Early in her career as a New York City journalist, Jane Croly wrote about domestic subjects for women readers. She became politicized after male journalists excluded her from an important press dinner.
Jane Croly was the chief staff writer for Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions from 1861 to 1887. There are only occasional references to the Civil War in the issues that appeared from 1861 through 1865. Shown here are the fashions featured in the January 1865 issue.
Writing as “Jennie June,” Jane Croly (1829-1901) authored a syndicated advice column for women in the late 1850s. Her writing focused on women’s traditional responsibilities—running households and raising children—with no mention of the fact that some women were actively seeking voting rights.
For Jane Croly, the event that prompted her to activism occurred on April 18, 1868, when the New York Press
Club excluded women journalists from a dinner the club held at Delmonico’s Restaurant in honor of Charles
Dickens, then in the midst of his second American tour. The following month, Croly brought together a group of
women for lunch at Delmonico’s. There they founded Sorosis, a club for women.
In May 1869, Harper’s Weekly published this humorous cartoon, in which men take care of babies while women participate in a meeting of Sorosis. Note that various people in the cartoon are reading issues of Susan B. Anthony’s periodical the Revolution, the first issue of which appeared January 8, 1868. In fact, Croly and other Sorosis members distanced themselves from the women’s rights movement, judging it too bold and unladylike.
By August 1869, Sorosis was making plans for the first meeting of the Woman’s Parliament. According to this
news article, the mission of the Parliament was to “crystallize the intelligence and influence of women into a
moral and reformatory power” and address issues such as public education, prison reform, sanitary reform,
women in the workforce, and home economics. Note that the article lists Jane Croly as the contact person for
The Woman’s Parliament convened only once, in New York City on October 21, 23, and 30, 1869. Speakers included Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894) on kindergartens and Mary Fenn Davis (1824-1886) on prison reform. Croly’s effort to create a separate government paralleling the United States government but with responsibilities appropriate to woman’s nature failed.
In her 1000+-page history of the women’s club movement, Jane Croly leads with a chapter on Sorosis, the New
York club she helped found in May 1868. Sorosis often gets credited as the first American women’s club, but
even Mrs. Croly acknowledged that the New England Women’s Club could trace its history to February 1868.
Writing thirty years later, Mrs. Croly is especially optimistic about the future, in which “the mother-woman,
working with all, as well as for all” will accomplish great things.
The emblem on the front cover of Croly’s book represents the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), which was founded in 1890. Today, the GFWC has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Sorosis clubs in many cities are among its members.
Organized philanthropy after the Civil War relied heavily on longstanding traditions of Christian benevolence. Nineteenth-century children’s literature frequently offered suggestions on ways children could participate. In this story, a girl pays a cobbler to have the family’s old shoes repaired so they can be given to poor children.
In this illustration, a girl leads a blind woman across a foot bridge over a creek.
The officers of the New England Women’s Club (NEWC), whose members were from Boston and its vicinity, included Caroline M. Severance (an early supporter of women’s rights), Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (a proponent of kindergartens), Abby W. May (a promoter of affordable housing), and Ednah Cheney (the secretary and later the president of the New England Hospital for Women and Children). Like Jane Croly and the Sorosis members in New York, these women sought to expand their sphere of influence through club work.
Although she knew many of the members, the writer Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) never joined the New England
Women’s Club, participated in their various philanthropic efforts, or supported voting rights for women. In
the 1830s, Larcom worked in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, after her widowed mother became a mill
supervisor. Years later, she produced this long narrative poem about the experience.
In the poem’s preface, shown here, Larcom is almost combative on the subject of advocacy for workers’ rights: “That any work by which mankind is benefited can degrade the worker seems an absurd idea ....” In the concluding paragraph, she describes work as a sort of spiritual redemption: “Any needed industry, thoughtfully pursued, brings the laborer into harmony with the unceasing activities of the universe ....” Larcom, unlike many NEWC members, had actual experience as a wage earner.
In Philadelphia, Mary Coles (1835-1920) started a home for working women that was modeled after similar
London charities. She and her fellow "lady managers" opened their first residence in October 1865. Each boarder
paid only $3.00 per week (about $50.00 in today’s dollars) for room and board (including washing and ironing,
plus medical care). The managers collected donations to cover the inevitable shortfall.
In 1872, the managers opened the Clinton Street residence, and in 1874 renamed the organization accordingly. Their mission was to “provide the privileges of a Christian family for young working women at a moderate board, and to aid them to obtain employment.” Like many similar organizations of the period, the lady managers were white and Protestant, and so were the residents. To be eligible, the young woman could be from any Protestant denomination, but needed to bring a “reference for good character.”
The Day Nursery for Children, begun in 1863, was Philadelphia’s first organization founded to provide day
care to children of working mothers. Hannah S. Biddle (1820-1907) was its treasurer for decades. Like Miss
Mary Coles, Miss Hannah Biddle was Protestant, white, and from a prominent Philadelphia family.
According to this annual report, the Day Nursery cared for about twenty children a day. Note that the children arrived at 6:30 a.m. and received three meals daily. One imagines that both the Boarding Home for Young Women and the Day Nursery may also have benefitted local employers of female wage laborers as well as the working women themselves.
Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) rose from a humble background to become one of the most prominent—and
provocative—women of the 19th century. In 1868, Woodhull and her sister arrived in New York City after the
spirit of Demosthenes appeared to her in a séance and instructed her to go. The sisters received financial
support from Cornelius Vanderbilt, after the recently widowed railroad tycoon became smitten with Victoria.
(His family soon intervened.) In this speech, delivered twice in February, 1872, Woodhull predicts the
collapse of capitalism and advocates Marxist socialism.
Initially with the support of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Woodhull became active in the National Woman Suffrage Association. However, many suffrage activists distanced themselves from her when her support of free love became a hot topic during her already-controversial 1872 campaign for the U.S. presidency. Her opponent Ulysses S. Grant garnered votes by appearing to support voting rights for women, but did not follow through after he won the election.
In the wake of Victoria Woodhull’s widely publicized but unsuccessful 1872 bid for the White House, many
women eschewed suffrage organizations because of the movement’s association with radicalism. In that climate,
Jane Croly’s idea of a parallel government by and for women attracted renewed interest. In October 1873, the
newly founded Association for the Advancement of Woman (AAW) held its first congress.
The first speaker at the congress was Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), on the advantages of women working together toward shared goals. Other women spoke on household management, childrearing, and higher education and careers for women—and also woman suffrage. Note that the first president of the AAW was Mary Livermore, who had acquired her leadership skills during the Civil War working for the United States Sanitary Commission.
The Association for the Advancement of Woman held its fourth congress in Philadelphia, October 4-6, 1876. By
that point Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was the president. Mitchell, an astronomer and faculty member at
recently-founded Vassar College, was one of the leading proponents of scientific education for girls.
Note that this congress coincided with the Centennial Exhibition, which ran from May 10 to November 10, 1876. In summer 1876, to highlight women’s continued disenfranchisement, the National Woman Suffrage Association had set up headquarters outside the Centennial fairgrounds.