by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. Weirs Times Contributing Writer
“The hand that rocks the cradle can just as gracefully wield a gavel.” So wrote Jane Hobart Tuttle commenting on the woman’s club movement in New Hampshire in a year 1900 article in The Granite Monthly. The article revealed a change in the purpose of women’s gatherings from primarily home-making activities to an emphasis on intellectual and leadership interests, leading the way for the Women’s suffrage movement.
Using Littleton as an example of the new face of women’s clubs, Tuttle indicated that even in the northern New Hampshire town where conservatism’s hold was the strongest in the state things were changing. Women were no longer satisfied with meeting in sewing circles or those with other domestic activities, so they organized clubs that pursued education with the aim of developing women leaders, thus the reference to the gavel. This was a change from the teachings of women like Sarah J. Hale, who promoted the education of girls and felt that certain jobs could best be filled by women, but did not even advocate the right of women to vote.
One of the clubs identified the three goals of this new type of woman in its constitution as “Mental culture! Sociability! Further education of women!” Tuttle claims that the two enemies of women’s education were “conservatism and man,” explaining that conservatism is cranky and man is crankier. Concerning the objectors to the women’s movement she claimed that they “have had their day” and were powerless to stop the ladies in their pursuit, which would result in a coming day when the needle would give way to the gavel.
Before the turn of the century there were actually four women’s clubs in Littleton and others in towns across the state. The New Hampshire Federation of Women’s Clubs had been organized in 1895 and local clubs were joining the ranks.
The difference in the attitudes of women, according to Tuttle, involved a change in their focus and goals for themselves. “The great word in the modern club is self. It is self-culture! Self-improvement! Self-advancement! The aim of the earlier women’s organizations of Littleton was wholly outside self.” She did acknowledge the benefits of some earlier organizations.
The first of the new type of Littleton’s women’s organizations was the idea of Mrs. Delia Bingham Mitchell with the purpose of “…the mutual improvement of the members through the medium of thought, study, and discussion.” It was considered a bold action for fifteen ladies to proclaim that they were forming a women’s club, and the response was apparently not all supportive. The Granite Monthly article said “Some one has said that a ‘woman is a good idea spoiled ’, and the cynic adds, ‘Spoiled when she became a club woman.’” Nevertheless the movement began in 1889 with restrictions on the number of members, an aspect of the clubs that resulted in more criticism.
The first club in Littleton was known as the Saturday Club, but after a year it was changed to The Friday Club. The subject matter of their studies was based on cities and countries, spending the first three years of their existence studying the cities of London, Venice, and Florence. Next came Rome, to which they allotted two years of their time.
The second club formed in Littleton was named the Colonial Club which was the largest of the four and sought to reach “a high standard of “ intellectuality” Along with the study of Colonial history it studied the history of Mexico and France.
In January of 1898, a younger group of ladies, nineteen of them, got together to introduce the Nineteenth Century Club . It also emphasized literary advancement, but enjoyed a more informal format than the first two clubs. The fourth Littleton club, still young in 1900, was the Historical Club, with sixteen members. Writer Jane Tuttle described this club as “ a lusty child” in the process not only of studying history, but also making history.
Another town involved in the rise of women’s clubs in New Hampshire was Henniker where Mrs. Kate M. Ingalls led an effort in 1897 that resulted in The Women’s Reading Club of Henniker. This club was limited to a membership of thirty which resulted in some criticism, but the meetings were held in the homes of members, so the rule was not changed. The meetings, according to another article in The Granite Monthly were “purely literary” and concentrated on American history , civil government, and literature. Clubs in both towns did at times have a “gentlemen’s night” when their husbands or other male relatives were invited to a meeting or social time.
Ida J. Graves of the Henniker club wrote “With the advancement made in women’s clubs in the past years one may easily believe that the future will excel the past, as the present surpasses the beginning.”
And Jane Tuttle commenting on the controversial beginnings of the then new type of women’s clubs wrote:
“ Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
As president of a club,
She was the presider;
’T was worse than a spider,
And her heart went