By Greg Olson Jacksonville Journal-Courier, Ill.
Jacksonville's six historic, all-women literary societies figure prominently in a new book that gives snapshots of similar groups across America.
"Smart Women: The Search for America's Historic All-Women Study Clubs" is the work of author Ann Dodds Costello, who lives in Los Angeles and Maine.
"Jacksonville, for many reasons, is the capital of these groups, with all sorts of superlatives to its name -- the oldest group in this country, Sorosis; the longest-active member [Gratia Coultas, now, sadly deceased, since the final edit]; and the greatest number of these 100-plus-year-old clubs of any town in America [six]," Costello said by email.
"No one has ever tried to find the surviving all-women's self-education groups which were founded after the Civil War when women could not get into colleges and didn't even have the vote, until I set out to do just that over the past four and a half years," Costello said. "I actually traveled around the country, visiting many of them. The groups around the country have no central organization and don't know about each other, or they have not until this book appeared."
In "Smart Women," Costello provides basic information about each club, including name, date founded, club size, when and where they meet, program or paper themes and things "of note."
Costello writes that the groups in her book are at least 100 years old and still require members to research and write a paper or give an original program, usually once every year or two, and usually on a topic previously chosen for the year.
Jacksonville's women's literary societies and the years they were founded are: Sorosis ; Household Science ; The Wednesday Class ; College Hill Club ; Monday Conversation Club ; and The History Class .
"Smart Women" also includes information about women's literary clubs in Bloomington, Charleston, Mattoon and Springfield.
"'Smart Women' should be a mainstay of women's studies programs in colleges, as there are discussions of the contributions of these groups in getting women out of the house, into the world, and trying their wings at larger issues, such as getting the vote for women," Costello said.
"It is said that at least 75 percent of all of the first libraries in towns all over America were founded due to the persistence of women in these clubs, who turned en masse to Andrew Carnegie's organization to bring a library to their town.
At one time, there were thousands of these literary societies or fortnightly clubs, but now, I suspect, there may be as few as 200. I was able to find more than 90 still meeting to hear members deliver original papers or programs. I'm asking anyone with knowledge of a group I've missed to let me know, along with giving me a contact in the group for verification, and I will try to bring out a second edition. The groups are all private and do not publicize what they do, so they are very hard to locate."
"Smart Women," published by Lulu Publishing Services, is available through amazon.com.