Written by Sophie McNeil Wolf | Photographed by Paul Wolf and Sophie McNeil Wolf
Walking through the door of the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs, I can only think, “If these walls could talk.”
For thirty years, I have driven past Woodrow Wilson Avenue and North State Street, wondering what lies behind the gate surrounding a brick building with the letters GFWC. What do they do there? When their president, Becky C. Wright of Banner, Miss., sent me a list of their accomplishments, I was stunned.
Organized as the Mississippi Federation in 1898 at Kosciusko, the Federation became a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), the largest volunteer organization of women in the world, six years later.
In 1936, the state organization centralized their headquarters to Jackson, locating on a parcel of state land at the corner of Woodrow Wilson Avenue and North State Street. Members from around state raised funds for a clubhouse to be built using Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor.
These rooms have seen the founding of the Mississippi Forestry Commission, establishment of 75 percent of the state’s libraries, establishment of breast cancer screening programs with the Mississippi Department of Health for underserved women, establishment of educational television through Mississippi Public Broadcasting and organization of the Mississippi Library Commission – all orchestrated by the Federation and its members.
And, at the present, the Federation is still continuing the mission started over 100 years ago. The clubhouse’s central location is still vital to the organization and a renewal of the lease three years ago ensures their future for 15 years with an additional 15-year extension after that.
“We pay for the lease with our volunteer hours,” Wright points out. “We keep up with our hours each month and every year we turn in a report to DFA (Department of Finance and Administration) with our combined volunteer hours served. Our hours are counted as minimum wage and pay the lease.”
“(The clubhouse) is so conveniently located, if we want to volunteer at UMMC, the State Hospital (at Whitfield) or the Library Commission. It’s in the center of everywhere,” Wright says, sitting in the grand meeting space.
Several years ago, the state president selected The American Cancer Society as a special emphasis project. As fate would have it, the society’s Hope Lodge project, located at the “point” where North State Street and Old Canton Road meet in Fondren, was announced a few weeks later. The clubs raised enough funds that when the lodge opens, a room will be named in their honor.
The national organization has several areas of emphasis, including domestic violence awareness and prevention, while in Mississippi, every two years the president selects a special project, such as Habitat for Humanity or Batson Children’s Hospital. Three areas of interest carry on in the state from one administration to the next: state institutions (State Hospital at Whitfield, Mississippi School for the Deaf, Mississippi School for the Blind), Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Mississippi Library Commission. Comprised of 41 general clubs and 11 juniorette clubs around the state, clubs can also choose a local project.
The group’s role was so vital to the establishment of the Mississippi Library Commission, Wright emphasizes, the federation holds a permanent position on the five-member commission board. Suzanne Poynor, the federation’s current representative, is the chair of the commission and former president of the federation.
A woman’s right to education is something we take for granted now, Wright says, but it was not the case for all members. “Years ago, women didn’t get the formal education that men did. A lot of our clubs were formed as reading groups. They grew out of that and we still encourage lifelong learning.”
The Federation is an encourager of women and equal rights for women and are not a political organization. “Nationally, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs is one of the oldest, nonpartisan, nondenominational women’s volunteer service organizations in the country. Our theme is ‘unity in diversity.’ We are diverse, and we have to make sure we are working for the good of mankind,” Wright says.
“When you drive by, it’s just a house with a gate and two magnolia trees. Then when you find out what it is, there is a lightbulb. Then when you find out what we do, it blossoms into so much more,” says Sherri Reid, member and president-elect.
Perceptions of club members are of stay-at-home moms and retirees, but most group members work full time. Becky and her husband own the Piggly Wiggly in Bruce. Reid is a designer for a flooring company in Petal.
“Many years ago, women didn’t work,” Wright says. “Now, our 41 clubs are accommodating of all lifestyles with meetings at night and weekends. We are moving away from the garden club mentality – we even use paper plates now,” she says with a laugh.
Wright acknowledges that volunteer organizations as a whole are declining. At the height of their membership, the state Federation had 10,000 members. Now, there are closer to 1,100 members.
“The face of the club woman is changing,” she says. “You don’t have to have a certain pedigree to be a member. We don’t ask to see a resume. It is more about being a volunteer because it is up to us to ensure the future of our children and future generations. As a community, we can do so much more.”