General Federation of Women's Clubs

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GFWC logo.

The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), founded in 1890, is an international women's organization dedicated to community improvement by enhancing the lives of others through volunteer service. GFWC is one of the world's largest and oldest nonpartisan, nondenominational, women's volunteer service organizations.

The group holds a congressional charter under Title 36 of the United States Code.

Volunteer Service[edit]

Since its foundation more than 110 years ago, the General Federation of Women's Clubs has been a unifying force, bringing together local women's clubs from around the country and throughout the world. Although there is considerable diversity in the ages, interests, and experiences of GFWC clubwomen, all are united by a dedication to community improvement through volunteer service.

Accomplishments during GFWC's first century include: establishing 75 percent of the country's public libraries, developing kindergartens in the public schools, and working for food and drug regulation.

In 2009, GFWC members raised over $39 million on behalf of more than 110,000 projects, and volunteered more than 4.1 million hours in the communities where they live and work.[1]

Around 100,000 members in affiliated clubs in every state and more than a dozen countries work in their own communities to support the arts, preserve natural resources, advance education, promote healthy lifestyles, encourage civic involvement, and work toward world peace and understanding.


The GFWC traces its roots back to Jane Cunningham Croly, a New York newspaperwoman who wrote under the pen name of Jennie June. In 1868 she and other women were denied admission to a banquet at the all male New York Press Club honoring Charles Dickens because they were not men, and thus organized their own club for women.

The name initially chosen for this club was Sorosis, a Greek word meaning "an aggregation, a sweet flavor of many fruits."

Federation Of Women's Clubs, D.C. Leaders Of Delegation To White House, 1914: Mrs. Ellis Logan; Mrs. H.W. Wiley; Miss E. Shippen; Mrs. R.C. Darr; Miss M. McNeilan

As Sorosis approached its 21st year, Mrs. Croly proposed a conference in New York that brought together delegates from 61 women's clubs. On the last day of the conference, the women took action to form a permanent organization. A committee to draft a constitution and plan of organization to be ratified the following year was chosen, with Sorosis President Ella Dietz Clymer presiding. The constitution was adopted in 1890, and the General Federation of Women's Clubs was born and in 1901 was granted a charter by the United States Congress.

Ella Dietz Clymer holds a particular place of honor in Federation history as the author of the GFWC motto "Unity in Diversity." Speaking to the delegates at the first conference, she said, "We look for unity, but unity in diversity. We hope that you will enrich us by your varied experiences." The aptness of the motto is evident in the diverse interests of GFWC members, who have implemented a broad range of programs and projects tailored to meet the needs of their communities. It set the tone for the flexibility that has allowed the GFWC to grow and adapt to the changing and diverse life styles and concerns of women throughout the country in volunteer work.

Local women's clubs initially joined the General Federation directly but later came into membership through state federations that began forming in 1892. The GFWC also counts international clubs among its members.

Although women's clubs were founded primarily as a means of self-education and development for women, the emphasis of most local clubs gradually changed to one of community service and improvement.

In 1900, the GFWC met in Milwaukee, and Josephine Ruffin planned to attend as a representative of three Boston organizations – the New Era Club, the New England Woman's Club and the New England Woman's Press Club. Southern women were in positions of power in the GFWC then and, when the Executive Committee discovered that all of the New Era's club members were black, they would not accept Ruffin's credentials. Ruffin was told that she could be seated as a representative of the two white clubs but not the black one. She refused on principle and was excluded from the proceedings. These events became known as "The Ruffin Incident" and were widely covered in newspapers around the country, most of whom supported Ruffin.[2][3]

Although not every state in the country has a local women's club, several have remained very active over the last 110 years. The state of Maryland chapter is held in high regard to the General Federation. In the early 1900s, the State Federation of Women's Clubs held many meetings in Baltimore. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, these women chose to use their resources and close proximity to Washington, DC and rallied hard for the women's right to vote. This was eventually ratified in 1920.

The General Federation also praised the Baltimore, Maryland chapter for their attempts at creating continuity among members of several states. On April 24–26, 1912, the state held a meeting where 175 delegates from several areas attended. The Baltimore Sun Newspaper printed an article on page 8 of their April 17, 1912 edition listing many of the members who were planning to attend and from what areas they were travelling. The General Federation later commended the state of Maryland for their efforts.

In a time when women's rights were suppressed, the State Federation chapters held grassroots efforts to make sure the woman's voice was heard. Through monthly group meetings, to annual charter meetings, women of influential status within their communities could have their feelings heard. They were able to meet with state officials in order to have a say in the ongoings of community events. Until the right to vote was granted, these women's clubs were the best outlet for women to be heard and taken seriously.

GFWC clubwomen outside N Street headquarters, Washington DC, ca.1920s

Notable clubwomen[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "GFWC 2009-2010 Annual Report". Retrieved 4.9.12. 
  2. ^ "Race Discrimination", Congregationalist 85:24, 1900 June 14.
  3. ^ "Color-Line in Women's Clubs", Congregationalist 86:6, 1901 February 9

Further reading[edit]

  • Houde, Mary Jean. Reaching Out: A Story of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (Washington, DC: General Federation of Women's Clubs, 1989). ISBN 978-0-916371-08-1
  • White, Kristin Kate, “Training a Nation: The General Federation of Women’s Clubs’ Rhetorical Education and American Citizenship, 1890–1930” (PhD dissertation, Ohio State University, 2010). DA3429649.

External links[edit]