed. The women’s clubs gave women increased opportunity and they took it. Women now own more small businesses than men, are leaders in not just organizations and clubs, but politics, business, medicine and law enforcement.
Person said many of the educational gems the Study Club used to bring to women are now widely available on the Internet. The Internet has brought other changes: the club’s Christmas fundraiser couldn’t keep going due to lower prices for the same items on Amazon. Person said the club’s membership fell from over 100 in its heyday down to about seven members. Some are now too old to get out and attend the meetings. Person also belongs to the Grass Roots Institute and the League of Women Voters. LWV has had a bigger and more lasting impact on society than most of the others. Person says it is an entirely different kind of entity than the women’s clubs that came before its founding in 1920. Women are no longer expected to be in the background in 2023 and gender has gone away as a criteria.. Grass Roots Institute, for example, has nothing to do with the women’s clubs movement, and as most clubs of today is gender blind and action oriented.
“I like a club where I can do something,” she said.
The Study Club, founded in 1908, has long held the claim as the oldest civic organization on the Mendocino Coast. The name came from the original purpose of the organization which was to create learning opportunities for women who could not take advantage of higher education. Many colleges and universities were closed to women or greatly restricted what courses women could take. Women were largely limited to courses in nursing, education or other fields deemed “appropriate” for women.
Across America, numerous women’s clubs were founded, as women were largely excluded from the major civic organizations of the day. The first of these was the Sorosis Club, started by a woman science writer from New York City who had to adopt a girly pen name and was blocked with all other women from science writing and press club events. She and other women journalists founded the Sorosis Club in 1868. Men were not allowed at this club for women writers and intellectuals. Sorosis spawned a nationwide movement, and soon there were Sorosis clubs popping up all across America, including four in Mendocino County, two on the Coast at one point.
Women were excluded from all the leading civic clubs of the late 19th century. All of these clubs operated like boys’ tree houses, a system that stayed in place into the 1980s in some cases. Perhaps the most influential and secretive civic club in America, Bohemian Grove in Marin County, still has never had a woman as a full member. The Bay Area is also home to numerous men-only clubs for sportsmen, as is the Central Valley.
The Sorosis Club led to many more women’s clubs, such as the League of Women Voters, an organization that rose to the top tier of all civic organizations and has maintained its neutral and educational status even through the difficult challenges of recent times. There was also the Do Gooders Club in Mendocino, which would gift one worthy charity each year during its annual luncheon at the Little River Inn. Like many old school clubs, they shunned attention, believing charity was best done without praise. This notion led to the demise of many clubs, including the Do Gooders during the pandemic, after a nearly 50-year run.
Other historic women’s clubs that were active on the Mendocino Coast for many years included the American Association of University Women, the Potter Progress Club, the Mendocino Improvement Club, the Women’ Club of Albion, the American Legion Auxiliary and Soroptimist International clubs of Fort Bragg. While many of the women’s clubs have faded away, women have built on those efforts to gain greater power in wider society. The Noyo Women for Fisheries was an important group for many years. Today, women own and run many businesses in the traditional logging and fishing fields, such as Princess Seafoods.
The Mendocino Study Club started offering a course of study on the history and art of Italy at its founding in 1908. The idea of the group came from Stella B. West. She was one of several women who met two or three mornings a week to play tennis. Feeling that physical activity needed a balance of mental stimulation, West decided that the members of the group should exercise their minds by study, according to a book about the club. The women studied many subjects in the early years and soon transitioned into a civic service club, according to information provided by the club for its 100th anniversary in 2008.
During World War I, the Study Club was in charge of the American Red Cross drive for funds and supplies. An article in the Fort Bragg Advocate News from 1923 detailed how the Study Club signed up hundreds of Red Cross volunteers. The women also went door-to-door collecting funds for the War Victory Commission to assure the comfort of soldiers on furlough, French orphans, patients at the War Veterans Hospital and the Belgium Wool Fund. The Mendocino Study Club served the homeless and poor during the Great Depression. During World War II, the club’s meeting room was offered as an emergency hospital, used as a children’s clinic, a Red Cross sewing room, a military hospitality house, for draft registration and other wartime activities.
Congressman Mike Thompson, who represented the area in 2008, got a resolution placed in the Congressional Record honoring the MSC.
“Since its founding by seven women on October 30, 1908, when Mendocino was still recovering from the California earthquake and fires of 1906, the Mendocino Study Club has been an intelligent and considerate force adapting to and addressing the issues of the times. The original members traveled by horse and buggy for the first decade in order to get together on the isolated and rugged Mendocino Coast,” the resolution states.
In 1943, the MSC began its scholarship program with $100 to study nursing. The club has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars to high school graduates, as well as to recipients for reentry and job upgrade pursuits, and to economic enterprises.
The club led the Girl Scout organization after the war and created a Girl Scout library that led to the club founding the Mendocino Community Library in 1947. They staffed and ran the library for a time and have supported the library since. Their prime benefactor and member was Daisy MacCallum, perhaps the best known figure in the history of Mendocino Village. After she died in the early 1950s, the club lost its building and took on different projects. In 1971, the club donated matching funds toward purchasing the Kelley House to become a house museum In the 1980s. The club’s Country Christmas event began as the Kelley House’s major fundraiser. In 2008, the club celebrated its centennial with the publication of Ladies of the Afternoon, a history of the club.
“Throughout the decades the MSC has been active in improving the quality of life for local residents through their support of such vital entities as the Mendocino Coast District Hospital, Mendocino Historical Research, Inc., Sherwood Oaks nursing home, Meals on Wheels,” Thompson said in this speech. He continued, “Hospitality House, a new firehouse, soup kitchens, the Senior Lunch Program and the Food Bank, to name a few. In addition to financial and volunteer support, MSC has advocated on issues on behalf of school lunches to Congress, for highway safety to the state of California, and rural community libraries to the County of Mendocino.
One of Mendocino’s downtown businesses is named “The Study Club” as a tribute to the women who labored to put women front and center in civic improvements. “I was researching the history of the building when I was looking for a name for the shop. I was inspired by the women’s Study Club and thought it would be a great name with great history,” said Erin Keller.
The Study Club business is described as Keller’s “curated collection of women’s apparel, handmade homewares + vintage textiles reinterpreted for a modern home.” Keller has lived a life as a business owner and firefighter that would have been unimaginable when The Mendocino Study Club for women started, but their efforts helped pave the way for today’s women. “I really appreciate their dedication to their civic duties and volunteer work. I have been a volunteer firefighter with the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department going on my 21st year, and believe strongly in supporting community. I really loved the Study Club’s devotion to the library and literacy. The name had such a great history, it was an all-women’s organization and the name just felt right.”
For more information and Mendocino history, go to the Kelley House museum or to its online archives at https://www.kelleyhousemuseum.org/