Other than through church work, Mississippi women did not form organizations until after Reconstruction. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, organizations that had originated in other states began to proliferate in Mississippi as the wives of professional men and middle- to upper-class women enjoyed more leisure time. In addition, the increasing availability of higher education resulted in a growing number of professional women. The need for social services for an increasing urban population led to the creation of groups through which Mississippi women could express a new sense of social usefulness, self-reliance, and initiative.
Moving beyond church missionary societies, Mississippi women joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) under the leadership of Belle Kearney and Nellie Nugent Somerville. The moral imperatives of the WCTU provided a base from which to crusade for a state-supported college for women, for the establishment of industrial schools and homes for youthful offenders, and for other reforms. More important, WCTU stalwarts formed the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association in 1897, and this group in turn became the state’s chapter of the League of Women Voters. Other women found a venue for civic improvement endeavors through affiliates with the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs, organized at Kosciusko in 1898. And many white women became involved in the Daughters of the American Revolution beginning in 1896 and the United Daughters of the Confederacy beginning in 1897.
The National Federation of Business and Professional Women organized clubs in four Mississippi cities in 1924 and soon spread to other locales. Another professional women’s group, the Sorosis Club, also came to Mississippi, as did civic clubs such as Altrusa International and the Pilot Club and the PEO, which focused on providing educational opportunities for girls and women. The American Association of University Women formed its first Mississippi branch in 1927. The first Mississippi chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, an international society for women teachers, organized in 1934. The once-elitist Junior Leagues have been active in the state since 1941 and have now become more open, expanding their focus to encompass a variety of issues affecting women and children.
Fewer organizations have existed for black women, although the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs has been at work in the state since 1903. Beginning in the late twentieth century, such groups as Links, Delta Sigma Theta alumnae, and the National Council of Negro Women have attracted an active membership.
Rural and small-town women, black and white, have been active in Mississippi’s home demonstration clubs since as early as 1918. Farm women also work together through affiliates of the Mississippi Farm Bureau, stressing citizenship, safety, and full partnership with men in agricultural pursuits.
As a major tool of social change, federated clubs have been a major impetus for the creation of local libraries, sanitary water and milk supplies, legislation to benefit to women and children, and civic beautification. Mississippi women’s interest in their environment and in history resulted in garden clubs that promote memorial plantings, highway beautification, tours of historic homes, and the restoration of historic structures.
As more women have entered the political arena and joined the workforce and previously all-male civic clubs, Mississippi women’s organizations have lost membership and voluntarism has declined. Feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) have made limited headway in the state. Nonetheless, there is scarcely a Mississippi town where African American and white women do not still join together to launch impressive projects for conviviality, civic improvement, and the advancement of the status of women.
- Martha H. Swain, in Sex, Race, and the Role of Women in the South, ed. Joanne V. Hawks and Sheila Skemp (1983)
- Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Women Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (1993)