From Preservation Issues, Volume 5, Number 2

The American Woman's League

by Mary Henderson Gass
In the spring of 1910 University City was the site for a meeting of approximately 1000 suffragettes who assembled for the first national convention of the American Woman's League an organization created by E. G. Lewis in 1908 to promote educational cultural and business opportunities for women in addition to expanding his publishing business. (See article: The Capitol of the Women of America, March/April 1995) Responding to needs expressed by the women's movement at that time he created an ambitious plan for a network of institutions and businesses to serve women that included a correspondence school a postal library and savings bank and social service institutions to provide for the homeless and for orphans. By 1910, there were approximately 100,000 members.

"Membership in the League is open to any woman of the Caucasian race...." Lewis proclaimed. The terms were straight forward: either $52 in cash or $52 in magazine subscriptions. Lewis promised that half the revenues raised would pay for the magazine and half would go to the league itself. Men could become non- voting members by paying $20, and benefits were available to all members at no cost .

The most popular benefit was the Peoples University, which had an enrollment of 50,000 correspondence students by 1910. The Beaux-Arts style plan for the campus and civic plaza area can be appreciated today by studying Lewis' elaborate model, which is on display on the ground floor of the University City City Hall ( The pottery division of the Art Academy continues to bring international recognition to University City. Lewis assembled a remarkably talented staff from France, England and the United States, and their porcelain wares--often marked "AWL" for the American Woman's League--are prominent in museum collections of American art pottery. The staff included Taxile Doat, Frederick Hurten Rhead and Adelaide Alsop Robineau. The Art Academy building (the only university building realized) is now called the Lewis Center and is used in part by the Washington University School of Fine Art. AWL pottery collected by the University City Historical Society is on display in the public library.

Surplus revenues enabled the league to build 38 chapter houses for its members in 16 states while hundreds more were planned. The St. Louis architectural firm of Helfensteller, Hirsch and Watson designed the five prototypes, which were scaled to accommodate different-sized communities. All were cruciform in plan and combined stylistic characteristics of the prairie school and arts and crafts movement in both their exterior massing and exterior and interior detailing. All came fully furnished with mission-style furniture, fixtures and carpets for the meeting rooms and included a salesroom for the Woman's Exchange" where members' handicrafts were sold together with the AWL publications and products from the Art Academy. The chapter houses became social, educational, and cultural centers for their members and were meant to enable women to acquire some business skills as well. However, bas reliefs above the fireplaces were entitled 'Woman's Mission" and idealized woman's role of homemaker and nurturing mother.

While the university. the postal library, and the Women's Exchange were intended to ready women for the workplace and the vote, the reorganization of the league in 1911 into the American Women's Republic was to prepare them for an expanded role in government. The republic was modeled after the United States government. At its first congress held in University City in 1912, Mrs. Belva Lockwood, the republic's attorney general, who had been the first woman to run for president of the United States in the election of 1884, swore Mrs. Mabel Lewis in as its president. E. G. Lewis planned for the American Women's Republic to continue as a separate but equal organization until women's suffrage was granted and it could merge with the republic of the United States.

Photo courtesy of the University City Public Library Archives to Preservation Issues. More than 1,000 suffragettes attended the first national convention of the American Woman's League in University City in 1910. Both the Magazine Building (left) and the Art Institute Building (right) were draped in bunting for the occasion occasion.
While the Peoples University dissolved by 1912 due to the collapse of Lewis's publications empire, enough AWR members followed him to California to found the Colony of Atascadero. In Missouri, the movement for women's suffrage continued, culminating in March 1919 at the Statler Hotel in St. Louis with the founding of the national League of Women Voters at the convention of the American Woman's Suffrage Association. While the convention was in session the Missouri Senate ratified the joint concurrent resolution endorsing women's suffrage, and by 1920 women had "the vote."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mary Henderson Gass is an architect who lives and works in University City. She is the current president of the Missouri Valley Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
First electronic edition: 1995
Modified 28 January 2003
Return to the History of Missouri's Women home page.