YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – One hundred years ago, American women won their right to vote, a hard-won right they’d sought for generations. But casting a ballot wasn’t the only right they sought.
Working women also wanted, among other things, the opportunity to advance their educations, advance in their professions, and to earn equal pay for equal work. In short, they wanted the same rights and opportunities as their white male counterparts.
Even before the right to vote was granted, a national movement was under way to organize America’s working women and to identify the skills they possessed. The Young Women’s Christian Association undertook much of the work, establishing a nationwide organization of business and professional women’s clubs.
In the Mahoning Valley, the first officers of the newly founded Youngstown Business and Professional Women’s Club were announced in 1919. Jean Frey, dean of girls and director of social science at Youngstown’s South High School, was named president. Esther Ellis, Susan Rubhan, Mary Bridge, Carrie Wilson and Pearl M. Worley also served as officers of the new, 40-member club, which was officially chartered Jan. 8, 1920.
The following month, Frey and Worley were among several women from Ohio who met in Columbus for the first convention of the Ohio Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.
During the convention, which took place Feb. 23, 1920, Frey delivered an address on “Interest in Government in the Country,” and Worley was elected corresponding secretary for the Ohio Federation.
From the very beginning, members of the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs sought to eradicate injustices not only as they applied to women, but for all people. “We have always worked to improve things in our own community,” says Rebecca Davis, president of the Youngstown Business and Professional Women’s Club and director of development at the Butler Institute of American Art.
The club’s first president was a vocal advocate for women’s rights who frequently spoke about how government operated, what changes were needed, and how those changes could be brought about. She addressed local gatherings as well as business and professional women at state and national gatherings.
Present day members – 26 professionals are active in the club – continue to advocate for women and their families, providing financial support for local domestic violence shelters, scholarships for college women, and advocating for health care reform and legislation that will provide for fairer treatment of women in the workplace.
In 1921, the third national convention of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs drew 1,000 representatives from throughout the country. Delegates represented every state in the union except for Rhode Island. Among the topics of discussion: disarmament, child welfare, establishment of a permanent women’s employment service as part of the United States Department of Labor, and passage of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Bill, which provided federal funding to states so that they could reduce infant and maternal death rates by educating women about prenatal health and infant care, and protective legislation.
Protective legislation, opposed by the group during its national convention a year earlier, sought to limit the number of hours women could work and regulate conditions of their employment. It was by far the subject that garnered the most attention.
Jeannette Rankin (R-Montana), the first woman elected to Congress, rallied against the term “protective legislation,” advocating instead for “labor legislation” that would apply to all workers – men as well as women.
Elinor Byrns from the Equal Opportunity League of New York argued that protective legislation was a violation of legal, moral and economic principles. To improve working conditions, she suggested more women form labor unions. At the time, some 14 million American women were employed outside the home but only a small percentage were organized.
Many other delegates also argued against the legislation, claiming that women could advance only if they were afforded the same opportunities as men – working in the same conditions with the same privileges and demands. Even so, the convention closed without formally recommending or opposing the legislation.
Over the years, the Youngstown Business and Professional Women’s Club continued to debate the merits of legislation proposed to improve everything from women’s health care and child welfare to equal opportunity in education and fair pay without deviating from the core values and purpose on which the club was established: advocating for women’s education, equal opportunity and equal pay.
As such, scholarships have been awarded to a college woman every year since the 1920s, Davis says. With that scholarship being fully endowed, she says the club plans to introduce a second scholarship that will be awarded annually to a woman pursuing a career in a trade or technical field – something that might not require a four-year college degree but does require specialized training or certification.
Awarding these scholarships demonstrates the club’s ongoing commitment to further women’s educations. In addition, monthly meetings feature speakers who expand members’ knowledge about a wide range of topics, Davis says.
“It’s important for our club to fulfill its mission to empower and advance women through education and mentorship through our annual scholarship to a female student attending Youngstown State University. The club considers financial need and scholarship funds can be used in any way that makes it possible for awardees to pursue their education,” she notes.
On the legislative front, the Youngstown Business and Professional Women’s Club has continued to support efforts to eliminate discrimination and unfair and unequal treatment in the workplace and in business.
Those efforts have evolved from opposing legislation that would have limited the number of hours a woman could work in the 1920s to denying employment to women in the 1930s and ’40s because they were married, to denying or limiting credit to women because of their sex or marital status in the 1970s.
The issue that has remained at the forefront since the beginning: Equality. Equal pay. Equal opportunity. Equal access to education, to credit, to health care, among others.
The club marks Equal Pay Day each year. Equal Pay Day takes place in mid-April, about the time the earnings of American women reach that of their male counterparts the year before.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earn 76% of what men earn and the disparity is even greater for women of color.
Members also continue to advocate for and promote the Equal Rights Amendment, legislation first introduced in 1923 that would ensure constitutional equality for all citizens of the United States regardless of their sex. The ERA ends legal distinctions between men and women as they apply to the ownership of property, employment, divorce, among other things.
Congress passed the amendment on March 22, 1972. Pennsylvania ratified it not long after – Sept. 26, 1972. Ohio followed suit on Feb. 7, 1974.
By 1977, 35 state legislatures had approved the ERA. It wasn’t until March 22, 2017 – 45 years to the day that Congress passed the amendment – that Nevada ratified it, becoming the 36th state.
The following spring, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify it. Virginia passed the ERA in January this year, becoming the 38th and final state required to amend the Constitution.
Pictured: YBPW keeps a scrapbook of club events through the years. The club will mark its centennial Oct. 20 at the Lake Club in Poland. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $55 each. They can be purchased by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.