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Women & Their Organizations

PACS have power. That was a reality explored at the Women’s City Club of New York’s forum, “The Conscience of the City: Women and their Organizations” sponsored by Con Edison on November 17. Kicking off the event, Joan Froelich, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of con Edison, waxed about how her company has lighted the world for over 100 years as hundreds of women’s organizations have transformed New York City and the nation with their social activism. A host of female historians, Women’s City Club members and public policy makers followed with descriptions of how groups of women in the late 19th and early 20th century impacted New York City and federal legislation, aided immigrants, improved public health and bolstered living conditions for the poor. Rutgers University historian Alice Kessler-Harris spoke about how New York City women strived to “save democracy” in their creation of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1890. Underpinned by the then epochal idea that women should organize other women in order to enhance the family, the Federation united a variety of pre-existing cultural, social and political groups that sought to give a voice to women in the city.

The organization drew on the clubs’ inchoate reform fervor to fight poverty, infant mortality, disease and corrupt politicians. Their efforts spawned the settlement movement creating Greenwich House founded by Mary Simokovitz and the White Rose Industrial Association, the first settlement entity for the African American community. The mostly middle class organization of women also fought for protective labor legislation for women. All of these crusades paved the way for new groups to work for suffrage in the 1920s. Ms. Kessler-Harris, as well as the historian and biographer Elisabeth Israels Perr and U.S. Health and Human Services Department consultant Ruth Watson Lubic, delineated how women’s activist impulses eventually became encrusted within the federal government in the 1930s. Women reformers established the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and held significant posts in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies.

These achievements laid a foundation for government action and more, truly revolutionary ideas later in the century. Hoping to maintain the fire of reform, historian and biographer Ellen Chesler and Women’s Bureau representative Mary Murphee expounded on ways to keep women’s concerns, particularly those related to the workplace relevant in the public realm today. Ms. Chesler stressed how women’s groups must weave coherent narratives in order to help set the governments agenda while Ms. Murphee urged their need to strengthen existing legislation; like the Family and Medical Leave Act, that hit at the epicenter of many women’s lives. In her opening remarks, Ms. Perry seemed to sum up the spirit of the day-long conference: “Through their organizations, through the mutual support women gave one another in their organizations, women discovered that it was alright to feel powerful, to act as if power were natural to their very beings, and even better, to feel that they were having an impact on their country’s social policies. Infused with those sentiments, women’s organizations should endure and thrive.

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