Women’s Clubs

Here’s an interesting headline from the December 1, 1964 Syracuse Post-Standard:

                 Women to Combat Lewd Literature

The article discussed the announcement by Mrs. Guy E. Tanner (the woman did not self-identify using her own first name) that as president of the Syracuse Federation of Women’s Clubs, she was going to create a committee charged with the surveillance of school and public libraries, as well as local bookstores, to stop the “display and sale of obscene and salacious literature.”

According to Mrs. Tanner, “women in their influence on the moral tone of family and community have a unique capability and responsibility to work effectively in this problem area…”

Echoes of the 19th century belief in separate spheres?  Since the early 1800s, many Americans believed that women, because of their child-bearing ability, had a special responsibility to protect the vulnerable from immorality, disease, and other dangers.   American women were only to leave their sphere – the home and family – to  defend their families and communities from such dangers as excessive drinking (the temperance movement), bad treatment of the mentally ill, and, at least in parts of the North, the evils of slavery.  After the Civil War, movements such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Consumer Union also motivated women to leave the comfort and security of their homes and marriages, but in a socially acceptable way.

The Women’s Club movement began at the end of the 19th century; the Syracuse federation was founded in 1898.  Among its earliest projects was an effort to improve the treatment of juvenile offenders; a series of beautification projects (such as “Clean Up” Week in 1909), and smoke abatement. Another interesting one, that went on for more than 15 years, was an anti-expectoration campaign, in an age when more people chewed tobacco than smoked cigarettes.  Women in these clubs were typically middle to upper-middle class married women who did not work outside the home;  often they were married to prominent men in the community.

But by the 1960s, American society was changing rapidly (and it wasn’t just about dirty books).  Nearly 50% of married women worked outside the home;  the sexual revolution was beginning; and a new generation of Baby Boomers was starting to challenge traditional views of marriage, education, sex, and culture.

Mrs. Guy E. Tanner didn’t specify what books her new committee would be watching out for, but using the Library of Congress’s online resource called “Books that Shaped America” (can be found at http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/censorship), I found several that might have caused sleepless nights for  Mrs. Tanner and her friends:

Howl  (the F-word and homosexuality)

Howl book cover

The Invisible Man (racism and violence)

Where the Wild Things Are (illustrations of nudity, but also frightening tones)

Catcher in the Rye (teenage rebellion)

Lolita ( a middle-aged man’s lust for a minor)

Fahrenheit 451 (dystopian themes, ironically including book burning)

As well as a few “classics”:

The Call of the Wild (violence; however, I loved the Clark Gable/Loretta Young film version!!!)

The Grapes of Wrath (violence, among other issues)

The Scarlet Letter (adultery and illicit passion – really??? I must have slept through that part)

And, of course:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (still banned in parts of this country because of its use of the N word)

Women’s Clubs are still around, although dwindling in number.  For example, the Women’s Club of Horseheads, New York, founded in the 1890s, folded up about 10 years ago.  (No surprise, I was never invited to be a member.  Why not?  Perhaps because I was happily divorced, too independent, or too opinionated?) But, challenges to literature continue.  School boards around the country still are criticized by community groups – many church-based) over school reading assignments.


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