The History of the New York Wellesley Club
By Lucienne S. Bloch '59
In December of 1890, forty-three graduates of a women’s college with a motto of Non Ministrari sed Ministrare gathered to start an alumnae club in New York City. That same year, stenographer Alice Sanger became the first woman to work on the professional staff of the White House; Nellie Bly, an intrepid stunt journalist, completed her record-setting 72-day dash about the world; The National American Woman Suffrage Association was established; social reformer, writer and photographer Jacob Riis’ influential book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, was published. The coincidence of these events in that year hints at an internally linked message underscored by the phrase on Wellesley's seal: Women who care can and will achieve anything.
From its earliest days to its 125th year, the New York Wellesley Club has done well by doing good, for the College, for its urban community, for the nation’s needs in wartime and the Depression, for its members, for former and current and potential Wellesley students.
As stated in a 1954 revision of the Club’s original Constitution and By-laws, the object of the organization was “....to advance the interests, influence, and efficiency of Wellesley College; to promote social, literary, and fraternal interests among the alumni (sic), undergraduates, and former students of Wellesley College.” Membership would include “...graduates, undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, officers, former students and their mothers.” Membership has fluctuated over the years; there are presently 400 members, although the Club can and does communicate with nearly 2,700 Wellesley alumnae in the New York City area.
Club dues in 1890 were 25 cents a year. This fee was doubled two years later to raise money for the debt incurred by the college while building Norumbega Hall. The 1914 destruction of College Hall by fire prompted the raising of sizable funds for a new building, and the New York Club participated enthusiastically in that crucial effort. By 1950, yearly dues had risen to $10 for alumnae and $6 for undergraduates, faculty and the above-mentioned mothers. Present-day dues range from $25 annually to $1000 for a Lifetime Membership.
The Club’s early members were treated to lectures ranging from “Social and Religious Life at Wellesley,” to an inspiring account of Dr. Phillips Brooks’ last sermon at Wellesley, and to a talk by Katharine Lee Bates that lauded the natural beauty of the campus. Similar talks were given often, usually at luncheons as daytime was easier for a woman to go out and about in the city unaccompanied by a man, a husband, it was hoped. Members also enjoyed playing basketball with Smith alumnae, and taking yearly bicycle tours through Central Park that ended with lunch in a midtown restaurant. Club members performed in theatrical and musical soirees for the benefit of the College. There were frequent members’ meetings that occasionally included typical Tree Day dances and were always punctuated by the rousing singing of Wellesley songs and the genteel shouting of Wellesley cheers.
Information about Club events and gatherings were communicated in printed bulletins -- four yearly in the 1950s and 1960s. In those years, there was an event almost every week, summers excepted. Members enjoyed private home tours, theater events, and museum and private art-collection benefits. They continued to present amateur musicales and plays, and joined other college clubs for dinners and dances. Because of the growing numbers of professional women, the Club became palpably less formal that it had been before World War Two. Frequent presentations and meetings were held for the Club’s professional alumnae and experts in their fields. Junior members of the Club began to plan their own programs and parties, “....evening mixers held at taverns, night clubs, or men’s college clubs....Tickets are usually $2 for the girls and $2.50 for the men....One problem they do have is getting enough girls to equal the number of men attending.”
The New York Wellesley Club celebrated its 75th anniversary on December 13, 1965, with a Champagne reception at its then-headquarters, the Berkshire Hotel on Madison Avenue. Wellesley President Margaret Clapp was the guest of honor, and fourteen past presidents of the Club attended, along with 130 current members. News of the event appeared in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. A month later, the Club inaugurated its series of luncheon lectures by distinguished alumnae, talks that are still presented, but not in the middle of professional women’s workday hours.
While the Club appealed to its members' social interests, it was also clear that "ministrare" was part of a Wellesley alumna's DNA. During World War One, Club members volunteered for the Liberty Loan Drive, and supported the Land Army leaders being trained on the College campus to assist the Wellesley Unit in France. In the Depression years, there was a Club unit of the nation’s Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee. Members were asked to donate funds to the destitute and, as importantly, to help them find jobs. In World War Two, the Club started a workroom to sew and knit clothing for military personnel, made kit bags, hospital dressings, and curtains for barracks. They also entertained service men and women at parties. In 1943, a letter went out to the membership stating that costly parties and benefit events would be skipped for the war’s duration, and appealing for contributions made directly to the Wellesley College Scholarship Fund.
The College has also benefitted from Club members’ ministrare trait in other ways. In 1950, the Club participated with nine other organizations in starting and running the Nearly New thrift shop on Ninth Avenue and 53rd Street, which consistently provided money directly to the College. Members opened their homes to house Wellesley undergraduates doing summer work in the city, low-salaried graduates, and often employed student house-sitters. Club members worked closely with the Admissions Office, serving as local interviewers of applicants for admission to Wellesley. The New York Club continues to do interviews, actively recruits prospective students at local high schools and college fairs, runs an annual book award program for high school students who might be persuaded to apply to the College, and invites accepted students to programs and events presented by the Club.
The education of women is a recurring issue on the Club's and the College's collective mind. Every so often since the early 1900s, Club members receive detailed questionnaires about their academic, social, spiritual, emotional, ethical, economic and athletic experiences at Wellesley and the effect of those experiences on their lives after graduation. Other surveys examine members’ thoughts about women's education more generally, soliciting their opinions about the revisions to the curricula at the College. Similar surveys are sent by the College to all alumnae during periods of changing sociocultural ground rules, such as the mid-1960s.
The New York Club’s social and intellectual life, good works, and committee meetings took place in many different locations. For its first eighty-some years, The Club rented several floors or a suite of rooms in a number of hotels, among them the Manhattan, McAlpin, Pennsylvania, Barbizon Hotel for Women, Barclay, Belmont Plaza, and the Berkshire. In all of these hotels, the Club shared space with other college clubs: Smith, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Mt. Holyoke, and Randolph Macon. An advantage of hotel rentals was the availability of reduced overnight stays. In 1940, the members’ rate for a single bedroom with bath at the Barclay was $6 a night, and members attending functions in the Club rooms could eat lunch for 65 cents, dinner for 30 additional pennies. An additional advantage was use of the hotel’s tasteful furniture, which saved the Club from having to buy and move and perhaps discard chairs and desks and the like. After several more moves in the 1970s, the travel-weary Wellesley Club began to use space in college clubs that had permanent quarters, such as Cornell and Princeton, and now has a similar arrangement with the Williams Club.
Periodically, the New York Wellesley Club has an existential crisis, sparked by its wandering headquarters situation, or by the financial and programmatic implications of its fluctuating number of members, or by the ups and downs of the economy, and last but hardly least, by the constantly evolving nature and demands of women's schedules, interests, and commitments.
There were still four bulletins yearly in 1974, but many fewer events during a month. That year, the Club started its annual trips for members to places such as London, Pakistan, China, Scotland and the former Yugoslavia. There were twenty-two trips before this program ended. The 1980s saw a decline in membership in many alumni and social clubs. The New York Wellesley Club, wanting to formulate a long-range survival plan, sent a survey to seventeen other clubs in 1987, including seven Ivies and two business school clubs. The survey resulted in asking the College “...to become actively and concretely involved in supporting the New York Wellesley Club, to whit: by providing the Club with a local paid administrator and by subsidizing a physical presence for the Club.” Although the College did not do this, the Club survived as a self-sustaining organization run by alumnae volunteers, and it has thrived.
Over the final decades of the last century, across the millennial bridge and its own century-plus span, the New York Club continues to be a resource for Wellesley College and an important meeting site, whether physical or digital, for its alumnae. There are over 100 Wellesley Clubs across America and abroad, all under the aegis of the College’s Alumnae Association. All of them sponsor events and activities that help alumnae stay connected to each other and to Wellesley. From its beginning to the present, the New York Club was in a unique situation, and prevailed over it. Unfazed by competition from the hundreds of exciting events happening every day and night in the city, the Club presents about twenty-five programs yearly, has an active schedule of networking and mentoring gatherings, interviews seventy or more prospective students a year, and has four volunteer committees that oversee its programs, communications, membership, book award, and admission activities. Ever mindful of its ministrare nature, the Club organizes volunteer activities with the city’s nonprofit groups, giving members the opportunity to coach low-income women entering the workforce for the first time, or returning to work. The Club stays in constant touch with its members and alumnae listed in the area directory through email, print newsletters, and an active Facebook group.
Although the Club focuses its efforts on alumnae connections and local admissions work, it continues to make contributions to the College when its revenue permits. The Club holds three endowed funds: The New York Wellesley Club Scholarship Fund, the Brooklyn Wellesley Club Scholarship Fund (now merged with the New York Club Fund), and the Candace Stimson Scholarship Fund of the New York Wellesley Club. Additionally, the Club holds two endowed funds for faculty advancement and support.
There has been a revolution in women’s roles and horizons over the lifetime of the New York Wellesley Club, but there is an ongoing constant: the wish for engaging and congenial companionship. A flexible, thoughtful, and imaginative alumnae club can make this wish a reality, connecting women who share a pivotal past experience, and have a remarkable range of talents, interests, professions, and accomplishments. Yes, we did it, still do it, and will in the future!
(c) Lucienne S. Bloch 2015