Women in America still couldn’t vote—but they took citizenship very seriously. Realizing that they would soon gain the ballot, 100 suffragettes gathered in New York City to found the Women’s City Club of New York as their platform to examine local issues and influence public policy.
They wasted no time in tackling complex problems, such as abuse of women in sweatshops, intolerable tenement living conditions and the failures of our free society to provide equal opportunities for all.
Many outstanding women joined the organization. Early members included Eleanor Roosevelt, then first lady of New York State, who was WCC’s legislative director, and Frances Perkins, a New York City labor leader and later the first female cabinet member as FDR’s Secretary of Labor. WCC’s first president was a novelist and screenwriter, Alice Duer Miller. Other WCC activists included Ida Tarbell, legendary muckraking journalist; Virginia Gildersleeve, World War II WAVES commander and dean of Barnard College; Dorothy Schiff, president and publisher of the New York Post; celebrated actress Helen Hayes; and nurse-midwife Ruth Watson Lubic, founder of the National Association of Childbearing Centers and winner of a 1993 MacArthur “genius grant.”
WCC’s actions mirror their times. Some highlights:
- 1916–WCC publishes a brochure, Should Women Be Admitted to the Columbia Law School? (By the 1920s, they were.)
- 1917–Campaign to let physicians legally dispense birth control information.
- 1918–WCC operates the nation’s first free maternity center.
- 1937–WCC publishes Women on Jury Duty, advocating equal participation.
- 1944–WCC drafts, and ensures passage of, New York State’s first child labor laws.
- 1950s–Successful advocacy for reform of the City’s juvenile justice system.
- 1975–WCC helps establish the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women; member Edythe First is its first chair, with Ruth Cowan succeeding her. WCC works for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
- 1988–Responding to a citywide crisis, WCC organizes 61 advocacy and provider organizations as the Coalition for Homeless Women.
- 1990–WCC publishes a Directory of Housing Resources for Homeless Women, the City’s first definitive service guide and list of shelters.
- 1993–WCC publishes study of multicultural education in our public schools and produces a video promoting H.I.V./AIDS awareness among youth, used by the City’s Board of Education.
- 1997 onward–WCC hosts conferences on micro-enterprise and its potential for the City; the weakness of current campaign finance reform laws; women’s contributions to civic life in the 20th Century, and future action strategies; and the need for national health care reform. Work focuses on updating campaign laws, much-needed reforms in state government, and dismantling laws preventing convicted felons from voting.
- 2005–WCC’s 90th anniversary conference considers “Revitalizing Citizen Participation for the 21st Century.”
- 2010–WCC takes a major role in NYC Charter Revision, creating a task force, doing research and offering testimony.
As our centennial year approaches in 2015, citizen participation remains our focus. Our highest priority is game-changing advocacy on issues that most impact New Yorkers and their lives—just as it was for our founders.
Read more Highlights of Our Achievements. The Women’s City Club of New York maintains its archives at Hunter College, CUNY, and invites the interest of researchers.