26 January, 2015

The other day I was a guest at a meeting of the Dayton Women’s Literary Club. A friend here who is a member had talked to me about the group over dinner and when I was clearly fascinated, asked if I might be interested in attending. She explained that the group, which has been meeting for 125 years was founded (in 1889) when there was little opportunity for women to seriously explore academic interests. The WLC was a place where women could engage in serious scholarly pursuits with other women and at the same time gain experience and confidence as public speakers. At the time of its founding it was in the vanguard of a movement (largely in the mid-west) of similar women’s clubs.

Every member of the Dayton Women’s Literary Club must research, write and present a college-level term paper over the course of the year. The topics, which are drawn from a broad spectrum of literature, history, science and social issues, are assigned by the program committee. Originally the presentations (no longer than 25 minutes) had to be memorized, but over time that rule was relaxed, and now the papers are generally read. But still, as from the inception, after its presentation, the written paper is given to the club critic who serves as a peer reviewer before it is archived.

In honor of its 125th anniversary, this year’s topics are all drawn from the club’s past: 125 Years of the Dayton Women’s Literary Club: What have we talked about? How have our views changed? Each meeting (there are generally two a month) is devoted to a decade from the club’s past. And at each meeting two papers are presented. Among the topics this year are German Realism: Gerhart Hauptmann, Are We Not Men?: Karel Capek and Elmer Rice, The Senator’s Novelist Wife: Francis Parkinson Keyes, Experimentation and Culture: Marshall McLuhan, and The Unwilling Immigrants: Visions of American Black Life.

The meeting was fascinating. Two extraordinarily thought-provoking papers were presented, Influence of the Machine Age: Theodore Dreiser and The Battle of the Village: Sinclair Lewis. They were followed by a buffet luncheon, during which the discussion at my table ranged from the topics of the papers to marriage equality and the pros and cons of the legalization of marijuana.

The membership now skews older than when it began (something the members are trying to address); with many retired teachers and librarians in the group. Several of these women told me they were attracted to the club because though they were no longer working at their professions, they didn’t want to stop learning, nor did they want to let their brains become less active or to fall into the “accepted norm” of the prejudice or stereotype of what it means to be of a certain age. This attitude struck me as probably being very similar to that of the founding members, who, though younger, were also driven to keep their minds expanding and to show themselves and others that their gender did not mean their intellectual abilities were somehow diminished.

Thinking about this incredible institution, I realized there were echoes to the children I wrote about in my play, And A Child Shall Lead. Those children, prisoners in Terezin concentration camp during WWII, were forbidden to learn or to write. But they ultimately ran secret schools in the camp where they taught each other and encouraged each other to express themselves scholarly and artistically. It was a statement that they existed and were human. It was an act of defiance against the Nazis. Just as the formation and scholarly work of the Dayton Women’s Literary Club was an act of defiance against the prejudices of the male-centric world of the 1880s, and beyond.

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