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Chautauqua Women’s Club blazes a trail

CHAUTAUQUA — On Jan. 21, 1935, 903 members of an organization at Chautauqua Institution met for a luncheon at a member’s home.

The member and her husband resided in downstate New York and were living temporarily in Washington, D.C.

At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Yes, the White House.

The hostess was Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady of the United States.

The organization was the Chautauqua Women’s Club, which Roosevelt had addressed on “Civic Responsibility of Women” during her first visit to the institution, on Aug. 1, 1927.

The club was incorporated in 1889, 15 years after Chautauqua’s founding. Club leadership was pivotal to the temperance and suffrage movements, said club president Kelly Boyce Himebaugh. The club is its own Section 501(c)(3) organization, legally separate from the institution.

The club reports that its first president was Emily Huntington Miller, a writer of children’s stories and an editor of a children’s magazine. Active in missionary and temperance work in Illinois, Miller in 1871 founded Evanston College of Ladies. The college merged with Northwestern University in 1873. Miller was also a sister-in-law of Chautauqua Institution president Lewis Miller.

In Chautauqua’s early years, club lectures were at 8 a.m. Monday to Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. The club bought its first building in 1917 on South Lake Drive, the club reports.

The club has had its current building, at the same South Lake Drive site, since 1929. It has 804 members — 709 women and 95 men — from 38 states, Himebaugh said.

When the institution fell on hard times during the Great Depression, a donation of more than $38,000 from the club — including $15,000 that industrialist John D. Rockefeller donated through the club — helped save Chautauqua, she said.

These are all parts of the club’s proud past, yet Eileen Conroy, the club’s co-marketing chair, emphasizes that the club’s history is important, and the club’s focus is on remaining relevant to its members.

Himebaugh calls the club “inspiring,” and Conway says it’s “a great community.”

What the club does for Chautauqua students may be among its greatest current accomplishments.

Since 1985, the club has given almost $1.7 million in scholarships to students attending the Schools of Performing and Visual Arts at Chautauqua, Himebaugh said. These are part of the club’s mission of innovative programming, dynamic events, life-changing scholarships, and fundraising.

The two officers, a happy pair who delight in and are proud to be of service in their roles, said weekly lecture programming includes:

¯ Contemporary Issue Dialogs at 3:30 p.m. Wednesdays. These feature select morning amphitheater speakers in the smaller setting of the women’s club.

¯ Chautauqua Speaks, featuring institution staff and residents, at 9:15 a.m. Thursdays at the club, and

¯ Contemporary Issues Forum at the Hall of Philosophy at 2 p.m. Saturdays, which Conroy calls “our big programming event each week.”

Club programming has evolved in recent years, and the club works hard to feature speakers who – like its members – come from across the philosophical spectrum, Himebaugh said.

“We want a breadth of perspective, because through that you get better solutions,” Conroy said.

The club reports that 2020 speakers included a Google(x) vice president who was third U.S. chief technology officer in the Obama administration; the CEO of 20-first and a global expert on all things gender balance; an executive editor of The Atlantic; New York’s lieutenant governor; a senior curator of the Senator John Heinz History Center in association with the Smithsonian Institution; a senior politics editor at NBC News and MSNBC; a retired pathology professor at the University of Pittsburgh; and a public-affairs professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

The year 2020, though, was a different kind of year for the club. Given the pandemic, the club’s Contemporary Issues Forum lectures, like other programs at Chautauqua, were virtual. The lectures had more than 7000 viewers, all via CHQ Assembly, the institution’s virtual platform, Himebaugh said.

As September visitors traverse the institution’s grounds, club members and other summer visitors who remain are thinking about buttoning up their homes for another season.

They’re also looking forward to another summer.

Between college and law school, covering Chautauqua Institution was among Dr. Randy Elf’s duties when he was a reporter at The Post-Journal.

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