Driving up to the Middletown Woman’s Club feels like stepping back in time. Surrounded by big-name businesses like Dairy Queen, AutoZone and Stock Yards Bank & Trust, the quaint little building at 11719 Shelbyville Road would stick out like a sore thumb if it weren’t so easy to miss.
But it’s not only the club’s appearance that makes it seem outdated — its very existence feels anachronistic, better suited for a bygone era.
The first women’s clubs were established in 1868 in New York and Boston. According to a brief history of women’s clubs on the National Women’s History Museum website, at that time, “political activism, civic reform, and community involvement were regarded as outside the realm of big-hearted mothers and wives who should focus on loving their families and providing a good example of moral behavior.”
Women’s clubs directly challenged these norms, inviting women to develop “their minds and communities by meeting regularly in order to learn about the great ideas of the past and contemporary urban problems together.”
What started as two clubs in the late 1860s quickly grew into a national movement, and “in the years between the 1870s and 1920s, women’s clubs became the major vehicle by which American women could exercise their developing talents to shape the world beyond their homes.”
Membership in women’s clubs continued to rise until 1926. As opportunities for women in the public sphere increased throughout the twentieth century, the need for women’s clubs decreased.
Despite this fact, “hundreds of clubs continued to function in this country into modern times, providing members with regular meetings in order to network, learn about social issues, identify civic problems, and devise solutions through volunteer power.”
The Middletown Woman’s Club was established more than a decade after the end of the golden era of the women’s club movement, in the wake of the Ohio River flood of 1937. The women of Middletown had come together to assist with flood relief for displaced Louisvillians who had been forced to flee the city. Once the crisis was over, the women decided to remain together and form a club. Thirty-four charter members gathered for their first meeting at the home of Mrs. Joe Thormahlem on April 9, 1937.
Once the club had been established, the women turned their attention to building a clubhouse. The land for the clubhouse was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Luther Wetherby and Mr. and Mrs. C. H. Bliss in July 1938. The building was funded in large part by a Works Progress Administration labor grant totaling $8,500. The club was responsible for contributing $3,000 for materials for the building.
The women held many events in order to raise funds: bingo and bridge parties, luncheons selling chances on a ham, silver teas, donut sales, dinners, barbecues, dances, and a carnival. They collected dimes outside of the bank and rented dishes and silverware at ten cents a piece.
In the final stretch of their fundraising efforts, the women held a “womanless wedding.” These performances, popular in the United States in the early nineteenth century, were comic rituals in which an all-male cast would act out the roles of a traditional wedding party. They were often held to raise money for charities, civic organizations, and churches.
Almost one year after the land was donated, the Middletown Woman’s Club held their first meeting in their clubhouse on May 26, 1939.
In the many years since, the Middletown Woman’s Club has engaged in far-reaching service to the community. These include the following activities, some of which are still ongoing:
• Putting on the Middletown Carnival at the elementary school
• Engaging in cemetery beautification and maintenance
• Creating a lending library service
• Establishing recreation programs for Middletown children
• Holding dances and suppers for soldiers and Bowman Field during World War II and rolling bandages for the Red Cross
• Co-sponsoring a kindergarten program for Middletown children
• Delivering Christmas gifts to Nicols Hospital, Central State Hospital, and Maryhurst
• Granting scholarships to Eastern High School students each year
• Hosting art exhibits for Middletown Grade Schools and Eastern High School
• Donating to area charities and organization like Metro United Way, the Salvation Army, Maryhurst, Eastern Area Community Ministries, and Angel Tree
• Collecting supplies like diapers and baby bottles
In addition to serving the community, the Middletown Woman’s Club also seeks to serve their members. They hold meetings at 10:30 a.m. on the third Tuesday of every month except January.
During six of those meetings (three in the spring and three in the fall) they hold presentations on topics ranging from palm reading to politics. “The sky’s the limit,” Ann says. The presentations last about 20 minutes. A formal meeting immediately follows the presentation, also lasting 20 minutes. After that, the women socialize over lunch and dessert.
In-person meetings were temporarily placed on hold during the start of the pandemic, but the women resumed gathering in September. You do not need to be a member to attend — visitors are welcome.
The club also hosts member outings several times a year, including a day at the track in the spring and a picnic in the summer. One year a group of women traveled together to Ireland.
At its height in 1983, the Middletown Woman’s Club had 90 active members. They have just over 30 members now, not all of whom are active. Two of their members have reached the status of Honorary Member for having achieved 45 years or more of continuous membership.
Both Ann and her Vice President, Nancy Rutledge, have been members for a little over a decade. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more about the community,” Ann says.
Nancy, whose neighbor recruited her to join, agrees. “When you have all these women, you get to know your neighbors and your friends,” she says. “When you get older, it’s not as easy to reach out and meet new people. This is a great way to reach out.”
Ann and Nancy both worry about declining membership. “We have lost a lot of members due to illness or death,” Nancy says. “We want it to grow. It needs to grow.” She would like to see more involvement on the part of young people, estimating that the average age of their membership is 55 or 60. The youngest member is in her mid-30s, while the oldest is 84.
The women understand that the world has changed considerably since the club’s heydays. “People work now,” Nancy says. They’ve considered moving their meetings to the evening, but they worry that they would lose their older members if they were to do so.
The Middletown Women’s Club hosts several fundraising evenings each year. The Fall Holiday Auction is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on November 2, 2020. Admission is $10. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at the door. For location information or to purchase tickets, call 417-1997 or 741-5920.
Plans are also underway for the Spring Style Show, which is attended by about 100 people each year. It is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on April 13, 2021. Admission is $25 and includes lunch. Call 417-1997 or 741-5920 for additional information or to purchase tickets.
The club also raises funds by renting out their historic building to local groups. The rate is $50 per hour for a minimum of three hours. A $75 deposit is required. The building, which has a full kitchen, is perfect for church groups, standing meetings (like exercise classes), birthday parties, and showers. The Middletown Women’s Club offers reduced rates for multiple month contracts. Call 417-1997 or 741-5920 for reservations.
Given the fact that many women’s clubs have closed in recent years, the fact that the Middletown Women’s Club continues to hold on is no small feat.
And while one might be tempted to see the club as outdated, perhaps it’s more accurate to view it instead as being as counter-cultural today as the first women’s clubs were all those years ago: a respite in an unceasing world, a place to slow down, get to know your neighbors, make new friends, and give back your community.
Writer / Noelle Gulden