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The Athenians

Twenty-member study group founded in Hartville, Missouri. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a member.

Tomorrow I expect to go to Hartville club meeting. They want me to give them the talk I made at Detroit and are making quite a fuss about it. – letter from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, 1938.

The Athenians was a women’s club organized in Hartville, Missouri around 1915, for the purpose of study and self-improvement. Athena is the Greek virgin goddess of reason, intelligent activity, arts and literature. The daughter of Zeus, Athena sprang full grown from his forehead, thus has no mother. Laura wrote that she felt that the Athenians were unique because they allowed both town and country members, while itself being a town club. Membership was limited to twenty; there were no dues; and two negative ballots would exclude anyone from membership.

Mansfield is twelve miles from Hartville. I always wondered how Mrs. Wilder became associated with Hartville women enough to be invited to join an exclusive town club there. Her Ruralist articles? The fact that she was Rose’s mother? Friends from church, Eastern Star, from when the Wilders lived in the town of Mansfield, or were they wives of men Almanzo knew?

Was the Athenians associated with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs? (Maybe that was the Justamere Club or another one Laura belonged to. I know at least one of her clubs was associated with them.) From the Reader’s Companion to American History: “The General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded in Chicago in 1890. Starting with a few thousand members, the organization grew rapidly, reaching a membership of over a million in 1910. The clubs began, like most similar organizations of the day, by offering self-improvement and recreation to middle-class women- for whom, according to contemporary custom, paid work was both unnecessary and inappropriate. Gradually, however, the GFWC was caught up in the enthusiasm for reform that was sweeping the country at the end of the nineteenth century. Turning to social betterment, the clubs within the GFWC started nursery schools and children’s clinics, supported health and welfare programs, and lobbied for conservation, pure food and drugs, the abolition of child labor, and other progressive programs, especially those related to maternal and child welfare.

“After World War I, the members’ enthusiasm for social change slackened, and by the early 1920s they had retreated to the less controversial grounds of fighting pornography and promoting home economics. Even in its activist days, the GFWC had never ventured beyond the mainstream of progressivism; it made no effort to join hands with black women’s clubs or with working-class women’s organizations. It did not endorse woman suffrage until 1914. But it had provided formidable support for a broad range of social reforms in the years before the First World War.”

The mission statement of the GFWC today states: “Working locally through thousands of clubs in the United States and globally in more than 20 countries, GFWC members support the arts, preserve natural resources, promote education, encourage healthy lifestyles, stress civic involvement, and work toward world peace and understanding.” The Athenians had been organized “for the purpose of study and self-improvement…. to cultivate their minds and increase their knowledge.” That goes along with the “self-improvement” original mission statement of the GFWC, but it doesn’t seem to me that The Athenians ever got beyond that stage into trying to affect change in others.

Most of the reports about Laura’s club meetings seem to involve titles of papers presented, flowers used for decorations, and dainty lunches served afterwards.


The Athenians