"Perhaps it is the person first and subject matter second": Social relationships and the construction of cultural and civic curricula in a women's study club, 1885-1985

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Sari Biklen


women's clubs, study clubs, adult education, women's studies, education history

Subject Categories

Other Education


Many historians of women's voluntary associations have discussed the nineteenth-century women's club movement in relation to a number of phenomena, especially the ways clubs helped women become active in civic life. Much of this work focused on vanguard organizations like the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Few historians have explored learning within women's clubs, especially less influential clubs at the community level. Fewer still have considered club work beyond 1920, the watershed of American women's entrance into civic life. Study clubs have been, however, a place where middle-class women have used education to negotiate the boundaries around culture and politics, public and private spheres, formal education and lifelong learning, and feminist and patriarchal arrangements.

This dissertation is a case study of how one study club, the Coterie in Fayetteville, New York, constructed its education from 1885 to 1985. The study had two purposes: first, to explicate what study-club education meant to Coterie participants, and second, to examine the curricula the women devised in order to see how class, gender, and race were factors in the development of their education.

The study makes four arguments. First, that the club's desire to have an intellectual basis for friendship was a core organizing feature of its education. Second, that each club generation redefined the meaning of its work to keep the club relevant and to legitimate the members' association for education. Third, that the cultural and civic curricular strands showed a recursive pattern. The club's cultural and civic curricula were informed by class, gender, and race discourses operating in the club's politics of knowledge. Fourth, that a supportive learning environment for the Coterie women was one in which learning was linked to relationships. The interaction between the club's relational work and educational work offers insights into the design of education that is effective for women.

The study uses a historical case study methodology. Participant observations of club meetings, interviews with members, and relevant secondary sources provided other points of entry into the logic of the study club.


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