WHITEFISH BAY - When Addie Kleist and 24 other women formed the Whitefish Bay Woman's Club in 1917, they were fighting for the right to vote and for the betterment of the Whitefish Bay community.
Now, 100 years later, women not only have the right to vote, they hold leadership positions in government and business. As for the betterment of the Whitefish Bay community, the club has played a major role in forming the village's library, post office and fire department. They beautified parks, lobbied legislators for change and have awarded 80 years of scholarships to high school seniors. At one point in the club's history, it was the largest women's club in the state and the nation's largest contributor to the USO.
The progress that women have made professionally and culturally have, in a way, taken a toll on the organizations that helped make that progress possible. As women joined the workplace, their schedules were strained. A proliferation of interest groups, school committees and non-profit organizations have also pulled women away from the clubhouse.
As a result, the club's membership has dropped 84 percent in the last four decades, dropping from 650 in 1967 to 105 in 2017. At its peak, the club attracted women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. While there are still younger women in the club, they only make up about 20 percent of the membership. In an effort to make the club more accessible for younger members with jobs, the club's board is talking about adding more evening activities.
"We're finding that our meetings used to have 30 people, but now we have 40 people," club president Laura Owan said. "We also encourage people to bring a friend to the meetings. Once people come, they usually join."
There are many stay-at-home moms throughout the North Shore suburbs, but for some reason, they have not shown a strong interest in the woman's club. Owan said there is a misconception that women's clubs are strictly for socializing, which discounts the strong service component of the organization.
"I think we have a reputation as ladies who are sitting around pouring tea and not doing much, but that's not the case at all," Owan said.
"We're a group of women dedicated to the idea of helping others and working for their community," added club member Mary McIntyre.
The woman's club reflected on its proud history and accomplishments that brought them to this place with a centennial celebration March 8 — exactly 100 years after the club was formed in Addie Kleist's Lake Drive home. It's unclear whether Kleist and the other women were aware that the Socialist Party of America had named March 8 as International Women's Day eight years prior to their formation. But now, 100 years later, International Women's Day is celebrated widely throughout the world.
In celebration of their 100th birthday, the woman's club held a luncheon and a fashion show of women's dresses throughout the 20th century. Owan's daughter created a quit with the names of the club's 53 presidents and a picture of the clubhouse. Another club member made a quilt with the names of all the current club members. At the celebration, Owan recognized Nina Wier, who is the oldest living past president. She was president from 1968-70.
The woman's club has kept extensive records of its history, with news articles, photos and monthly bulletins compiled in 50 scrapbooks. McIntyre, a retired reference librarian from Whitefish Bay Library, has been indexing those scrapbooks in preparation for the centennial celebration.
In the 1920s, the club petitioned the Milwaukee Post Office for village mail delivery, worked to establish what would become the Whitefish Bay Fire Department and donated a record player and a piano to Whitefish Bay schools, according to the club's records. The Whitefish Bay Village Board named the park at the end of Silver Spring Drive as "Ladies Park" in honor of the club's beautification efforts at the park.
The club advocated for the creation of the Whitefish Bay Library in 1937. The club gathered signatures in 1944 for a petition to create a Whitefish Bay post office, and a small shack of a post office opened on Silver Spring Drive the following year. A permanent post office was built in 1952.
The women’s club also created village directories that were more detailed and thorough than the telephone directory. They went door to door to confirm information about each household. The first Whitefish Bay directory was created in 1927, and they eventually expanded the directories to include Fox Point and River Hills. At the centennial celebration, the woman’s club displayed all of the directories, which they continued to publish until 2000.
The club broke ground on its clubhouse at 600 E. Henry Clay Drive in 1964, and despite many hefty purchase offers on the property, the club is one of the last remaining women's clubs in the Milwaukee area to continue to own their own clubhouse. Owan said they don't plan to sell the building any time soon.
In 1968, the club adopted the Riveredge Nature Center in Saukville, spearheading the fundraising and donating $500 for the original land purchase. The club donated another $1,000 later that year.
In addition to all of the special events and fundraisers organized over the years, the club holds monthly meetings attended by about 40 women. They take turns cooking meals, and diners are charged $5 for the lunch. They have a speaker visit every month, and in the past, they have had national celebrities such as Joan Fontaine, Jesse Owens and Martha Stewart speak at their meetings.
The club once had many different interest groups dedicated to poetry, book discussions, gardening, fishing, bowling, knitting and chorus. Bridge club used to pack the clubhouse decades ago, whereas today it fills two or three tables. In addition to bridge club, the club still has groups dedicated to yoga and knitting.
Four years ago, the club was hit with a $33,000 assessment for alley reconstruction. They raised funds through membership dues, fundraisers, renting out their clubhouse and renting spaces in their parking lot. Before longtime club member Susie Fiolich died earlier this year, she requested an alley fund in her name. Now, the women's club has less than $6,000 remaining on its assessment tab.
Once the alley assessment is paid off, Owan said the club is looking forward to saving money to contribute to civic improvement efforts. Some ideas in the works include studying the costs of putting seatbelts on school buses and discouraging the use of plastic bags.
The Whitefish Bay Woman's Club will continue to celebrate its centennial anniversary throughout the year with its Bazaar in the Bay event on April 1, a book discussion on April 19, a summer picnic, a presence in the Fourth of July parade and a large open house event featuring antiques appraiser Mark Moran on Aug. 20.