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From Suffrage to Service

The power of women working together



In honor of the Katonah Women’s Civic Club’s 100th anniversary, WCC co-presidents and their predecessors gathered in front of Memorial House.

Photo by Rana Faure

Many of us have browsed in the little basement thrift shop in the Memorial House, next to the Katonah Fire Station. But did you know that your purchases of old china and tchotchkes have helped fund dozens of local organizations along with hundreds of scholarships to graduates of local high schools?

The Katonah Thrift Shop is the primary money maker for the Woman’s Civic Club of Katonah, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. “The club is a wonderful organization, dedicated to helping the community,” says Lee Roberts, former Bedford town supervisor, who has been a member since 1975. “Originally, the club’s goal was to obtain the right to vote for women, hence its original name, Katonah Suffragist Club, which was founded in 1913. In fact, New York was one of the first states to grant that privilege to women in advance of the Constitutional amendment that extended it to all women in the United States in 1920. Women in New York—and Katonah—were trailblazers for the rest of the nation.” 

Having achieved suffrage in 1918, the women realized they could continue to be a force in their community. The new civic club formed two committees: education and intelligence, with the first order of business being electing a woman to the School Board. WCC also gave support and financial backing for the Children’s Court with a full-time judge, school lunches, and recreational facilities. 

The club incorporated in 1923 in order to own property, and the building they erected was meant to be a memorial to the men and women of Katonah who served in WW1. The Thrift Shop opened in 1945, providing the club with a steady source of income to fund its activities, and in 1984, it was installed in the basement of the Memorial House.

Now the group includes 130 members who work two three-hour shifts a month in the thrift shop. “Last May, WCC gave out $22,000 in scholarships for graduating seniors from John Jay, Fox Lane, and Kennedy high schools,” says Corinne Repp, who has been a member for 48 years. “An additional $35,000 was donated to local libraries, ambulance corps, Neighbors Link, and other organizations. We also organized a toy drive for the children of women in prison.”

“Members get together for various activities such as bridge and mah jongg,” says Ellen Devey, who joined WCC when she retired 25 years ago.” We also have a book club and a group that dines out together once a month. Another group of women knit and crochet, making hats for the kids at the annual St. Mary’s Christmas dinner for underprivileged families. It’s a wonderful thing, a real community of women. Some of our most active volunteers are in their late 90s!”

While WCC is no longer political, civic clubs around the country have helped foster an interest in community service. “When people ask me if I was always interested in politics, my knee jerk reaction was to say no,” says Diane Briggs, who won a seat on the Pound Ridge town board in the last election. “But it really was a scholarship from a similar civic club that funded a trip to Washington, D.C., that sparked my interest in government and allowed me to explore things I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do.” 

One thing Briggs explored was running for office for the first time. “I was on one of the buses from Pound Ridge heading to the first Women’s March in Washington, D.C. It was a great experience to take this mini field trip with so many like-minded women. Then in D.C., there were thousands more. Collectively, we made our voices heard, and it was a thrilling experience,” she says.

“After the march, I went to a town meeting. I really liked the people in the room: they were passionate people who wanted to help our community prosper. And then I threw my hat in the ring! I couldn’t have done this ten years ago, but I can jump in now. I never anticipated how much joy this move would bring me, to create a path to be more involved in the future and make an impact in my community.” 

Those early suffragettes would be proud.

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January 2019

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