Women's Clubs Evolve for New Generation Fortnightly clubs were founded in the 19th century as a place for women to have an intellectual life back when they were shut out of universities. The clubs have formal rules and arcane procedures, but many are being revitalized by a new generation of retired women.
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Women's Clubs Evolve for New Generation

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Women's Clubs Evolve for New Generation

Women's Clubs Evolve for New Generation

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LYNN NEARY, host:

If you're the kind of person who felt relief on the day you never again had to do a college research paper, this story might surprise you. There are some people who relish research so much they meet in research clubs. These clubs, like one in Hamilton, New York, were started long ago by women at a time when many were denied a university education.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Meika Loe, an associate professor of sociology in women's studies at Colgate University, says renting a room from an elderly widow suddenly brought her into a different world of older, intellectual women who support each other. She was led to a research group, the Hamilton Fortnightly Club, so named because it met every two weeks, and its history goes back 115 years.

Professor MEIKA LOE (Sociology in Women's Studies, Colgate University): The wives of faculty and some women in the community came together and said we need to have a space where we can practice mental uplift and broadening. Let's come together and practice research and uplift ourselves in that way.

Unidentified Woman: Barbara Abramson.

Ms. BARBARA ABRAMSON (Member, Hamilton Fortnightly Club): Present.

Unidentified Woman: Mary Albert…

ADLER: The Hamilton Fortnightly Club is one of many such clubs in the United States and most are quite formal, says Loe, with roll call, minutes, a certain rigidity.

Prof. LOE: This Queen tradition of the old-time club that borrowed on that masculine legitimacy of this is a formal educational space. No refreshments. In fact, there are by-laws that state very clearly in most of these clubs, we do not do food, we keep it to an hour, if you're late you will get fined. Creating a…

ADLER: Fined?

Prof. LOE: Yes, yes. In fact, one of these clubs has a little piggy bank. I imagine they kept just at the front of the room and you put in your dime if you were late.

ADLER: Members have to present a 20-minutes-long research paper every year, although there are honorary members who no longer present papers, like Ruth Hartshorne, who has been a member for 25 years and is now 94. She says the club has kept her alert. As for writing those papers…

Ms. RUTH HARTSHORNE (Member, Hamilton Fortnightly Club): Oh, that's fun, and such agony. It's fun reading and it's fun writing a general paper and then comes an agony, all those pearls of wisdom on the floor until you get it down to 20 minutes.

ADLER: Do you time yourself?

Ms. HARTSHORNE: Yes. Set the timer and read it aloud and cut if it makes more than 20 minutes.

ADLER: At today's meeting, which takes place in the Hamilton, New York Public Library, there are two 20-minute presentations. This year's theme is travel. On presentation by Joanne Guyer(ph) is on a single event, a railroad accident in the Cascade Mountains in 1910 that claim 96 lives.

Ms. JOANNE GUYER (Member, Hamilton Fortnightly Club): Could the course of the avalanche had been predicted and thus avoided? What role was played by the greed and speed…

ADLER: A second paper is presented on the crusade. There is a short period for questions and comments after each presentation. For many of these women there's a rush of adrenaline when they get involved in a research project, the same kind of feeling a detective might get when he or she solves a crime.

Loe tells a story of one elderly woman, a fine cook, who eats tuna fish out of a can over her kitchen sink during the several winter weeks she is most involved in her paper. Others take a big pot of coffee up to their bedroom and hibernate.

Carol Bergen is 72 and has been a member of Fortnightly for 20 years.

Ms. CAROL BERGEN (Member, Hamilton Fortnightly Club): The way it goes with me is I read and read and read and then I sit down and it all comes out in a space of maybe an intense three days.

ADLER: And so then the rest is polishing it and…

Ms. BERGEN: Exactly.

ADLER: …figuring it out.

Ms. BERGEN: Exactly. It has forced me to stop my life for a while and get deeply into a subject, getting my arms around something that I didn't know before. And then the pleasure of writing.

ADLER: The Hamilton Fortnightly Club is growing. It now has about 35 members. Today women wear slacks and jeans. Once it was gloves and skirts. The reasons for joining have also changed over time. The clubs weaned in influence as women entered the workplace and academia. But today there is a new generation of retired and elderly women who are looking for ways to keep mentally young.

As Meika Loe puts it, it's not enough to do Sudoku.

Prof. ROE: There's nothing like taking on a research project and then presenting it to a group to feel like you are doing that brain fitness work. It always was about this, the mental stimulation component. But the kind of informal need for it now is, I would say, about health and about longevity and about community.

ADLER: But it's also about something else, says Loe. It's about the power and obsession of doing a project that's truly your own.

Margot Adler NPR News, New York.

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