Lovers of Learning
The inventions of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries brought a revolution in American life and no group was more affected by those changes than women. The drudgery of maintaining a household was mitigated by hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, ice-boxes and early electric appliances. For example, laundry, a full day affair of scrubbing, hand-wringing, starching and ironing gave way to washing machines with wringers and electric irons. The resulting free time could be used for other pursuits.
In a time when college education was available only to a small percentage of the nation’s women, and even high school attendance for the middle and lower classes was limited, many women sought opportunities for educational and cultural self-improvement. As women gained confidence and organizational skills, many expanded into community improvement as well, what historians have termed “public motherhood,” helping the poor, improving educational opportunity, cleaning up government and supporting cultural and artistic causes. What became known as the women’s club movement had begun. The resulting organizations provided not only an opportunity for women’s self-improvement but also a way for their voices to be heard and for them to participate in public life in an era when women couldn’t vote or hold elective office.
The club movement began in New York in 1868 when several women, after being refused admission to a presentation by British author Charles Dickens before the male New York Press Club, decided to found their own organization they called Sorosis. This sparked a blossoming of women’s
organizations, beginning in the North and, by the late 1880s and 1890s, in the South. As Sorosis approached its 21st birthday in 1889, founder Jane Cunningham Croly proposed a convention of delegates from women’s clubs that resulted in the founding of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs whose motto, “Unity in Diversity,” reflected the wide spectrum of the original constituent organizations’ missions.
The first women’s club in Georgia was Sorosis in Elbert County, founded in July 1892 “to promote the highest intellectual development of its members and to aid in any way in the improvement of opportunities for the community.” Within three months 35 belonged and a waiting list began, a pattern repeated throughout the state. Other women’s clubs began to emerge including, among others, the Woman’s Press Club in 1892, Woman’s Club of Rome in the fall of 1894, Floricultural Club of Covington in 1895, the Women’s Shakespeare Club of Barnesville and the Student Club of Columbus.
The first women’s club in Augusta began in 1895 when nine Augusta women, calling themselves “philomaths,” or lovers of learning, chartered a club seeking to enrich their knowledge and satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Founder Ruth Van Buren said her inspiration came from attending the Women’s Congress during the 1895 Atlanta Exposition. “The talks on what women could accomplish by organizing made a deep impression on me; my enthusiasm was quickly communicated to others....”
While the earliest “Philomathic” club seems to have been in France in the late 18th century, Southington, Conn., had a Philomathic Society in 1807 that functioned as a debating club. Kansas had a co-educational Philomathic Society in 1850, a literary group that published its members’ writings.
The Augusta Philomathic Society was unique in being female only. Like most of the early women’s clubs it was devoted to self-improvement, a mission protected by its members when they channeled most of their service and activist impulses into other organizations. In fact, many Philomathic members were involved in founding the Augusta’s Woman’s Club and other volunteer organizations. Miss Ruth Van Buren served on the first board of directors of the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs established in 1896 by a handful of Georgia women’s groups that existed at the time. As she said, “Women’s clubs were rather a rarity in the South in those days.” The Federation quickly became a voice for women’s concerns. By the end of its first year the organization had presented two bills to the state house, one seeking to increase the offices women held in the educational field and the other to give women equal education privileges.
At this time, women hadn’t had opportunities to lead organizations and these young women recognized their lack of knowledge about how meetings were run. As Ruth Van Buren admitted, “We were all young women and totally ignorant of how to conduct business....” They adopted Henrietta Shattick’s Manual of Parliamentary Procedure, studied it carefully and used it in conducting their meetings in an “absolutely impartial and impersonal matter.” Each new club year began with a training session on parliamentary procedure, allowing these women to acquire skills that would stand them in good stead when they organized other institutions and worked for causes that became important to them and their communities.
The Philomathic Club started out meeting in homes, gathering twice a month. They began their long commitment to meeting in a public space when Principal John Neely offered the library of Tubman High School (then on Greene Street), an appropriate place as the major center of learning for young girls in the area. When the Tubman Library became a science lab in 1904, the club, along with other women’s groups who had used Tubman, found itself homeless. Philomathic wanted, and with 40 members needed, another public space. They argued it was “to say the least a trifle provincial for a city the size of Augusta to have club meetings held at private residences.” In a remarkable spirit of cooperation several women’s organizations united, each contributing to fund a meeting space all could use. For more than a year and a half they met in women’s clubs’ quarters in the Dyer Building before moving in the fall of 1906 to the Leonard Building.
A few years later found them meeting at the YWCA, which ended with the great fire in 1916. That conflagration destroyed the building and all their furniture, their constitution and other records, and their “goods,” including the club’s highly valued gavel, a gift from its founder and first president. In spite of their loss in 1916, that fall the Philomaths held their 21st birthday party in the Knights of Pythias Hall, inviting all women who had ever been members to what they called their “coming of age” party. Ruth Van Buren Tufts attended from her home in Mitchell, Ga., and many former members, by then scattered throughout the United States, sent birthday greetings. Many talks were made that day by past presidents, including Julia Lester Dillon, the South’s first female landscape designer (See “Julia Dillon: A Most Remarkable Woman,” February-March 2013).
The club met in various places following the fire, until the City Federation of Women’s Club (Philomathic, Augusta Woman’s Club, Professional Women’s Club, Council of Jewish Women, College Women’s Club, Teachers Club and Graduate Nurses Association) purchased the Greene Street home of Judge Henry Hammond as a clubhouse.
While meetings in the early years often ended with refreshments, the focus was never social; it was (and is) always the scholarship. Each spring, as the current year was nearing an end, the literary committee suggested potential themes for study for the next year. After the club voted on the theme, topics within that subject were assigned to members for the coming year. For most of its history two papers were presented each week followed by a discussion or “conversation” led by a third member. Before the internet, paper preparation required weeks, sometimes months, of study in print materials. In the early years that research occurred at the Young Men’s Library Association. According to Ruth Van Buren, “[on] any pretty afternoon you could find perhaps a half dozen of our members there, diving into magazines and books.”
The Club proved unafraid to tackle any subject. From 1899 to 1901 the subject was Shakespeare (a topic that would return). They ended the series with a Shakespeare theme party at the president’s home where each member came as a character from one of the plays and they had studied them all.
During many years, various parts of the globe were scrutinized, delving into a country’s political, economic and cultural milieu. Timely topics were often appropriate to global developments such as the examination of Japan and the rise of the Japanese empire in 1903-04, or America as a world power in 1905. In early 1920, while studying Russia only two years after the Bolshevik Revolution, they examined the “Political Possibilities in Russia Under the New Regime.” The first time Germany was studied, topics varied from “Luther and the Dawn of the National Intellectual Life” to “Handel’s Messiah (which included a piano interpretation)” to philosophers Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.
When the 1907-08 year focused on the four great epics—Iliad, Paradise Lost, Inferno and Faust—the club ordered copies for the entire membership to peruse. That year also brought the first club contest sponsored by its president for the best short story written by a member. Over the years, the members explored ancient and modern history, literature, theology, architecture, economics, geography, medicine and science, always examining the most recent research, developments and changes.
While the focus was learning, twice a year a social event was held usually at the president’s home—the last meeting of the year in the spring and the holiday tea in December. That holiday meeting sometimes had a theme such as “Christmas at Mount Vernon With George and Martha Washington.” Spring socials often featured the purple and gold colors of the club, as well as the official flower—the pansy—in decorations. Although it was not the main mission, the club also supported different service projects. They gave monetary support to Tallulah Falls School, which was owned, operated and supported by Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs to whose convention the Philomaths always sent delegates. They often contributed to book drives to bring reading to rural areas and gave donations to the Young Men’s Library Association and student aid funds. The December meeting sometimes made an annual gift for the Salvation Army. In World War II the Philomathic Club furnished a day room at Camp Gordon.
The common thread was the “love of learning” and what was
most often said was that the club was composed of
Augusta’s intellectual women.
Membership waxed and waned over the years. In boom times, Philomathic had the maximum of 40 members and maintained a waiting list. This was true for much of the early 20th century. The composition of the club changed over time. Young women founded the organization, but gradually women of different ages were brought in until a mix of generations studied and learned from each other. Some women moved away and some resigned when busy lives made them unable to fulfill their presentation obligations. Others stayed in for decades like Monte Sano School Principal Miss Josie Bodeker, a 1912 member who celebrated her 90th birthday and her 50th year as a club member in 1962. In the early years, membership included women from leading families as well as women who had to be self-supporting, including many school teachers. The common thread was the “love of learning” and what was most often said was that the club was composed of Augusta’s intellectual women.
The place of women in society has changed in the past few decades. By the 1960s women were entering the work force in larger numbers and in fields previously closed to them. This brought increased occupational diversity to the Philomaths while changes in attitude brought racial diversity. Women also had opportunities to join once male-only civic and professional organizations, putting even more demands on their time. As the Philomathic Club adjusted to the lives of modern women, the white gloves disappeared and the meetings became monthly. However, in mission, and structure and function, the vision of those founding women remains. Every year the literary committee suggests potential themes, the membership votes, women do research and present their findings in meetings focused on intellectual development and scholarship. Two social events still occur each year—the last meeting of the spring and the holiday tea—just as they have for almost 120 years. An 1899 article in The Augusta Chronicle, marking the first four years of the club, said that the club would “doubtless survive to smooth the dying pillow of other organizations perhaps yet unborn.” Indeed it has—a testimony to Augusta’s “lovers of learning.”