Fewer women are squeezing time from busy schedules to join--and work for--traditional service clubs


September 06, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

They're looking for a few good women.

Women who will staff booths at flower marts, head up used book sales, raise money for good causes. Women who believe they can help the world, and meet compatible people -- by joining a woman's organization.

Once the wellsprings of charitable funds and volunteer service, many of these clubs -- from ladies' auxiliaries to civic leagues -- are watching their membership age and dwindle.

"We noticed that we are not replacing ourselves as we used to," says Casey Brown, a past president who now serves as recording secretary of the Women's Civic League, which organizes the annual Flower Mart downtown.

Even pulling that off "gets a little more difficult because of the physical things you have to do to man the booths," she says. "We're getting older, and it is a little more difficult to get people to come downtown and stand there all day."

The same sort of situation caused the cancellation of the annual used book sale sponsored each winter by the Baltimore chapter of the Brandeis University National Women's Committee.

"Our membership is getting older. We don't have enough young people, and those we do have are timid about taking on such a large task," says Sophie Stolberg, past president of the woman's group and chairman of past book sales.

Some organizations have managed to counter this trend with a life-sustaining recipe that combines flexible scheduling, high-profile public service and opportunities for personal growth.

But many others are suffering as women trade volunteer service for paid work, afternoon programs for business and professional meetings, and women-only groups for gender-neutral organizations. Women are still doing community service, to be sure, but it's taking a different form.

"We have fewer members than we did in the '50s and '60s," says Phyllis Dudenhoffer, international president of the Washington-based General Federation of Women's Clubs. "Women have more of a choice of what to belong to, including professional and single-issue groups."

Marianne Githens, professor of political science and coordinator of women's studies at Goucher College, has noticed a dwindling number of women volunteering in political campaigns, as well as reduced participation in the altar guilds, sisterhoods and PTAs that used to be their springboard into politics.

"The working woman doesn't have the same amount of time," she says.

Despite the signs of decline, some organization leaders believe there are ways to bring about a resurgence.

"Clubs are growing in areas where population is growing," says Mary Ann Schultz, president of the Maryland Federation of Women's Clubs. "If the club is in an area where there are no new people moving in, they're not going to get new women."

Organizations that tailor their programs to the needs and interests of their members do well, too, says Mrs. Stolberg, who also serves as president of the Federation of Jewish Women's Organizations of Maryland.

"We're all constantly polling and re-evaluating, trying to find out what the members want," she says. Trying to give them what they want, Hadassah just chartered three new chapters -- one for nurses, one for young mothers and one for women who speak Russian.

"Women don't want to do the clerical kinds of things any more; we're spending more on office staff so that the members can do more work that makes a difference in the community," says Helene Hahn, president of the Junior League of Baltimore.

A whole series of adjustments, in fact, has helped the league keep its membership more or less stable over the past several years, even though members must drop out when they reach 50. (Setting the age at 50 in itself represents an adjustment to the fact that volunteers are joining later than they used to; in the past, women "aged-out" at 40, according to Mrs. Hahn.)

Shedding its exclusive, post-deb image, the Junior League has reached out to all interested woman aged 21 to 45. It has juggled its schedule: With 75 percent of its members in the work force, the league at one point moved most of its activities to evening hours. And then it juggled again, switching some functions back to daytime hours to convenience women who do not have jobs.

Those activities run the gamut of public service, from fund-raising to mentoring new mothers at local hospitals to entertaining at nursing homes to developing programs for children and teens. They're often done with other organizations, and those networking possibilities are another drawing card for members, Mrs. Hahn believes.

Emphasis on service also has characterized the sororities for black women, which, according to Dr. Githens, are "hale and hearty."

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