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Borderlands: Woman's Club Has Long Served City 22 (2003-2004)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Woman's Club Has Long Served City

Article first published in Vol. 22 (2003-2004)

By Cheryl Wood, Claudia Flores, Sergio Bravo and Azucena Salas

"Woman has laid down the broomstick to pick up the club," joked the New York World on March 27, 1868. When the all-male New York Press Club excluded journalist Jane Cunningham Croly and other women from a banquet honoring Charles Dickens in 1868, Croly resolved to form a club exclusively for women. Croly's club was called "Sorosis," which is Greek for "an aggregation; sweet flower of many fruits." The name would prove to be apropos.


Image caption: El Paso Woman's Club building was constructed in 1916.   Photo courtesy of El Paso Woman's Club

Over the years, Sorosis discovered other women's clubs, and representatives from 61 organizations met and formed a permanent organization in 1890. This was the official beginning of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The GFWC is one of the world's oldest nondenominational, nonpartisan women's volunteer service organizations. The El Paso's Woman's Club would eventually become a part of the

With the arrival of the railroad in 1881, El Paso saw a huge infusion of new people, including more women and families than had ever populated this wild Western town. In his book "Out of the Desert," Owen White wrote, "All at once educated and refined women who had been reared in Christian and civilized influence, found themselves suddenly transplanted into an atmosphere which literally reeked with the odor of the world, the flesh and the devil."

Women have always been the "civilizing" influence on new settlements, and that was certainly true here. Early El Paso with its brothels, saloons on every corner and no schools until 1884 was not an ideal place to raise children. A woman's touch would change the town forever. Among the first hands to reach out were those of Mary H. Mills.

Mills arrived in El Paso in 1869. She and her husband, W. W. Mills, traveled 23 days through the desert despite the threat of Apaches to get to West Texas. They lived at 312 San Antonio until 1882 when the Mills family purchased property at 105 San Francisco Street.

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In 1891, Mary Mills and a small group of women began meeting to read and discuss current events. They called their group the Child Culture Study Circle. One of their first accomplishments was to convince the El Paso Board of Education to establish a public kindergarten in 1893, the first in Texas.

In 1894, Mills and 10 other women, including Olga Kohlberg, Mary I. Stanton, and Thirza L. Wescott registered their club at the courthouse and changed the name of the group to the Current Topics Club. Yearly dues were ten cents, and membership was restricted to 10 since they met at each other's homes. Mrs. Mills held the office of president until 1898 when her husband was named American Consul in Chihuahua.

When membership began to increase, the women accepted an offer from Mary Stanton to meet in the book room on the fourth floor of the Sheldon Building, the forerunner of El Paso's public library. A teacher, Stanton had presented her own library of 600 books for use by high school boys. Club members helped Stanton establish the El Paso Public Library Association, with her as its first president, an office she held until 1903. In 1905, the Carnegie library opened to all El Pasoans. Through the years, the club has supported the library and has always had members serving on the board.

In December 1898, the club joined the National Federation of Woman's Clubs. In 1899, they affiliated with the Texas State Federation of Women's Clubs. And they would change their name one last time to become the El Paso Woman's Club. In 1899, Olga Kohlberg became president, served two terms and remained an honorary board member for life. She would also become the first vice president of the Texas Federation.

Having attained major achievements in education and culture, the women turned to beautifying El Paso. When a club member traveled to Kentucky and brought back Bermuda grass seed, she distributed it among the members to plant in their yards. Some members planted grass in San Jacinto Plaza, transforming a dirt pile into a lovely park. Club members even brought their own hoses to water the plaza when the city could not.

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The Woman's Club of El Paso was responsible for founding other organizations from within their membership such as the Civic Improvement League. The league and the club worked together as they tackled the problems of bringing El Paso into the 20th century. They would fight causes ranging from garbage collection to ridding the city of gambling, from managing stray burros and chickens wreaking havoc on flower gardens to restricting El Paso's prostitutes to Utah Street.

Club historian Mary Cunningham wrote, "Charges were filed against the 'ladies' who were flaunting themselves conspicuously on the streets of the city, much to the embarrassment of the more respectable citizens." The women won a victory when the city passed an ordinance forcing the "ladies" to remain on Utah Street.

The club also worked in unison with the Civic Improvement League to improve the sanitary and health issues in El Paso. They were instrumental in cleaning up the streetcars, sidewalks and restaurants and finding housing for the influx of tuberculosis patients coming to recuperate in El Paso's sunshine. Their work also resulted in the city using cleaner water from wells near Fort Bliss rather than the silt-filled water from the river. The Woman's Club was also the main supporter of the Baby Sanatorium in Cloudcroft (see Borderlands article). As soon as one issue was solved, another would present itself.

But the women also enjoyed themselves. In 1901, the club entertained President William McKinley and his entourage at an elegant gala, one of the year's biggest social events.

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In 1910, charter member Thirza Wescott donated her home upon her death to the club. The sale of the house provided a base for a building fund. Various social activities provided income not only for this building fund but for other programs in the community as well. The women held bazaars, luncheons, rummage sales, dances, fashion shows, flower shows, bake sales, music and bridge parties and concerts.

In 1916, after 22 years of meeting all over the city, the Woman's Club of El Paso built their own clubhouse, the first in Texas. Located at 1400 North Mesa, considered at that time a remote area of town but today the heart of the city, the Victorian style house is recognized as a Texas Historic Landmark.

Some have called the El Paso Woman's Club the "mother club" of all others. When it first organized, the club already had current events and literature "departments," and so the members invited other clubs to bring in music, ceramics, travel and art interest groups.

Whenever the women saw a specialized need, they formed an auxiliary group. The music organization became the MacDowell Club, named for the American composer Edward MacDowell. It was the only group to accept men as associate members. The women later established the Junior Woman's Club, and the Young Matron's Club. Each auxiliary club promotes the arts, preserves natural resources, promotes education and encourages healthy lifestyles and civic improvement.

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Through the years, nothing stopped this formidable group of women. Their influence would be found in every facet of growth and improvement in our city. In January 1917, they raised $123,000 for a new El Paso Symphony, the El Paso Museum of Art, and the El Paso International Museum Board.

The General Federation of Women's Clubs worked to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, mandating labels that listed ingredients on all commercially sold food items. Women's clubs were also instrumental in establishing juvenile courts, to prevent children being punished like adults.

Over the years, recipients of the El Paso Woman's Club's philanthropy include the El Paso Cancer Treatment Center, El Paso Council on Aging, Southwest Kidney Foundation, El Paso Community College, the University of Texas at El Paso, the Rescue Mission, and many others.

Bonnie Whalen, current president of the Woman's Club, says that today the club provides financial support and leadership to the Alzheimer's Association, Insights Museum, Laubach Literacy Program, the Advocacy Center for the Children of El Paso and the Lighthouse for the Blind. Club members today are as fiercely dedicated to the community of El Paso as were the original founders. Their commitment continues in women like Nona Resler who joined the club in 1938 and still serves today at the age of 102 (see article on Reslers).

Thousands of Woman's Club members have made El Paso a better city through their leadership and work in various organizations and programs in the community in the past 100 years. Little did the New York paper know just how strong that "club" initiated in 1868 would become. "YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY!"

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