From Preservation Issues, Volume 6, Number 2

The Women of the Clubs: 1890-1920

by John Saunders

In March of 1910, a group of women met in the home of Marie Garesche to discuss the formation of a suffrage organization in St. Louis. Formally incorporating itself as the Equal Suffrage League of St. Louis on April 8, 1910, the new organization sponsored a speech by noted English suffragist Ethel Arnold three days later at the Wednesday Club Auditorium in the Central West End. The Wednesday Club headquarters, at the southwest corner of Westminster and Taylor Avenues, had been designed in 1908 by architect Theodore Link.


NAWSA's decision to hold its convention in St. Louis recognized how important the city had become to the national suffrage movement.
Founded as a study club in 1890, the Wednesday Club quickly developed a reputation for academic seriousness. Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening, had been a founding member of the club, as was Charlotte Eliot, the mother of poet T.S. Eliot.

Another organization with members active in the suffrage movement was the St. Louis Woman's Club, founded in 1903 to welcome important guests to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The St. Louis Woman's Club, located in the Central West End like the Wednesday Club, occupied a Colonial Revival mansion at 4600 Lindell Boulevard where it remains to this day.

Although the Wednesday Club and St. Louis Woman's Club were different in character and mission, a number of prominent women who belonged to both provided a core of members for the Equal Suffrage League. Neither club ever formally endorsed the cause of suffrage, but the Wednesday Club alone provided more than one-quarter of the league's members. Over one-third of the league's total membership was from the affluent Central West End.

From 1910-1912, the Equal Suffrage League continued to meet in the Central West End at the Cabanne Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, a 1906 Beaux Arts design from Mauran, Russell & Garden, at 1106 Union Boulevard. The decision to meet at a branch library would supply a model for the League's growth.

By 1912, the league had formed affiliate chapters at the Barr and Crunden branches located closer to downtown. Both libraries had been built with grants from Andrew Carnegie: Barr was designed in Renaissance Revival style by Theodore Link and completed in 1906; Crunden was completed in 1909 as a Beaux Arts work from Earnes & Young. Additionally, both branches were near working-to-middle class neighborhoods, thereby expanding the suffrage movement beyond the borders of the Central West End.


By drawing from the strength of established women's organizations, and then moving to the public libraries and to downtown, the league broadened its appeal and made itself a formidable political presence.
In early 20th century St. Louis, downtown was still the hub of commercial and social activity, and so the league established headquarters in the Syndicate Trust Building at Tenth and Olive streets from 1912 to 1918, when it moved next door to the adjacent Century Building. The downtown office soon became an active center for the suffrage movement.

Despite the failure of a 1914 statewide referendum on suffrage, "The Cause" itself was becoming more and more popular among St. Louis women. Affiliate leagues for Jewish women, businesswomen, young women and working women were formed. By 1918, all wards of the city would be represented in the league as the result of a concerted effort to attract members from different backgrounds.

In 1919, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) decided to hold its national convention in St. Louis at the Statler (now Gateway) Hotel at 9th and Washington. NAWSA's decision to hold its convention in St. Louis recognized how important the city had become to the national suffrage movement. Realizing that the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was imminent, the members of NAWSA voted to recharter themselves as an organization that would encourage women to use their new rights: The League of Women Voters.



Board meeting of the Equal Suffrage League, Syndicate Trust Building, 1912. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

The locations of sites associated with the Equal Suffrage League show why its members were so successful. Had the league's early leaders simply regarded the cause of suffrage as a social activity, they would never have left the mansions of the Central West End. By drawing from the strength of established women's organizations, and then moving to public libraries and to downtown, the league broadened its appeal and made itself a formidable political presence.

All of the above-mentioned sites remain, although the Syndicate Trust/Century Building, the Crunden Branch Library and the Gateway Hotel are threatened. Landmarks Association of St. Louis surveyed these sites last year as part of the first phase of a proposed three phase project on women's history in St. Louis, entitled "Organizing for Power: Women and Clubs, 1890-1920." The survey was funded by a Historic Preservation Fund Grant.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:John Saunders joined Landmarks Association of St. Louis in July 1995 as a researcher. He holds a B.A. degree with honors in history from Vanderbilt University, and expects to receive his MA.A. degree in history from Washington University in May, 1996.


Selected Bibliography

Two articles provide excellent background on the Equal Suffrage League. Mary Semple Scott, ed., History of Women Suffrage in Missouri (Missouri Historical Review, 14: April-July, 1920, p. 281) is actually a series of articles written by participants in the recently successful suffrage movement. Among these, writings by Althea Grossman, The Part of the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League in the Campaign for Equal Suffrage; Florence Atkinson, Middle Ages' of Equal Suffrage in Missouri; and Florence E. Weigle, St. Louis Business Women's Suffrage League are of particular interest. A more recent and scholarly account is Dina M. Young's The Silent Search for a Voice: The St. Louis Equal Suffrage League and the Dilemma of Elite Reform, 1910-1920 (Gateway Heritage, 8: Spring, 1988, p. 2).

Archival collections of interest are the Clubs and Societies and Equal Suffrage League Collections at the Missouri Historical Society Archives, the Wednesday Club Papers and Branch Library Records at the St. Louis Public Library Archives, and the Collections of the St. Louis Woman's Club.


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.