By Margaret M. Merrill.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. June 1893.
Sorosis is the mother of women's clubs, and, although but twenty-five years old, she has in various countries of the world more than two hundred prosperous and flourishing children. Some of them live in houses of their own, which Sorosis does not - yet. But no one of them feels that it has quite attained the dignity and strength of the mother club.
The organization of Sorosis, in March, 1868, was considered a bold step. No club had ever existed, composed exclusively of women and officered by them. Nor had women taken any active part in business or public affairs. Very few women were doing professional work. The only step in the direction of club life for women had been taken by a New England organization, formed about a month before Sorosis was organized, to which women were admitted as members and were allowed to vote but not to hold office. The ladies who first suggested the organizing of a woman's club were moved to do so because of action on the part of the New York Press club, which they considered a discourtesy. Mrs. Croly, "Jennie June," and Mrs. James Parton, "Fannie Fern," who were, at that time, almost the only women doing journalistic work, asked for tickets to a banquet which was to be given to Charles Dickens, at Delmonico's. The affair was in the hands of the New York Press club, and Horace Greeley, then the editor of the Tribune, had consented to preside. The ladies thought they had the right to be represented with the press people of New York and assist in doing honor to a distinguished member of their own profession. The majority of the committee, however, thought differently, and would have uncompromisingly refused to admit the ladies had not Horace Greeley declared that if they did he would have nothing to do with the affair.
Then the committee proved themselves diplomatic, if not chivalrous. They wanted Mr. Greeley to preside but they did not want the ladies as guests. So, they waited until three days before the affair was to take place, when they sent a note to Mrs. Croly, saying: "If a sufficient number of ladies can be found, to prevent each other from feeling lonesome, who are willing to pay fifteen dollars each for their tickets, they will be allowed to purchase them."
To this, Mrs. Croly replied: "The ladies feel that they have not been treated like gentlemen and refuse to avail themselves of a possible opportunity so reluctantly given."
This incident was the topic of discussion at the next Sunday evening reception given by the Misses Alice and Phoebe Cary, and the feeling of indignation among the ladies grew.
"Why not have a woman's club?" said Mrs. Croly to Kate Field.
"There is no reason why we should not," replied Miss Field.
This suggestion of Mrs. Croly's was the seed from which Sorosis grew. A meeting was called at Mrs. Croly's house on the following Monday. There were present Miss Kate Field, Mrs. Henry M. Field, Mrs. Vincenzo Botta and Mrs. Charlotte B. Wilbour. Mrs. Croly presided.
After briefly reviewing the action of the Press club, she said that the ladies had been called together for the purpose of considering a basis of secular organization among women who were interested in the thought and progress of the age and in what other women were doing. The ladies were so thoroughly in sympathy with the idea that a second meeting was appointed for the next Monday at the same time and place, and notes of invitation were sent to a number of ladies, Miss Kate Field acting as secretary.
But, before the next Monday came Miss Kate Field and Mrs. Field had been called away from the city and Mrs. Botta had withdrawn her name because of the opposition of her husband. The only ones left of the original promoters were Mrs. Croly and Mrs. Wilbour. They, however, were equal to the emergency. They met on the Sunday before the meeting and prepared a draft of a constitution. The next day the organization of the new club was completed.
The infant having been born it must needs be christened, and here arose a discussion. At the first meeting Mrs. Botta had suggested that it be called The Blue Stocking club. But that would indicate that the organization was to be strictly literary. "The first club should be representative," said Mrs. Croly, "of the whole woman, not of any special class of women."
The idea of feminine club life was too new for that.
"Call it The Woman's League," said Miss Kate Field. "Then it will have political backing and be a sort of woman's supplement to the Union League club."
But the ladies had no desire for political backing, and did not wish to be supplementary to anything.
Miss Alice Cary suggested The Sphinx, but that seemed to veil a mystery and there was to be nothing mysterious about the woman's club. Miss Phoebe Cary submitted as her choice, Columbia; but that was too common.
Meanwhile Mrs. Croly had found in a botanical dictionary the word Sorosis. The general supposition is that Sorosis comes from the Greek word meaning sister. But it has a much more significant and broader meaning than that. It is the botanical name of a class known as aggregated fruits, of which the pineapple is an example - a collection of flowers, which mature into fruits, all joined together in one wholesome body.
This name seemed exactly the thing. It was new it had a pleasant sound, and was, as Mrs. Croly said, "full of gracious meaning."
In the organization the following officers were chosen: President, Alice Cary; vice-president, Jennie C. Croly ; corresponding secretary, Kate Field; recording secretary and treasurer, Charlotte B. Wilbour; executive committee, Phoebe Cagy, Ella Dietz Clymer, Celia M. Burleigh, Josephine Pollard, Lucy Gibbons, Ellen Louise Demorest. The day on which the final organization of Sorosis took place was Monday, March 20, 1868, and the first regular meeting was held at Delmonico's on Monday, April 20 of the same year. The following invitation was sent out for that occasion:
New York, Apr. 13th, 1868. You are invited to attend the first meeting at Delmonico's, corner of Fifth avenue and Fourteenth street, on Monday, April l0th. Lunch, at $1.00 to each person, will be served at one o'clock. A lady will receive your card at the door of the room of meeting, and introduce you. Please respond before Saturday, April 18th. Address:
Sorosis," No. 151 East 51st street.
By order of the committee,
C. B. WILBOUR, Rec. Sec'y.
On the 3oth of December, 1868, the club became an incorporated society, thereby rendering itself capable of receiving bequests. So far, however, Sorosis has not had the opportunity to demonstrate her right in this direction.
During this first year of its life the new club was made the object of much ridicule on both sides of the sea. It furnished a fruitful theme for illustration in the comic papers. The London Queen of June 12, 1868, commented upon it thus:
"The Sorosis, the woman's club which exists in New York, has been brought before the readers of the Queen on more than one occasion lately. It is a society of women, many of them literary, meeting for the sake of mutual improvement and pleasant social intercourse. Men are invited to be present at the entertainments given by the members of Sorosis, but they are entirely in the subordinate position of guests and listeners.
The toast of The gentlemen was given at one of their parties by a lady and responded to on behalf of the weaker brethren by another lady. A good deal of headshaking and holding up of hands in wonder at the proceedings of the Sorosis have been indulged in on our side of the Atlantic, and certainly it would be very difficult to conceive of a body of English ladies, even of those who have the most advanced views, acting quite as the members of Sorosis have done. The idea is a ludicrous one."
The Queen, also, in this article, referred to a letter, written by Mrs. Croly to a gentleman who applied for admission to membership in Sorosis, as being intensely amusing. This is the letter:
Mr. R. B. Roosevelt.
Dear Sir: —Your proposition to become a member of the Sorosis was laid before the executive committee and subsequently before the club. I regret to say the decision was not in your favor. The reasons, it is only fair to state, were not those of character, position, or personal merit, but consisted solely of society restrictions as to sex. Personally you have been found very agreeable by several members of Sorosis.
Reputation and position are alike unexceptionable. But the unfortunate fact of your being a man outweighs these and all other claims to membership. We willingly admit, of course, that the accident of your sex is on your part a misfortune and not a fault; nor do we wish to arrogate anything to ourselves, because we had the good fortune to be born women. We sympathize most truly and heartily with you and the entire male creation in their present and prospective desolation and unhappiness. But this is all we can do. Sorosis is too young for the society of gentlemen and must be allowed time to grow. By and by, when it has reached a proper age, say twenty-one, it may ally itself with the Press club or some other male organization of good character and standing. But for years to come its reply to all male suitors must be, "Principles, not men."
After the first meeting Miss Cary resigned the presidency on account of her health, and for a time the club had no president but elected a chairman at each meeting. In March, 1869, Mrs. Croly was elected president by acclamation.
The first entertainment given to Sorosis was a breakfast by the Press club of New York. This was considered as an amende honorable. But not a member of Sorosis was invited to speak. Their part was to sit still and eat and be spoken to. Sorosis responded soon after by giving a tea to the Press club, at which the gentlemen were given the silent part. They were not even allowed to respond to their own toast.
Before the close of its first year of existence Sorosis numbered almost a hundred members. The ladies who signed the charter were Agnes Noble, Jennie C. Croly, Charlotte B. Wilbour, Celia M. Burleigh, E. Louise Demorest, Ella D. Clymer, Sara L. Hopper, and Josephine Pollard. All but two of these ladies are still active members of the club, although Mrs. Wilbour has lived for several years in Paris. Other members of 1868 whose names are still upon the roll are Miss Hannah Allen, who served many years as recording secretary; Mrs. Laura Curtis Bullard, Mrs. Mary Kyle Dallas, Miss Sarah E. Fuller, Mme. Caroline A. Mereghi, Mrs. Margaret W. Ravenhill, Mrs. Anna B. Schofield, Mrs. Ellen M. Van Brunt and Mrs. Mary A. Young.
Mrs. Wilbour was elected president of the club in 1870 and presided over its deliberations until the spring of 1874, when she went abroad, leaving the first vice-president, Rev. Phoebe A. Hanaford,to sit in the presidential chair until March, 1875, when Mrs. Croly was chosen. She served until 1886. At this time a clause was added to the constitution specifying that no member should hold office for more than three consecutive years.
M. Louise Thomas was the next president. Following her came Ella Dietz Clymer, and then Jennie de la M. Lozier, M.D., the present president.
There seems to be a general impression, even among the people in New York, that Sorosis discusses woman suffrage and various other aggressive topics. This is very far from being true. No member or visitor is allowed to touch upon the question of politics on the floor of Sorosis. Religious discussions are also tabooed.
The object of Sorosis, as set forth in the constitution is to bring together women engaged in literary, artistic, scientific and philanthropic pursuits with the view of rendering them helpful to each other and useful to society."
The social meetings of the club are held on the first Monday of each month, from October until June, inclusive, except the first Monday in March, which is election day. The business meetings are held on the third Monday of each of these months. An annual reception is held on the evening of the third Thursday in January, and this is the only entertainment of the year to which gentlemen are invited. On March 20 of each year an anniversary breakfast is given. This year Sorosis celebrated its quarter-centennial, at which many notable guests were present.
There are nine standing committees in Sorosis. The committee on reception constitutes the custodia. The committees on literature, art, drama, philanthropy, science, education, house and home, and business women, furnish the programmes for the social entertainments. On the first Monday of each month the chairman of one of these committees presents a question for discussion pertaining to the work of her committee. She chooses speakers, who prepare papers upon the subject, for and against. A lunch is served. Musical selections and recitations are rendered, which, with the discussion of the question, constitute the entertainment. No work is done by these committees outside of the club. An exception must be made in the case of the committee on philanthropy, for it has a fund. This fund has increased very materially during the past two years under the efficient chairmanship of Mrs. A. M. Palmer, and several needy women, some of whom are mem41bers of Sorosis, have been aided.
In the spring of 1890, Sorosis sent an invitation to all the women's clubs of the world that had been established more than a year, asking them to send delegates to New York for the purpose of forming an international federation of women's clubs. More than sixty clubs responded. The federation was organized, and the following year a woman's congress was held in Washington.
The question of a club house has often been discussed, but, so far, no steps have been taken toward procuring one. Sorosis, after twenty-five years of active life, stands as the representative woman's club of the world. Its principles are purely democratic. It is of women, by women, and for women.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. June 1893.