The South Carolina women’s club movement was a powerful force for social change. It challenged the landscape of the state’s conventionalism and supported social reform for all South Carolinians. The core organizations of this movement were the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs (SCFWC) and the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (SCFCWC), organized in 1898 and 1909, respectively. Like state federated organizations around the nation, SCFWC and SCFCWC members often held membership in numerous organizations. Most of the clubs in these organizations initially formed for women’s self-improvement. However, over time the focus of both organizations shifted to social reform, and in the case of the SCFCWC, to racial reform. Although segregated in membership, similarities between the SCFWC and the SCFCWC were nevertheless present. Like women’s organizations throughout the nation, both groups emphasized community uplift and better educational access for black and white South Carolinians.
Nationally, the white General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded in 1890, claiming 100,000 members in five hundred women’s clubs across the nation. Initially its purpose was the intellectual advancement of women, but its mission gradually expanded to include philanthropy and education. When the SCFWC formed in South Carolina in 1898, it did so with only thirty-two delegates from nineteen clubs. Such members as Louisa Poppenheim, onetime president of the SCFWC, officer in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and member of the Century Club, focused not only on educational access but also on school conditions. In doing this, and because Poppenheim and many other white southern clubwomen were members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, white clubwomen placed great emphasis on teaching white southern homogeneity—that is, teaching children southern history and southern values. In cosmopolitan places such as Charleston, the SCFWC reflected a degree of religious and ethnic diversity. When the Charleston City Federation of Women’s Clubs formed in 1899, it was affiliated with such organizations as the Council of Catholic Women and the Council of Jewish Women. However, interracial cooperation with the SCFCWC would remain limited.
In the late nineteenth century most southern African Americans were only a few decades removed from the institution of American slavery. Many had firsthand experience with white-on-black violence, poverty, and few economic opportunities that resulted from the racial segregation dominating southern society. The national black women’s club movement, which resulted in the formation of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, represented efforts by African American women to improve conditions by providing assistance to African American communities. In South Carolina, such prominent black women as Marion Birnie Wilkinson, also founder of the Sunlight Club in Orangeburg, created a coalition of black women’s organizations when they founded the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in May 1909 at Sidney Park CME Church in Columbia. Using the motto of the national black women’s club movement, “Lifting as We Climb,” as well as their own song “Loyal Women of Palmetto,” set to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” black women committed themselves to uplifting African Americans in South Carolina.
Like members of progressive organizations elsewhere, black and white clubwomen fought for prohibition, the sanctity of the home, educational opportunities, suffrage, health, and community improvement. However, unlike those in white women’s progressive organizations, South Carolina’s black clubwomen also fought to protect black women from sexual exploitation and racial discrimination by forming such institutions as the Fairwold School for Delinquent Negro Girls (later the Marion Birnie Wilkinson School for Girls) in 1917 in Cayce.
Through the SCFWC and the SCFCWC, the South Carolina women’s club movement provided much needed assistance to white and black communities. Despite these organizations’ successes in social activism, membership in both declined in the 1960s and 1970s as older members passed on and a younger generation expressed little interest in joining women’s clubs. In the case of the SCFCWC, national and local civil rights advances negated the importance of African American women’s clubs as a force for racial change. Yet the legacy of the SCFWC, the SCFCWC, and the women’s club movement clearly revealed the commitment of white and black women in South Carolina to community uplift, social reform, and access to better educational opportunities, while simultaneously perpetuating pride in a distinctive southern identity.
Johnson, Joan M. “‘This Wonderful Dream Nation!’ Black and White South Carolina Women and the Creation of the New South, 1898–1930.” Ph.D., diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1997.
Jones, Cherisse R. “‘Loyal Women of Palmetto’: Black Women’s Clubs in Charleston, South Carolina, 1916–1965.” Master’s thesis, University of Charleston and The Citadel, 1997.
Newby, I. A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.