The 1890 WCE constitution declared the following purpose: “To secure better homes, better motherhood, better laws, truer citizenship and a nobler womanhood by promoting the physical, social, mental, moral and spiritual development of its members.” WCE originally divided its activities into three spheres: Art and literature, child and home, and philanthropy and sociology. Ten percent of dues and initiation fees went directly to fund WCE “causes.” (See history section for detailed information on activities.)
The club began on March 2, 1889 when Elizabeth Boynton Harbert invited 20 friends over to her home at 1412 Judson St. for tea. A constitution was enacted in 1890 outlining the club’s wide-ranging fields of endeavor (see above). The first major project was the establishment of Evanston Hospital. At the time of WCE’s formation, the closest hospital to Evanston was Cook County Hospital. A typhoid epidemic of the late 1880s and early 1890s made evident the community need for a hospital facility.  WCE organized a “Kermess”  and raised sufficient funds to contribute $3600 in 1892 to the formation of the hospital. From its inception the WCE has acted to enhance pubic health in Evanston. It helped organize the Visiting Nurse Association, which brought the first visiting nurse to Evanston and paid her salary (1897). It also supported testing of sight and hearing in public schools as well as establishing sanitary food inspection. (The WCE paid the salary of Evanston’s first food and milk inspector.)
WCE was also involved in the organization of the first Mother’s Club in Evanston schools. Mrs. R.B. McMullen, chairman of the Child and Home division of the WCE and Mrs. George Moore, founder of the first Mother’s Club at Noyes School, attended the National Congress of Mothers and brought the concept back to Evanston. Mother’s Clubs are the forerunner to today’s Parent Teacher Association. WCE also takes credit for organizing the Association of Evanston Charities (later the Family Welfare Association).
A major early development in the club’s history was the establishment of a permanent home under the direction of Mrs. Avis Grant, chairwoman of the building committee. Important dates are: February 1910 – the project begun; January 1911 – lot at 1702 Chicago Avenue purchased; February 1911 – ground broken; May 1912 – cornerstone laid; March 1913 – opening reception. The architect was Ernest A. Mayo.
During World War I, the WCE provided an ambulance for the Red Cross in France, opened the clubhouse to entertain service men, and sponsored Red Cross knitting and sewing groups. Immediately after the war, the WCE converted its food conservation efforts to supporting the opening of a Community Kitchen. Initially, WCE president, Mrs. Long, authorized the use of the clubhouse kitchen in response to the influenza epidemic and the perceived “servant problem” in Evanston. From this genesis, a Community Kitchen that provided for sale hot meals transported to individual homes was established. (See separate database entry for more information about the Community Kitchen)
In 1923, WCE began its involvement in the sale of Christmas Seals for the Tuberculosis Institute. During the depression years, “Orange Barrels” collected food that was distributed through welfare agencies. The WCE continued to support Red Cross efforts in World War II. In 1944, the Evanston Child Care Center was sponsored by WCE and later became a Community Chest agency. WCE continued its support of Christmas Seals until 1952, and supported the March of Dimes and Mothers’ March on Polio from 1952 – 1955. When the United Fund approach to raising money and supporting charities was adopted by Evanston, WCE supported the United Fund.
Since its inception, the WCE has supported various cultural activities including an annual Art Exhibit for the North Shore and Evanston begun in 1922. Additionally the club offered lectures and classes over the years.
Additional Building Info: Initial meeting held in Harbert’s home at 1412 Judson St. Prior to the completion of the WCE permanent home at 1702 Chicago Ave, the group met at various locations including: Odd Fellows Hall (1893), Evanston Boat Club (1894-96), Evanston Country Club (1896-98), Orrington Ave YMCA, assorted Evanston churches such as St. Mark’s, First Presbyterian, First Methodist, First Baptist. Records also indicate 615 Church St was purchased in 1919 to provide rent free housing to young women employed by the government doing “reconstruction work” for soldiers and sailors along the north shore. (Possibly subsequently known as the “Young Women’s Community Club”)
The Woman’s Club of Evanston (WCE) was founded by Elizabeth Boynton Harbert in 1889 to “secure better homes, wiser motherhood, better laws, truer citizenship and a nobler womanhood.” Whether raising money for the first hospital and visiting nurse, supporting changes in child labor laws, sewing clothes for the poor, or offering courses in parliamentary procedure, the Woman’s Club took seriously its role of educating its members and creating a better community. In 1913, the WCE opened its new clubhouse at 1702 Chicago Avenue. To this day it is one of the top philanthropic funders in Evanston.
WCE made a number of lasting contributions to Evanston. Its initial support of Evanston Hospital, the Visiting Nurse Association, sanitary food inspection and the Community Kitchen helped fill the gaps in public health services in the early twentieth century. The Evanston Hospital continues to provide medical resources to the community to the present. WCE helped bring Evanston into contact with a number of national movements and causes such as the National Congress of Mothers (ultimately the PTA), Community Kitchen, Tuberculosis Seals, and the United Fund. It also supported the Northwestern Settlement House early in its history.
The permanent home of the WCE at 1702 Chicago Ave. was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. In addition to housing the club’s activities its rental spaces have hosted community events for decades. Interestingly, while the WCE website history proudly claims Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony as among the first “notable speakers” and notes that social reformer Frances Willard served on the early Board of Directors, the club did not take an active role in promoting reform or women’s causes such as suffrage. In its fiftieth anniversary report, the WCE highlights founder Elizabeth Harbert’s progressive positions on suffrage, prohibition and political and social reform. However, it also notes that the issue of woman’s suffrage was not included in the club’s Bulletin as it was “too controversial.” Club records reflect intermittent payment to Illinois Equal Suffrage Association (payments in 1911, 1913).