by Cecile Hales
Edited by Meagan McChesney on July 12, 2021
Today’s electronic media offer so much in the way of information, opinion and entertainment that anyone can access these–in whatever form and at whatever time they want–without leaving the house. For women in Winnetka 70 or 80 or 90 years ago, however, one of the main ways to enjoy both learning and light entertainment was to attend the programs presented by the Winnetka Woman’s Club (now called the Winnetka Club).
As illustrated in the Historical Society’s previous exhibit on the Progressive Era in Winnetka, women’s roles and opportunities were changing rapidly in the early years of the 20th century. The Winnetka Woman’s Club was founded in 1908 and became affiliated shortly thereafter with the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs, a network of 25 districts covering towns from East St. Louis to Highland Park.
Right from the start it sought ways to participate in the Village’s civic life. A look through the Club’s program bulletins—many of which the Historical Society has in its collection–shows a dedication to educating (and entertaining) its members that is inspiring even today.
By the 1920s and 1930s the Woman’s Club was offering programs every week. Some were given in the morning, many took place in the afternoon, and in a few cases presentations were in the evening.
All except a few specialized “lecture series” and classes (French, Spanish, Creative Writing and Finance were offered from time to time) were free. Club members could invite guests but only twice a year; and those guests who were resident in, or within seven miles of, Winnetka were charged 50 cents to attend.
Some programs consisted of book reviews or dramatic readings, while others focused on art and antiques; but there were also many talks by speakers ranging from local luminaries to literary figures, from academics who went on to other careers to prominent journalists. On the entertainment side, performers included a number of famous musicians, dancers and other artists. It is rather amazing when we look at some of the names.
- Carl Sandburg spoke about Abraham Lincoln on Lincoln’s 125th birthday.
- Leo Rosten, who rose to fame as the author of The Education of H*Y*M*A*N**K*A*P*L- A*N* and a scriptwriter, gave talks on “Democracy and Dictatorship in the Modern World” in 1934 and “What Price Peace?” in 1935.
- Paul Douglas, economics professor and later a U.S. Senator from Illinois, spoke on “What Is Russia Up To?” in 1927.
- Director of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations Clifton Utley gave several current affairs talks 1934-1937.
- Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the AMA Journal, famous for exposing quacks, discussed State-Controlled Medicine in 1939.
Music and Dance:
- Two early leaders in the folk music movement spoke to the club: John Jacob Niles in 1932 and Win Stracke, co-founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music, in 1936.
- Conductor and music educator Dr. Rudolf Ganz gave a lecture-recital on “Music in the Community and in the Home” in 1936.
- Ruth Page in 1935 and 1944 and Sybil Shearer in 1947 appeared in programs of classical and modern dance.
Programs also featured a few individuals well known on the North Shore: Carleton Washburne (1927), Anita Willets-Burnham (1930), Ernest Grunsfeld (1932), Nels Johnson (1939), Jens Jensen (1940), Heluiz Washburne (1942) and John Ott (1933 and 1947).
During the 1930s, Woman’s Club members displayed great interest in the world’s hot spots, attending talks on India, Spain, Russia, Manchuria, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and Tibet.
As World War II appeared on the horizon there was an even greater concern with the international situation. Every home had a radio, of course, but how much better to hear a foreign correspondent give a first-person report—and there was at least one such talk every year of the war.
During the war years, the Club decided to concentrate its programs on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, and from 1947 onwards the content of programs gradually changed as well. Speakers on international relations, as well as literary figures, appeared less often and programs focusing on domestic interests came to the fore. The Art Department, the Garden Department and “Collectors Corner” presented many more art exhibits and programs on flower arranging and antiques. There were travelogues, reviews of current Broadway plays, and humorous talks by Chicago newspaper columnists and media personalities such as Sydney J. Harris, Jack Mabley, Norman Ross, Johnny and Jeannie Morris.
It seems natural that by the 1950s women would shake off their wartime worries and turn to more social interests: Club bridge parties, fashion shows, dances and Sunday afternoon “Twilight Teas” – a trend that we might call “cocooning” today. In 1950 the Woman’s Club membership quota of 650 was fully met and there was even a waiting list to join. With television and travel becoming more prevalent in this era, speakers enlightened members on topics like atomic energy, space, ecology and “urban crisis” but also on packing a travel wardrobe and practical photography techniques.
Responding to the needs and wishes of its members is, however, a double-edged sword. Participation fell off dramatically once it became clear that a woman could find other ways to entertain and educate herself. The Club’s activities today are mainly devoted to philanthropic endeavors—a worthy cause, but a long way from the exciting years when the Woman’s Club served as a “window to the world” for Winnetka women of all ages. ■