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GFWC History Speech - May 2011   by Babs J. Condon, GFWC First Vice President

GFWC clubs and club women have played a crucial role in women's history both past and future.  GFWC's roots can be traced back to 1868 when Jane Cunningham Croly - a professional New York journalist - formed a club for women. After 22 years, she extended an invitation to other women's clubs throughout the United States to attend a convention in New York City.   Members from 63 clubs attended and that April in 1890 they took action to form the General Federation of Women's Clubs. GFWC was originally established as a means of self-education and personal and professional development for women and over the last 121 years there have been some lively disagreements over various resolutions or bylaws revisions. Our founding mothers decided to form a Federation.   They chose this type of organization on purpose - not going with the more popular Association.   For you see, the leaders of an association dictate the rules, the names, the dues amounts, and even tell their chapters or clubs what their bylaws will say.    Our founders didn’t want that – because we were fighting over a basic human right back in those days – the right to vote and own property.   You can bet that our GFWC clubwomen worked on this issue. In fact, many of the women who belonged to GFWC were groomed to be political actors on a local level - prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote. 


Unfortunately – these same women who didn’t want to restrict our members in any way - would never have believed that just by forming a “Federation” – it might keep us from gaining recognition. 


They brought “existing” women’s clubs together and by creating a Federation – they could NOT dictate that we all use the same name like the Lions, or the Rotary or the Kiwanis clubs did. 
Perhaps if every club had used GFWC in their names for the last 121 years, our entire country would know what GFWC clubs do and what we stand for.  


Recognition is one of the main factors in gaining new members, and yet, even though NOW, we understand this “branding” principal   – the attendees at our 119th GFWC International Convention in Omaha, Nebraska in June of 2010 voted down a proposed bylaw that said all clubs SHALL add GFWC to their name.   I have to wonder why we continue to put up barriers that keep people from recognizing us - as the women who GET THINGS DONE.      Because we have had many strong women in our Federation - we have a notable record of governmental activity on issues of historical importance.   From the late 1860's until 1920 - the suffrage movement played a key role in history and GFWC members were noted as being right in the thick of this avalanche of debate, protest and advocacy for political reform.   In the late 1800s, as the woman suffrage movement gained momentum, GFWC women became more attentive to social issues, such as food and drug safety, worker safety, and child labor.   Factory and business owners fought against women's right to vote -often because they were worried that women would pass laws requiring changes in procedures and make it more expensive to operate their businesses.   Julia Ward Howe who is known for her poem The Battle Hymn of the Republic - co-founded a GFWC club in New England and is known as the founder of the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. 1898: GFWC convention attendees unanimously passed a resolution against child labor.  1899:  GFWC's Chicago Woman's Club supported the juvenile court law, the first ever to be passed in the United States. This law became the model for all subsequent juvenile court laws, many of which were passed at the insistence of GFWC clubwomen. Julia Lathrop - who led this club’s effort and was appointed by President William Howard Taft to head the Children's Bureau in 1912.


1901: The 56th Congress of the United States chartered GFWC and designated that the Federation be headquartered in Washington, DC.  In the beginning - we had a traveling trunk filled with the records and documents of the federation which was passed along from officer to officer.   Eventually we rented office space in DC and the documents found a temporary home.

In 1902, a doctor and chemist named Harvey Wiley began to orchestrate the lobbying effort of physicians, chemists, women’s clubs, journalists and segments of the food, drug and liquor industries in favor of Federal legislation for the regulation of food.  When the Pure Food and Drug Act was finally passed in 1906, it was mainly due to the public being drawn into the debate about food safety.   Women, the ones who prepared the family meals, banded together and GFWC member Alice Lakey spearheaded a letter and telegram writing campaign.  Dr. Harvey Wiley, who was appointed as the first chief of the Pure Food Bureau, attributed the bill's passing to GFWC and is quoted as saying,  "Trust GFWC to put the ball over the goal line every time”.  What would have happened if we had NOT worked together on this important safety issue?   How long would it have taken?  1910s: GFWC supported legislation for the eight-hour workday, workplace safety and inspection, and workmen's compensation.  Members also supported prison reform legislation.

1916: GFWC worked with the Children's Bureau to promote National Baby Week. Over 2,000 clubs participated by focusing on infant and maternal mortality, birth registration, and public health facilities. The Federation's efforts resulted in the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act (1921), which advanced maternal education.

1919: Under the direction of the YMCA, GFWC created the Overseas Service Unit and sent 100 young women to Europe to assist wounded soldiers in the aftermath of World War I.

1921: GFWC created the Indian Welfare Committee, which worked improving both education and health facilities on reservations, as well as preserving Native American culture.

Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt was an active member of a Woman’s Club in New York, and maintained strong ties with the Federation throughout her years as the First Lady?  But even before FDR was elected as our US President, he and his wife lived in DC - on N Street.  Eleanor informed the GFWC officers that a suitable building for our national headquarters was for sale - just up the street from her home at the time,  and that is how we came to purchase 1734 N Street, NW in Washington, DC to serve as the Federation's International Headquarters in 1922. In addition to staff offices and rooms for meetings and receptions, one floor was designated to serve as an apartment for the International President (where Carlene Garner has taken up residence these two years.)
 
Did you know that in 1924 - a GFWC California club woman came up with the idea of painting a white line down the middle of the roads as a safety measure?   History tells us that she was almost run off the road by a large truck - which started her on the road of many long years of dedication to road safely.   When she finally accomplished her goal of getting lines painted on her state highways to mark the center of the road - other states soon followed suit - because she had enlisted the aid of her fellow Federation members across the country.   How many lives did GFWC clubs save with this idea?  In 1925, GFWC initiated a nationwide Federation survey of the American home, which placed a spotlight on the status of technology in the home. The survey led to the inclusion of homemaker as an occupation on the 1930 United States Census.

Students of national and local public library history note that the library movement was inextricably tied to the growth of women’s organizations.  The last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a proliferation of women’s literary and cultural clubs in American cities and towns.  Their platform of “Domestic Feminism” emphasized the role of women in education with a cultural uplift, and libraries became a key component of these women’s clubs civic reform efforts.  Many of these literary and cultural clubs were GFWC clubs who founded over 474 free public libraries and 4,655 traveling libraries. Our women's clubs were credited by the American Library Association with establishing 75 percent of America's public libraries in the 1930's and supporting local libraries continues to be a Federation priority today. During WWII - in 1944: GFWC had a Buy a Bomber campaign where state federations sold war bonds worth over $154 million  -  enough money to purchase 431 planes. In 1945: GFWC was one of the five women's organizations chosen to participate in the conference to form the United Nations. At the conference, GFWC representatives supported the ratification of the United Nations Charter.

In 1950: GFWC began its relationship with the Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere (CARE). The organizations jointly distributed relief shipments to Korea. In 1955: GFWC first established the Community Achievement Program, which recognized clubs that best improved the quality of life in their communities. Now called the Community Improvement Contest, it remains one of GFWC's longest running and most important efforts.

In 1960: Brighten the Night was a nationwide Federation campaign for street lighting to prevent crime and accidents. In 1961: GFWC's Women's Crusade for Seat Belts program resulted in the installation of more than one million seat belts over the course of one year , but can you believe that the first state law REQUIRING the use of seatbelts wasn’t passed until 1984?   Our GFWC clubs banded together and lobbied for this safety measure too.  We have always stood for what is important for our families – and fought for what we believe.   

In the 1970s: GFWC responded to the startling rise in crime with a citizen-based grassroots program called Hands Up, which was applauded as a "valuable public service" by President Gerald R. Ford.

In 1984: GFWC founded the Women’s History and Resource Center dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting, and promoting all of the histories, contributions and records of our proud 121 year history of volunteer service.   In 1986: in keeping with GFWC's commitment to conservation, the Federation developed programs and projects to help protect and preserve endangered species.

1990s: GFWC actively supported the passage of the Violence Against Women Act; the Americans With Disabilities Act; the Family and Medical Leave Act; and legislation supporting handgun control.

1997: GFWC renewed its commitment to libraries with a project called Libraries 2000. Over the next five years, GFWC clubwomen raised and donated $13.5 million to public libraries and public school libraries across the nation.  During the 2000-2002 administration, GFWC members contributed over $200,000 to fully fund an Operation Smile Mission to the Philippines.   I was lucky enough to be your GFWC chairman for this project and participated in the mission and saw the amazing transformation of over 1000 children’s lives - one smile at a time - which resulted from your donations. Did you know that since 1984 GFWC clubwoman have funded more than 10 complete Operation Smile missions to fix cleft lips and cleft palates of young adults and children in developing countries?    Where would these children and young adults be without GFWC? During the 2004-2006 administration, GFWC members contributed $180,000 for a fully-equipped ambulance for use by the New York Fire Department in response to the loss of equipment suffered during 911. GFWC has earned a reputation as a powerful force in the fight against domestic violence.   During the 2006-2008 administration, our members donated over $15.9 million dollars to DV shelters and organizations who fight DV. Just in the last 5 years - GFWC clubs have donated over $60 million dollars to Domestic Violence Shelters across our country.   We have adopted Domestic Violence Awareness as our Signature Project.   We will bring this violent act out of the closets and make the law makers enforce tough laws against perpetrators.   We are STRONG and we know DV is wrong. 


The amazing hard work and accomplishments of our founders is important to know and use as a motivator….but this is the time to step up and show the world that GFWC women still care.  Take back the limelight. Make news that will generate interest in our organization.  We have a perfect opportunity with our signature project – Domestic Violence Awareness. 


This is a crime of major proportions – that affects millions of people in our country each and every day.  What we do with this opportunity is our choice.   I urge every one of you to help get those reform bills passed - create a ruckus, lobby your legislators, and advocate for an end to DV to everyone who will listen. Did you know that - during the 2008 GFWC Board of Directors meeting in Washington DC  - 200 GFWC members participated in a Day on the Hill and basically descended on the offices of our state senators to talk about the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act ?   We then followed those visits up with phone calls, emails and letters and in January of 2009 - the Act was signed into law. GFWC clubs and members have played an incredible role in the history of our country and the world.  So where do you think our world and country would be without GFWC?   Are you proud to be a member?  Women are amazing creatures.   We love fiercely and will fight fiercely for what we believe in with our last breaths.  Where would our country be without these strong women?  Would we still be a man’s property?   Would we have a vote?   Would we be allowed to say and do what we know is right? Our founders were women who are willing to give up almost anything to stand together and fight for what they knew was right.  They knew the value of a national organization and they felt a sense of responsibility. Are we the same type of women today?  How important is it to you to belong to a group where clubs just like yours annually donate over $40 million dollars to help people who are in need?  One of our responsibilities as leaders is to understand our basic purpose is to help our communities by volunteering.  This in turn enriches our members’ lives and the lives of those we help.   If we continue to deliver that message over and over – again and again – and create a working relationship that inspires creativity and productiveness -that sets an example to follow - we will be able to work together and move forward.   If we don’t believe that basic premise – and don’t value our organization and all that we as members do each day – then our organization will not flourish. What is at stake right now is whether we will gain new members and build a stronger federation  – or whether we will allow ourselves to continue to lose our members to other organizations who are moving with the time, making good on their promises to have exciting meetings and provide opportunities to grow and expand horizons.   I am sure that some of you feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game.   When you joined a GFWC club - life was simpler.    You held meetings, your mailed newsletters, you took notes by hand.   But you are right - the rules have changed.  In a single generation, technology has revolutionized our world, transforming the way we live and work and we can either keep up - or get left behind.  The young women you need to keep your clubs going - are techno savvy - constantly connected to their friends and family via cell phones and other social networks.   Are you keeping up?   Do you have a club web site?  Do you post important events, newsletters?   Do your members know how to access GFWC information online? There are so many young women out there - looking for something to catch their attention. GFWC can be their future, but to make that happen, we can’t just stand still.    I believe it was Robert Kennedy who said, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.”   Keeping GFWC strong and viable has never been about standing still.   It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the volunteer organizations who are vying for new members.   We have to make GFWC the best use of their limited free time and the most worthwhile organization for young women who want to volunteer.   One way to do that - is to actually pay dues that can sustain our organization.   Each year - we have to dig into our reserves a little more - to keep up with the technology we need, to produce more attractive and effective materials for our members, to pay a staff who work very hard to provide the many membership services we have come to expect.   If we - the leaders - the movers and shakers in GFWC - continue to foster the idea amongst our members, that this amazing organization that nourishes us as women, that has such a proud history of accomplishments is NOT worth more than $15 a year,  then GFWC will eventually die and our proud history will die with it.   It may not be a popular stand to talk about a dues increase - but it is a stand we need to take.  It is one that we need to promote to our members as a necessity in the near future.   After all - doesn’t the cost of just about everything go up every year or two?   Aren’t you worth a few extra dollars every couple of years?  Women - always put everyone else in the family first and tend not to spend money on themselves - regardless of how much pleasure and fulfillment they may get from something. 
I ask you to try to think of one thing that costs $15 or even $20 - that gives you as much joy and fun as a year in a club with your many Federation Friends who truly care for you and who are always there when you need them.  Close your eyes for a minute and just think about the women friends you have met at these state meetings. Would you want to give any of them up?  I hope not!    How about a lecture series that costs $15 that you can sign up for that can provide you with the many educational experiences you have at each of your monthly meetings?  Do you know another organization that you can join instead of GFWC that provides you with the opportunity to do so much good for so many people in need?   How much are your friends, your personal development and the opportunity to give back to those who need it most worth to you? To get anything in life - you must invest your time and energy into it.   If you want everything given to you, without expending any effort to get it, then you will probably never be satisfied.  So - what do you think the world have been like if there had never been a GFWC? 


I hope that I have given you some good examples of the many ways we have improved our world. Personally,  I would love to see GFWC continue for another 121 years at least - to give my daughters in law and their daughters and granddaughters the same opportunity that I have had to belong to such an impressive organization.   Our vision for the future - continues as it started - a means of self-education and personal and professional development for women. GFWC Women tend to think big and get results.   I am proud to be a member and I sincerely hope that each one of you is enjoying making history, while helping others each and every day. Written by Babs J. Condon   April 2011   

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