An institution's uncertain future


Women: Dwindling membership threatens to undermine sound planning by college clubs to help young scholars.

July 06, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

On a bright May afternoon, 20 women in straw hats and summer suits of pink and yellow and green have gathered in a sprawling New Jersey home to honor this year's recipients of scholarships awarded by the Women's College Club of Princeton.

With few exceptions, the women presenting the awards are well past middle age. Some have been club members for nearly 50 years.

The nine high school graduates, overachievers off to such institutions as Wellesley, Yale and Rutgers, perch politely on a couch, waiting to be called. One by one, they receive scholarships of $1,000 to $2,000, a rose and paeans from the panelists who carefully culled the most deserving students from a large pool of applicants.

Afterward, the young women sip tea, munch cookies and discuss the future with the older women, who are pleased with this year's crop. The girls are so polished, so focused, so dedicated to improving the world around them, the women say delightedly.

"It gives us a great deal of personal satisfaction," says longtime member Jane Delaney Coda, a retired translator for the United Nations. "We just hope there will be enough people to carry it on."

Wise investments and generous bequests have ensured that such college clubs, sprinkled across the country and unaffiliated with particular educational institutions, remain in a position to help young scholars. But dwindling membership threatens to undermine sound planning. As older members become too infirm to remain actively involved and as younger generations decline to join, the future of college clubs is uncertain.

The gradual demise of these clubs also threatens to obscure a key chapter in women's history. For the deceptively genteel tea ceremonies that take place each spring at the Women's College Club of Princeton and similar clubs around the country belie their radical roots. Most were launched in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by women intent on achieving academic parity with men, a revolutionary notion at the time.

"What was the urge that brought them to take this step?" a history of the century-old College Club of Portland in Maine asks. "Was it a community of intellectual interest in a time when college-bred women were still few? Was it a feeling of strength in union in a day when the quaintly named `higher education' was still on trial and each representative felt herself a crusader? Was it a wish to extend the educational opportunities for others, on the part of those who held themselves exceptionally fortunate?"

According to Karen Blair, author of "The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redefined, 1868-1914," women's clubs originally gave stifled upper-class mothers and wives an official excuse to get out of the house. Discussions of intellectual matters and current events gave way to civic duty as women's clubs became vital forces in the crusade to improve education, urban sanitation and other municipal causes. As part of such efforts, establishing scholarships for needy girls became "very common in late 19th century," Blair says.

Within the African-American community, sororities and church-related organizations fulfilled the same role for black girls and boys, according to historian Bettye Collier-Thomas of Temple University. Because scholarship committees were formed within the structure of strong black institutions, they are not as vulnerable to attrition as the predominately white college clubs, Collier-Thomas suggests.

Tracking the evolution of women's college clubs is largely an anecdotal process. Beyond tersely written institutional histories and boxes of records that rotate among club officers, there is often little comprehensive documentation.

On a local scale, the histories of the Portland and Princeton clubs help to underscore the significance of such groups across the country. Members contributed not just to the education of young women, but their efforts to raise money transformed the cultural landscape of their communities with the establishment of theaters, lecture series, continuing-education programs and other civic mainstays.

The Princeton club was formed in 1916 as a social circle for college-educated women. But within a few years, the club was extending interest-free loans to college-bound girls. Then like others around the country, the Princeton group, increasingly well-heeled and heeding tuition increases, began offering scholarships instead of loans.

Coda, the Princeton club's corresponding secretary and BlueSlip newsletter editor, says the group has given away $152,000 since its founding. In its early years, club members tutored Princeton University students and sold sandwiches at college football games to raise money. Today, benefit fashion shows, bridge tournaments and luncheons are handsomely supplemented by bequests and memorial funds.

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