Women’s clubs provided the ladies of Boise City with an opportunity at civic engagement by giving them a public platform from which they could exercise their good works. This gave women an outlet for a public identity at a time when their identity was tied to their husbands or fathers. The club itself was built around the acceptable roles of women as caretakers and homemakers, and by extending this role into their surroundings and focusing on the environment that their families and children occupied women were able to obtain a more natural and socially acceptable extension into the masculine sphere of government and politics. By equating the feminine responsibility of keeping house with civic betterment they were able to enter the public sphere in order to domesticate it.
These kinds of ladies organizations benefited the equal suffrage movement of the mid to late 19th century and beyond by setting a positive example of the civic capabilities of the fairer sex.
The Columbian Club in Boise was founded in 1892 in response to the governor’s request for the public’s help in the completion of a display to be presented in the name of Idaho, at the Chicago World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition, in 1893. Many prominent Idaho women formed the Columbian Club in response to this request and they managed to raise enough money to help build and then furnish the building that would represent Idaho, the newest of the 43 states, at the World’s Fair. The building was a decided success and it went on to influence the following architectural arts and crafts movement.
The Columbian Club, having succeeded at their task, continued to contribute their efforts towards bettering their community through educational and literary programs, promoted social health and welfare through environmental and institutional projects, they held many charitable fund raisers, and instigated beautification projects all over the city. The Columbian Club quickly grew from its original thirty members in 1892 to 200 members after it joined the Federation of Women’s Clubs just a few years later. Before the turn of the century several respected members of the Columbian Club would become active participants in the move towards women’s equal suffrage.
In 1895 Boise’s Columbian Club held a public reading of three papers that argued both sides of the equal suffrage movement that was growing in the Pacific Northwest. After some lively debate and having reached no substantial conclusion the good ladies of the city accepted an invitation from the Woman’s Suffrage club of Idaho in order to further their own opinions on the subject. Many of the same women of the Columbian Club became active members of the Woman’s Suffrage Club and worked to gain the vote for Idaho women through social events and public affairs.
The first leading figure for equal rights in Idaho was an Oregonian pioneer. Abigail Scott Duniway was a preeminent figure for women’s rights in the west after having crossed the plains in 1852. After experiencing the hardships of the west she was determined that women deserved a voice in the legal matters of her society, livelihood, motherhood, and marriage. She traveled tirelessly throughout the United States and Idaho giving lectures on equal suffrage, selling subscriptions to her newspaper that promoted her cause, the New Northwest. In Boise she declared that the club women were an excellent example of the positive feminine influence on society through “the purification of politics and good citizenship.” Her influence on Idaho women is unquestionable and the Statesman reported that “many of the leading society and influential ladies of the city were present” to hear Miss Duniway speak. Many of these women were mothers, daughters, and wives of prominent Boise men, and when they joined the equal rights movement, their prominence provided the movement a firm and socially credible foundation.
After Idaho granted women the right to vote in 1896 these club women continued to work with the National Council of Women Voters and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, organizations that worked tirelessly to secure the vote in Idaho as well as towards a national constitutional amendment. The 19th amendment granting women the franchise was not adopted on a national level until 1920, but throughout, women’s clubs had been an essential element to securing the right for women voters by acting as successful examples of women’s civic organizations that could withstand public scrutiny of the new-found ambitions of women.
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