In its Final Year, a Tribute to the University Women’s Club

"There is much to celebrate in all that the University Women’s Club has achieved, and in all that the women it represented and supported have achieved,” said President Fuchs at the Women’s History Month Reception.

In its Final Year, a Tribute to the University Women’s Club

Hello everyone, and welcome!

This event celebrates the accomplishments of the women of the University of Florida, both students and faculty members, with awards presented by the UF Women’s Student Association and the Association of Academic Women.

We’ll get to those awards in a moment.  But first, I want to make some remarks about another UF women’s group, the University Women’s Club.

With March being Women’s History Month, I want to talk about the club because it is making history this year, and it is making history in two big ways.

I’ll tell you about the first one now, and I’ll get to the second one a little later.

The first way the University Women’s Club is making history this year is that it is turning 100.  It was founded in 1922 and it is celebrating its Centennial.

The club began as an organization of faculty wives called “The University of Florida Dames” at the urging of UF’s second president, Albert Murphree, according to a history published by the club. In 1922, UF’s students were men and most, if not all, of the faculty were men.

The early officers were the wives of a “Who’s Who” of UF.  The first president was Blanche Leigh, whose husband, Towns Leigh, was the longtime chair of chemistry and founder of our pharmacy college.  The fifth president was Helen Newell, whose husband headed UF agriculture and extension.  These men were the namesakes for Leigh Hall and Newell Hall.  But now when we pass those buildings, let’s think of Blanche and Helen!

The club’s founding purpose was, quote, “to promote a spirit of friendliness and to provide social intercourse among its members.”  For many years its parties, receptions, and musical programs anchored the UF’s social calendar.  One of the most-anticipated was the spring “Vesper Tea,” to celebrate graduates and their families.  It was a formal AND a floral affair, with guests in hats and gloves, and with elaborate arrangements of magnolia buds and yellow daylilies.

The club also contributed financially to UF from the outset.  In 1922 -- again, the year it was founded -- UF and Gainesville were so  much smaller and poorer.  That year, the club pledged $100 for a fireplace and mantel to be used in the construction of Bryan Hall.

As the university and the community grew and prospered, so did the club.  For many recent decades, its focus has been on providing scholarships to students, with members raising money through dues, donations, supper parties, auctions and garage sales.

Its aid has been substantial.  We spoke to Kathy Kidder and Beverly Bartlett, club secretary and treasurer, respectively, and they said the club has awarded at least $600,000 in student scholarships.  It also long supported a fund that provided emergency financial aid to thousands of students facing job losses or other trying times.

As the club celebrates its Centennial, I am grateful for its role in weaving the social fabric of the university, particularly in our university’s earliest years, and in supporting our students.

This gets me to the second reason the University Women’s Club is making history this year.  Its members have decided to disband the club. Its final event will be its 2022 Centennial Gala on October 18th, nearly 100 years to the day after the first members met with President Murphree on October 6th, 1922.

Mrs. Kidder told us that the club’s members decided to disband the club because of declining participation.  When the club was in its heyday in the early 1980s, it had 500 members.  That number has dwindled to about 75 today.  It is increasingly hard to find new members and those willing to serve as officers.

The decline in membership reflects our changing community and our changing society.  There is less pull today to be part of the town-gown tradition than when Gainesville was smaller. Participation in civic and social club is declining nationally.  And, the status of women has changed.  When UF was an all-male university, up until 1947, and for many years after that, most women came here as faculty wives.  Today, they are likely to arrive as faculty or academic leaders.

The University Women’s Club is among many such clubs closing its doors. Elsewhere in the Southeast, the University Women’s Club at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville closed last year. The UT club was founded in 1912.

There is a certain sadness to this end to an era, this historic ending.  But, there is also much to celebrate in all that the Club has achieved, and in all that the women it represented and supported have achieved.

The University Women’s Club was a vital social force in UF’s most tender, earliest years, when bringing people together and making them feel welcome and comfortable was a rare and treasured thing.  The club was, and has remained, a vital help to students.  And it will be going forward: The club’s endowment at the UF Foundation will continue to provide scholarships to students in perpetuity.  Its clubhouse, at 324 Woodlawn Drive at UF’s indoor tennis courts, will go to the UF Athletic Association, where our student-athletes will put it to good use.

On this final day of Women’s History Month, I note that the UF Women’s Club may be ending, but its legacy will endure.  And the university that it nurtured and helped to grow for these past 100 years will continue to flourish – both supported AND led by the women who fill our classrooms, faculty ranks and leadership roles.

Thank you.