BURLINGTON — In its heyday, the Burlington Woman’s Club could mobilize more than 100 women for social service projects around town.
Today, the once prestigious and influential club is down to just four remaining members.
Evolving lifestyle trends for American women, especially those who work outside the home, are making it difficult for traditional service clubs to recruit new members.
So, the Burlington Woman’s Club is in jeopardy of fading into history.
Unable to entice a new generation of activists, the club’s remaining members are considering disbanding and ending more than a century of civic service and philanthropy in Burlington.
“I don’t know what else to try,” club president Ellen Weber said. “I think we’re doomed.”
From a ‘golden era’ to now
Community leaders are disappointed to learn that the club might be shutting down.
“It breaks my heart,” said Beth Reetz, general manager of Veterans Terrace, where the club held meetings for years. “They’re really such special ladies.”
Over the years, starting when the club was established in 1915, the Burlington Woman’s Club has been known for championing causes and promoting awareness of issues ranging from education to the environment. The group has organized events, donated funds, dispatched volunteers and introduced new services.
Originally known as the Burlington Woman’s Study Club, the group got started in 1915, two years before the U.S. joined World War I. The idea was to offer a social and educational outlet for women, while also creating a volunteer group to bring new services to Burlington.
Records at the Burlington Historical Society show that a club was discussed as far back as 1898. But the 1915 date has been used as the club’s official beginning.
The organization drew enough women that the membership was divided into areas of interest, including education, the arts, the environment and public affairs.
Nancy Osmolak, the current vice president and a member since the 1970s, said the club once was so popular and well regarded that some women joined purely for the prestige of being members.
“That was our golden era,” Osmolak said.
The Burlington Woman’s Club made its presence known throughout the community with fashion shows, flower shows, art contests, sewing contests, bake sales and rummage sales. There were student scholarship awards, health care programs, and donations to the hospital and the library. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the club was known for its “Breakfast With Santa” program, which delighted kids at Cooper Elementary School each holiday season with arts and crafts and tasty treats. The club’s “Picture Lady” program, later renamed the “Masterpiece Program,” brought fine art into the schools, with club members visiting classrooms to give lectures on famous paintings.
The group encouraged recycling in the home, promoted patriotism by teaching U.S. flag etiquette and raised money for doctors in developing countries.
Linda Reed, another of the last remaining members, recalls starting a service to benefit low-income families by supplying gift bags of household supplies for celebrating birthdays and holidays.
Reed said the club became an outlet where women could share ideas for civic improvement — and then get help turning those ideas into action.
“It was just a grand time,” she said.
Affiliated with the national General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Burlington group frequently won awards for its wide-ranging programs and services.
The popularity of women’s clubs has faded in the past half-century as increasing numbers of women got jobs outside the home. From 1950-2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of American women involved in the U.S. workforce nearly doubled from 29.6% to 46.6%. By 2019, 57.4% of women were participating in the labor force.
To break up or hang on
According to some estimates, the club’s membership peaked at 140, possibly as high as 180.
At one point in the 1970s, the club became so popular that some women wanted to cut off membership by turning away new members. Although that idea was shot down after much debate, Osmolak recalls that several members quit the organization in protest.
“It broke the club,” she said.
The group recovered nonetheless and continued to thrive under the leadership of Lois Reinfeldt, who served as president for more than 20 years. In 2015, a celebration of the club’s 100-year anniversary drew a crowd of supporters and dignitaries to Veterans Terrace.
But membership slowly dwindled, as some members died, others became too frail and others simply lost interest while the next generation didn’t show an interest.
When Reinfeldt and another member died in quick succession in early 2020, the club was down to just a handful of people.
Weber, who lives in Williams Bay but has been active in clubs elsewhere, agreed to take over as president in Burlington. Under her leadership, the club tried recruiting new members through advertisements and promotions. But nothing seemed to work.
Helen Schaefer, the fourth remaining member of the club, said women nowadays seem too busy with their families and their careers to make a commitment to such an organization.
Schaefer is melancholy as she contemplates the idea of disbanding a group that has been around for more than 100 years. “Well,” she said, “we made some nice friends while we were at it.”
Burlington Public Library Director Joe Davies, whose facility has received book donations and other benefits from the club over the years, is trying to help the group keep going.
Davies agreed to put up a display in the library highlighting the club’s history and encouraging people to join. But the idea was set aside when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the library temporarily closed its doors.
There is still a need for groups like the Burlington Woman’s Club, Davies said, and he hopes to see it survive.
“If it goes, I don’t want to let it go without a fight,” he said.
If the remaining club members in March elect to call it quits, the group will withdraw its affiliation from the national federation and then decide where to donate its remaining money in the bank.
Reed said she is still perplexed about why women today are uninterested in the camaraderie and partnership that once drew her and so many others to the Burlington Woman’s Club.
“I feel bad about that,” she said. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”
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