From woman's club to NGO: The changing terrain of women's civic engagement in the mid-twentieth century United States

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Kristi Andersen


Voluntary associations, Interest groups, Nongovernmental organizations, General Federation of Women's Clubs, National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Civic engagement

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences | United States History | Women's Studies


The 1950s have been called, paradoxically, both the "doldrums" of women's political activism and a "golden era" of civic engagement. If the mid-20 th century was an era of rich associational activity, popular wisdom suggests that women possessed a weak political voice and were more often constrained by a conservative culture than they were meaningful political actors. Does civic engagement affect politics? Under what circumstances will civic engagement lead to political participation? Why do some groups flourish when others do not? This dissertation begins to answer these questions through an historical comparative case study of three women's voluntary associations: the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC), and the Women's Division of Christian Service (WDCS) (predecessor to the United Methodist Women). It argues that the 1950s are best viewed not as a golden era or the doldrums of women's political activism, but as a decade of change, a period of transformation in the ways in which a majority of female citizens organized themselves at local, state, and national levels. The changing terrain of women's civic engagement was compelled by a series of institutional changes that included the rise of the civil rights movement and professionalized interest groups, the emergence of the United Nations and a corresponding increase in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and shifts in authority and influence among national political institutions that weakened pre-existing ties between women's civic groups and bureaucratic agencies of the federal government. In short, the post-war era was a time of shifting political boundaries between popular groups and political institutions, and a time in which the forms and meanings of racial and gender identities were undergoing change as well. Civic groups that continued to prosper beyond the mid-20 th century were professionalized and bureaucratized and, in response to national and international institutional change, increasingly resembled modern day interest groups and NGOs. The 1950s introduced new "ways of being civic" to women's associations and this fact is important for understanding the contours of female citizenship throughout the 20th century.


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