Clarice Conley recalls that, when she joined the Ebell Club of Highland Park almost 40 years ago, hats and gloves were mandatory and those without proper social credentials need not have applied.
"It was a very, very snooty club," said the 72-year-old Conley, gazing at the faded oval portraits of former Ebell presidents. From the old clubhouse walls, the faces gazed back: tight-lipped Victorian women with big bosoms, ethereal dreamers clutching books, sloe-eyed flappers with bobbed hair.
Back then, 200 women met weekly at the Ebell Club on Figueroa Street to debate universal suffrage, read literature and plan social work. But heels rarely clatter along the old hardwood floors anymore, and the faithful now number about 47, mostly women in their 70s and 80s.
"We're not as popular as we once were," said club president Laura Johnson, who worries that her club may die with its last member. The clubhouse fell into disrepair when the caretaker died about 20 years ago, and the Ebell Junior Club--which admitted women from 18 to 42--folded about the same time. Finances were a mess until recently, when a local management company took over day-to-day operations, Johnson said.
Traditional women's clubs in Northeast Los Angeles and Glendale--and nationwide--today face serious problems. Ruth Schermitzler, president of the California Federation of Women's Clubs, said traditional philanthropic women's clubs are confronted with dwindling membership, an aging core group and rising costs of clubhouses, insurance and taxes. Members agree that, with the majority of women now in the work force, the era of the genteel club woman with time on her hands is, for the most part, a dim memory.
But, for years, women's clubs were the only game in town. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were beehives of activity as women founded kindergartens, built libraries and playgrounds, campaigned for hot school lunches and lobbied for child-labor laws.
At the Ebell Club--named for Dr. Adrian Ebell, a 19th-Century European reformer who traveled to the United States--the women founded what would become the Arroyo Seco branch of Los Angeles Public Library and helped start the Northeast Symphony. The Tuesday Afternoon Club founded Glendale's first local public library.
Some say women's clubs succeeded too well.
"They did themselves out of a job," said Victoria Brown, a women's studies teacher and historian at San Diego State University. With government taking over many tasks that club women once considered their turf, clubs by the 1930s turned increasingly to fund raising and social activities, a trend that continues today.
Rising Costs Cited
Meanwhile, escalating costs took their toll. Some clubs located on valuable real estate chose to cut losses and sell. In Glendale, the Tuesday Afternoon Club was forced out of a Spanish Colonial Revival building, built in the 1920s on Central Avenue and Lexington Drive, to make way for redevelopment. It settled one block away in a smaller, newer building.
"A lot of those clubs are sitting on pretty significant pieces of property," said Lynda Griffith, a professor at UCLA's Center for the Study of Women.
A number of clubs without clubhouses rent halls. Others, especially junior clubs throughout the country, have called it quits.
"It's very difficult these days to attract younger members . . . It's terrible," said 67-year-old Jill Earnshaw, president of the Women's Club of South Pasadena.
Said Patty DeDominic, former president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners: "I just don't believe you'll find a lot of upwardly mobile career women active in traditional women's clubs."
Women still join clubs, "but only where they'll get specific, tangible benefits back to themselves--like work advancement or equality in the job market," DeDominic said. She owns a personnel agency and belongs to a political club that raises funds for women's issues.
About 500,000 women are members of 11,000 traditional women's clubs nationwide, said Jeri Winger, president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, a nationwide group. The federation does not have figures for previous years. Neither does it know the average member's age, Winger said. But she said declining enrollment may be bottoming out.
Gary Sue Goodman, director of special programs at UCLA's Center for the Study of Women, has a more glum prognosis. "If they can't adapt to the changing needs of women, they will die," Goodman said, noting the success of groups that have changed with the times. Those include the PTA and the League of Women Voters, she said.
"People have the notion that women's clubs are these biddies that sit around and play bridge, and that's what they became," Brown said.
Not so, said Earnshaw of South Pasadena.
"We're not just a bunch of polyester old fuddy-duddies," she said, repeating a refrain heard from many members.