On Thursday, March 7, 1963, the Ogden Standard Examiner in Utah ran a story in their evening edition about an accomplished woman from Saugerties named Margaret Arnold.
“If it hadn’t been for Charles Dickens,” reads the copy, “Mrs. Dexter Otis Arnold might this minute be the happy homemaker, seeing that her husband got off to the office each morning with a good breakfast under his belt. As it is, Dr. Arnold takes care of himself in Saugerties, N.Y., where he’s superintendent of schools. And Margaret Arnold is living in Washington, D.C., where as president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) for two years, she directs the extracurricular activities of 11 million women.”
The remark about Dickens is a reference to the origins of the GFWC, when Jane Cunningham Croly, a journalist from New York (a “scribbling woman” in the parlance of the times) was denied admittance to a banquet honoring Charles Dickens at the all-male New York Press Club in 1868. As Saugerties Times detailed recently in an article about the GFWC Monday Club (one of the two active GFWC clubs for women in Saugerties today), Croly’s ban from the press club led to her starting a club for women a year or so later, which in turn led to the founding of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in the late 19th century, intended to give all the small local clubs around the world a united voice.
Saugerties’ Margaret Arnold was president of the GFWC from 1962-1964. When she stepped down from the presidency of the organization after her two-year term, she returned to her hometown and started the GFWC Woman’s Club of Saugerties in 1966; now in its 48th year and one of the two active GFWC clubs for women in town (along with the GFWC Monday Club of Saugerties).
It was a time when even active women like Margaret Arnold were still referred to as “Mrs. [Husband’s Name].” (The passage quoted in the first paragraph above was the only instance found among numerous clippings where her first name was given.) But as Mrs. Dexter Arnold, president of the GFWC, she was in the papers quite a lot in the early ‘60s, apparently very much in demand as a public speaker and known for her pithy quotes (“Life is hard by the yard, a cinch by the inch”).
At the time, Women’s clubs were the norm. The 1963 article informs us that Arnold supervised 11 million GFWC members; today, according to their website, the club claims one million members. Where Arnold led 15,500 individual clubs in the GFWC 50 years ago, just in the U.S., today the federation represents 6,500 clubs worldwide. That’s still an impressive number, but like nearly all community associations, women’s clubs have seen big declines in the membership rolls.
But even in a time where women often joined service clubs, Arnold apparently felt the need to defend the woman’s club as an institution. “Lots of people misunderstand about women’s clubs,” she said to one reporter in 1963. “It’s hard to find a Lady Bountiful anymore. We do take baskets to the needy, but our real concern is poverty.”
She spoke about how her members were interested in matters ranging from international affairs to school finances. And she was impressed with the mothers that got involved in clubs, knowing what a commitment that requires, musing that “perhaps they feel they have a greater stake in the world.” (While she was the youngest federation president up to that time at age 48, she and her husband never had children.) “Informed women have a great responsibility,” she added. “When you know, you do. When you do, you give. In giving we grow in maturity, in stature and in understanding.”
To one group she spoke to at the time, Arnold explained her philosophy. “The successful woman’s club is not made of women doing something good. They are women good for something,” she said. “Clubs of the Federation should never feel that they are too important to do the small, thankless jobs or too small to take on a big job. There are many opportunities for service.”
According to Lucy Kunst, current president of the GFWC Woman’s Club of Saugerties, that tradition continues.