The WOMEN'S CITY CLUB of Cleveland was founded to encourage women’s interest in civic affairs, to provide women with a place to meet for public discussions, and to promote Cleveland’s welfare. It was an outgrowth of the powerful club movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that energized and politicized women who aspired to play a public role even without the vote or admission into all-male political and civic organizations.
The club originated with a group of women who held their first planning meeting on 18 Jan. 1916 at the Statler Hilton Hotel (now the Cleveland Plaza). In Feb. 1916 members merged with the Downtown Club, moved into its quarters in the Flatiron Bldg., and incorporated "for the purpose of . . . maintaining an open forum for the discussion of topics of civic and public interest and promoting the welfare of the City of Cleveland." Later that year the club moved its quarters to the Stillman Bldg. Early members of the Women’s City Club included suffragists like MARY B. GROSSMAN, FLORENCE E. ALLEN, and BELLE SHERWIN although the club itself did not openly campaign in favor of the franchise. Like most suffragists, however, the club supported the United States’ entrance into WORLD WAR I, specifically food conservation efforts.
The club already claimed 3,000 members when the LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS was established in 1919. Belle Sherwin was club president when she was simultaneously elected president of the Cleveland league in 1920. That fall as women exercised their new constitutional right to vote, the Women's City Club amended its rules, allowing for the active support and endorsement of civic issues and state and federal legislation as approved by the Board of Directors. Consequently, the club came to share some of the league’s interests and strategies. Both groups supported political issues but not political candidates; both advocated civic education to create an informed public, especially women. With former suffragist and women’s organizations like the YOUNG WOMEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION, club members on May 18, 1924 marched in the WOMEN’S COUNCIL PEACE PARADE FOR THE PREVENTION OF FUTURE WARS and were labeled dangerous radicals by local newspapers and politicians.
In 1922 the club leased and rebuilt for its own use the Dreamland Dance Hall, 1826 E. 13th St., where it would remain until moving to the Bulkley Bldg. in 1933. Into the 1920s, the club’s ambitious agenda continued to resemble the league’s and included smoke abatement, public education, playgrounds, and women in industry. It advocated a women’s bureau within the CLEVELAND POLICE DEPARTMENT and co-hosted a league rally for new voters in 1928. Unlike the league, however, the club acted primarily as a public forum, sponsoring classes and lectures on topics ranging from travel to music to the visual arts. In its clubhouses, individual women networked, and women’s groups, such as the Women’s Council for the Promotion of Peace and the Cleveland Branch of American Pen Women, discussed public affairs. The social prominence, and the unflagging energy of its members meant that club activities got frequent publicity in local newspapers.
The club backed WORLD WAR II with an information booth on home defense and air raids and a course in Red Cross nursing. In 1950, it endorsed a new county charter and engaged with the controversies of the 1960s, sponsoring a symposium on civil rights at KARAMU HOUSE in 1964 and hosting critics of the public welfare system in 1969 and the feminist Women’s Equity Action League in 1970.
In July 1971, the club decided to share dining and meeting space with the CITY CLUB OF CLEVELAND. A year later, the men decided to admit women to their membership: this took two ballots. As women gained entrance to such historically all-male organizations, a club specifically for women appeared less necessary. And as more middle-class women entered the paid work force, they had less time for club activities. After years of declining membership and dues, the club in 2003 moved to an online website and then disbanded in 2006.
In 1948, however, the club had received a small endowment and created the Women’s City Club Foundation. Its funds were to sustain the club as a forum for the continuing education of women and support its other interests. The foundation also provided funds for projects focused on women, children, and civic beautification. In 1961, it endowed the Cleveland Arts Prize that annually rewards local visual and literary artists. In 1984, the foundation donated funds to restore Heritage Park on the east side of the Cuyahoga River. The club and the foundation created the Betty Ott Garden for the Blind at the Cleveland Greenhouse and replaced the garden’s bronze statue of Helen Keller in 2003.
Foundation funds in 2018 were administered by the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION. In addition to the arts prize, the foundation provided two scholarships, one for a young woman aging out of foster care and the other for a college-bound graduate of the CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS. In this way, the foundation sustained the Woman’s City Club’s original mission of educating women.
Updated by Marian Morton