By Susan Myrick
The Winnetka Fortnightly in 1921 began as the suburban daughter of the urban Fortnightly of Chicago, which was founded in 1873 by Kate Newell Doggett. The Fortnightly of Chicago embodied the 19th century passion for self-improvement. The first meeting of The Winnetka Fortnightly, on October 12, 1921, followed on the heels of ratification of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920, which guaranteed all American women the right to vote. Members of both organizations researched and presented papers to enlighten and inform their respective memberships.
Among the 625 papers written, presented, and stored at the Newberry Library (as of May 2021), two refer to the history of the organization: one presented on December 11, 1953, an untitled paper written by an original member, Katherine Dummer Fisher, and another paper titled PLUS ÇA CHANGE, PLUS C’EST LA MÊME CHOSE, written by Eleanor Johnson and presented 34 years later, on November 11, 1987.
Katherine Dummer Fisher chronicles the history of paper writing, reminding her audience that the Winnetka Fortnightly Study Class, as it was called in the beginning, began with a plan for yearly topics of study. The women in charge compiled comprehensive bibliographies of required reading and assigned a topic for each member.
The topic of the first year was India. The first paper Fisher presented was Geography, Races and General Historical Survey. She writes that “the next year we ‘did’ China and I ‘did’ Confucius.” Following India and China, the group studied and wrote on “Contemporary Literature.” The topic for 1924-1925 was “Biographical Studies of Interesting Personalities and Movements in Which They Were Pioneers.” The group chose to study and write on the History of Architecture (1926-1927), American Studies (1927-1928), Americana (1928-29), and the Middle Ages (1929-1930).
Fisher writes that by1931 the group “welcomed topics fitting ‘Personal Thoughts on Provocative Subjects.'” Individualistic papers then began and titles became whimsical and mysterious.” Among many: Cornfields and a Naked Man, Little Acorns, Selling a Dream, Countdown: 270 to 80, The Eagle-screaming Horse, Digging For Doggetts, A Pail With No Bottom, Duck Summer, Your Check Is in the Mail, Purple Lantern, The Hands That Rocked the Country, and Whose Life Is This Anyway.
The second historian, Eleanor Johnson, wrote about surviving traditions and inevitable changes between 1921 and 1987.
Traditions and customs that have not changed: meetings are hosted in members’ homes and begin promptly at 3 pm, because papers take about 40 minutes to read; the president rushes through business matters to get to the better part of the afternoon; she introduces the author, who reads her paper, enjoys polite and kind applause, and answers questions from the appreciative audience; finally members make a “beeline” according to Johnson or a “rush” (according to Fisher) for the tea table. Linen tea napkins are no longer required, but a few traditions of afternoon tea remain, like tea served in tea cups with saucers and an eye pleasing table with platters of small light sandwiches and sweets. Because everyone is a writer and a presenter, tea becomes a celebration of the author’s achievement and of all she has been through to get her paper written and presented.
The calendar year accommodates a maximum of fifteen meetings and a roster of forty-five members. Fifteen members present papers, fifteen serve as hostesses, and fifteen spend the year free to enjoy presentations and hospitality.
Consider changes: Dues in 1921 were $1 ($15.04 in 2021 dollars.), while current dues are $75 (still a bargain compared with its value of $953.06 in 1921). Expenses include mailing invitations and an end of the year luncheon. Members no longer have to be residents of Winnetka, but can be from Kenilworth, Wilmette, Glencoe, and Northfield, those “second class villages” as Eleanor Johnson writes with a wink in her history essay. Smoking was not allowed during readings, which caused some fidgeting, but in the 1980s when members began to stop smoking, the atmosphere became less antsy.
The last meeting of the year in May consists of yearly reports by officers, the election of new officers, a presentation of an author’s paper, and a luncheon. Originally, there was a guest speaker instead of a paper presentation. For example, in 1930 Mr. R. Buckminster Fuller spoke. His lecture, “The House of the Future” addressed his cause, that is: houses as factory manufactured kits to be assembled on site and the efficient use of resources. The members wondered, not quite enthusiastically, “Could he be right?” With the increase in the group’s size, the luncheon moved from hostess’ homes to country clubs.
When the theme was the Middle Ages (1929-1930), the club decided to collect and store the best papers, determined at the end of each year by the officers. A box protected the holdings in the possession of each current president. The first best paper” was “With Harp and Lute”, written by Katherine Shortall Dunbaugh (Mrs. Harry). In 1960 the Fortnightly adopted a democratic approach, and the entire membership voted on which papers to box each year. In 1986, when the box contained 92 papers, a search for a place of safe keeping began. On February 23, 1987, the 92 boxed papers, along with 128 other papers that had been presented, saved, and donated by members, were delivered by 6 members to The Newberry Library. The membership mourned the incomplete file, the 500 papers that were lost, but since that time all papers presented at The Winnetka Fortnightly meetings have been safely stored in The Newberry Library Modern Manuscript Department, part of 800 such collections that go back to the year 1700. The Library also holds a list of members who are published authors, meaning they were paid for their articles. The Newberry holds biographies of members, probably incomplete, but Eleanor Johnson writes more of the many accomplishments of the membership, including educations, jobs, and civic contributions.
There is pride among writers and a special relationship. Eleanor Johnson writes at the end of her 1987 paper:
“There are no clones on the Fortnightly roster. Each new member adds a new dimension to our charmed circle. Besides that ‘lively interest in writing’ and residence, Winnetka or next door, which we all have in common, each member brings her own history, her own experience, her own personality to our gatherings. Usually a first-time author writes about the subject, which is closest to her heart, and this opens up a wonderfully revealing picture of the writer herself. Each of us, old-timers and newcomers alike, has something new and different to offer. It is no wonder that we look forward to our Fortnightly Wednesdays with such eager anticipation.
The Winnetka Fortnightly, being the flexible and user-friendly organization that it is, has changed over time and will keep changing with its membership. But it will also remain a unique association of talented, interesting women who care about good writing and their fellow members. The inspirational theme for the year l980-8l was The word is half his that speaks and half his that hears. As Sue Bush wrote in her President’s report that May, “That is what writing is about. The first half is trying to capture on paper something of interest or experience, which we distill through our own personalities and share in the body of this group. The second half is the listening, the important ingredient that raises us to a supportive community of special quality.”
The words of Sue Bush from May 1981, offer a summation of the organization and its membership. “It is the art of listening wed to the angst of writing that makes us what we are.”