The house the women built
After years of declining membership, the Chico Women’s Club is again thriving
Anyone who reads this paper on a regular basis is familiar with the Chico Women’s Club. Every week the CN&R calendar lists a wide range of events taking place in the modest Mission-style hall at Third and Pine streets: fashion shows, poetry slams, fund-raisers, dances and concerts. If you’ve lived in the area for any length of time, there’s also a good chance that a wedding reception, shower, meeting, party or wake has brought you onto the room’s beautiful old wooden floor.
As you walked through the main entrance, you probably noticed the words “Chico Women’s Club” hanging above the doorway. What you may not have noticed is the small black plaque on the wall to the left that reads “Chico Art Club, 1933.” You probably had no idea that an actual club owned and operated the building.
In 1913, 20 years before there was a clubhouse, the Chico Art Club was born as an organization for Chico women, and over the years it grew as both a social club and a service organization, reaching its pinnacle in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s before succumbing to the same deteriorative trends clubs of all kinds have gone through in America.
Though it’s known most widely in town as a popular rental hall, an energized group of Chico women new to the club is trying to reassert its intended purpose as part of the landmark’s identity.
“It’s not just a beautiful building; it’s a club for all women of Chico,” is how new board member and Membership Chairwoman Renee Renaud puts it, and the message is taking hold. In the year since Renaud and the most recent president, Rosemary Quinn, have come aboard, the club has gone from a membership of 15 to 115.
For her opening speech as president-elect at what turned out to be a huge membership event last summer, Quinn challenged these new members to make the Women’s Club once again grow and flourish: “A large, diverse, creative, cooperative assembly of women in our town is an idea whose time has come.”
And on May 15, the new group of women will be getting to work by breaking away from the annual “potato bake sale” that the club has traditionally used to raise funds for scholarships and community service and stage a wholly new kind of fund-raiser. The first annual “Celebration of Women” will take over the clubhouse all day, first with an afternoon artisan faire, where you can get worked on at one of the many therapeutic massage tables in between checking out local woman-made crafts. In the evening, there’s the all-female variety show, featuring a range of performances, including Native American flute, a hip-hop dance performance, two choral groups and a smattering of singer/songwriters.
The story of the conception of the Chico Women’s Club is the first thing its current members share with newcomers—and with reporters. As legend goes, in the summer of 1913, Mrs. O.W. (Margaret) March, after arriving in Chico from Cherokee, Iowa, with her farmer husband Oscar, said to her friend Mrs. W. F. Gage, “Chico needs a women’s club. … I have the know-how, and you have the friends. If you would ask maybe 10 or 12 of your friends to come to your house, we would meet there.”
The first meeting actually took place in home of Mattie Landis, wife of Chico physician and surgeon A. J. Landis. (That house is still standing at 381 E. Fourth St. and, as it turns out, is owned by another women’s club, the Alpha Chi sorority next door.) In October of that year, the Chico Art Club was officially born. With 29 charter members, including Annie Bidwell, they met in various members’ homes and buildings around Chico, including the Bidwell Mansion, Chico Normal School and the basement of the Carnegie Library (now the Chico Museum).
The club also joined the Greater Federation of Women’s Clubs and, under the motto “Art is the expression of delight in God’s work,” initially did activities that increased arts awareness—organizing programs on artists, sculptors, musicians and authors.
In 1928, the club bought a lot at the east end of the Woodland Park subdivision and raised enough money before the Depression hit to build the clubhouse that was completed in October 1933. Reports of the official opening in the Chico Enterprise quoted Mrs. D.B. Rider, the district president of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs, who christened the new space: “This club will be the mecca for women’s activities. It will stand as a symbol to the desire of its members to be a factor in upbuilding the social and cultural life of the community.”
Although the club’s activities increased over the next 20 or so years, a lot of historical information was lost in 1950, when a 10-year-old boy broke into the hall and set fire to the stage, destroying club archives in the process.
Nonetheless, by the 1950s, with strength in membership (236 active members are listed in the 1950-51 yearbook), the club had become an established and active force in Chico. Aided by the university’s cache of professors and experts, as well the fact that two railroads served the town (allowing for a guest from San Francisco to arrive in town on an early train, make a presentation, and be able catch a return train the same day), the club was able to host an impressive array of lectures and performances.
In April 1951, a presentation by Dr. Lynn T. White, then president of Mills College, titled “Do Our American Colleges Teach Girls to Think?” was a relatively progressive program for a time when women were still known by their husband’s names (or initials at least) over their own.
A 1970 article in the Chico Enterprise-Record reported on a former society columnist who covered Chico Art Club events for the paper who was speaking at a Chico Women’s Club event (the club’s name was officially changed from “Art” to “Women’s” in November of 1960) about those early days: “Those were the days when everyone came to the meetings dressed in her best, all hatted and gloved…”
The Chico Women’s Club had its most lasting effect on the community, however, through its involvement with large-scale civic projects—helping with the restoration of Bidwell Mansion, organizing the cleanup and creation of the Annie’s Glen area of Bidwell Park and the Junior Art Club’s spearheading of the Caper Acres playground project.
At 94, Elizabeth Stolp is the oldest and longest-running current member of the club.
“It’s a different world,” the sharp, soft-spoken Stolp admitted, alluding to the changes that have been happening at the club over the past decade, as well as the current shift in the club’s makeup.
“The older ladies were getting out for the afternoon,” Stolp continued. “These women are going out in the evening.”
Stolp’s family came to Chico in 1918 from Washington state (via Chula Vista), when her father got a job with Sperry Flour Company. After retiring from 40 years of work in the accounting office at Chico State University, Stolp joined her already active family (sister-in-law Margaretha served a term as president of the entire California Federation from ‘51 to ‘52) in the Women’s Club in 1973 and has been treasurer ever since.
“This is a year of transition,” she said.
In his 2001 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard sociology professor Robert Putnam brings together stacks of research and data to show how America’s involvement in community-based activities, including membership in social, fraternal and civic organizations, declined over the last half of the 20th century. In particular, his statistics point out that membership for the General Federation of Women’s Clubs peaked in 1951 but by 1997 had fallen off by 84 percent.
That’s not much of a shock—two-career families, suburban sprawl and the not-to-be-underestimated warm glow of television have nudged out a lot of the free time that Americans used to have available for community activities and service.
“When I was president, we didn’t have that many [members],” explained previous club president Virginia Lewis. “My purpose was to try to hold the organization together until other people joined,” she added, believing anything less to be a failure to the club.
Lewis joined the Chico Women’s Club in 2000 after partially retiring from Chico Community Hospital. Since there weren’t a whole lot of candidates, the spirited 69-year-old volunteered to be president and remained in the office until Quinn took over in 2004.
Jeanne Christopherson has been with club for almost three years and watched as the club (which abandoned its affiliation with the CFWC for mainly financial reasons) has struggled to keep its footing in the face of losing members to poor health and old age as well as turning over a succession of new members, who would grow frustrated quickly with the amount of work that needed to be done and the increasing generation gap. “For the first two years I just kept my mouth shut,” Christopherson said.
Having rented the hall for the African- and Caribbean-dance classes she’d been teaching since 1992, Christopherson became an actual club member after hearing rumors of the building’s possibly being sold (the club almost lost its nonprofit status due to an oversight in filing). “I had this great bond with the building,” she said, “[and] they were truly trying to change things, and there were only like 12 people there.”
After she stood up at a meeting and announced that she had some ideas on how to move forward—scheduling functions at different times of day to meet the needs of today’s women and insuring a wide variety of programming—the old guard said, “Go for it then, Jeanne,” and asked her to chair the Planning and Programming Committee.
“That was the point I recruited Rosemary. … My coup was recruiting Rosemary,” Christopherson said in reference to how the arrival of Quinn and Renaud has led to the recent resurgence. Stolp agreed: “Rosemary’s responsible for that. They [Quinn and Renaud] have contact with younger women who have time and energy.”
For her part, former president Lewis couldn’t be happier. “Of course, there are always going to be changes when new members come in with new ideas. It’s for the better—you can’t live in the past. I’m very thankful. … I have prayed that someone could come in who could make our club more visible in the community. [There are] more professional people joining, and they [will be] serving in their field. [This club should be] where women can go and fulfill their needs.”
At the first big membership drive meeting last summer, Quinn, in her new role as president-elect, asked the large crowd, “How many people have never been in this building? And, how many people have been here numerous times?” As expected, nearly everyone in the room had a Women’s Club memory.
“There’s so many who have come here for so many years and really feel connected to this building,” Quinn explained. “So the building is really the draw.”
In fact, coupled with the mission of “connecting women for the purpose of mutual support, education, community service and a whole lot of fun,” the building was a persuasive selling point in the drive for new members.
“They want to support this place just because they’ve been here and they love it,” added Renaud.
“It’s like a Grange hall,” Christopherson suggests, “It’s [the club’s] building, and it’s a community building.”
The hall has always been a home for the community to rent for weddings, anniversaries, wakes, funerals, Christmas parties and graduations (the two busiest times of year) and community classes, but as the 1970s ended and club membership declined, the concerts and community fund-raisers that had been happening more frequently began to move to the forefront of the club’s function. Without the added community activity, it’s hard to see how the club could have survived.
Probably more than anyone else in town, the members of long-running Chico band Spark ‘n’ Cinder have taken advantage of the space’s availability. Sparks founding member and percussionist Jerry Morano even suggested that his old band Supernova (featuring many of the latter band’s members) might have been the first rock outfit allowed to rent the place.
“The guy at the Portuguese Hall [14th and Broadway, where local bands used to play often] raised the rent and said he was only going to have religious ceremonies there,” Morano said in his brusque Jersey manner. “So I talked to some 90-year-old women [at the Women’s Club].”
“There was a period—'76 to ‘85—it was like we lived there, like once a month or so,” added fellow Jerseyite and Sparks founder Jimmy Fay. “It’s in a good location in town, and it has a nice stage. … People can bring their kids. It has a nice wooden dance floor…[There is] a certain sound to it that we just got used to. I remember the first reggae gig in town—Third World—it was right there.”
“This is a fantastic venue to have your event,” says Syb Blythe, the self-described “sub-contracted rental agent” who books the events and classes put on by organizations apart from the actual Women’s Club, the money from which goes into keeping the hall open and supports the club’s civic efforts.
Blythe, a British expatriate and former owner and promoter of fabled downtown rock spot/Mexican restaurant Juanita’s, started working for the Women’s Club in February 2000. She points to her experience of having “learned a lot of how to deal with lots of different people” during her five-plus years running the eclectic club as being instrumental in being able to strike a balance between public and club concerns.
“This is the place you can put on your event,” Syb continues in her dry yet melodic accent. “That’s how I see we are serving our community.”
Paige Gimbal, an irrigation consultant for Land Image in Chico, has put on concerts, parties and fund-raisers at the club since the ‘70s.
“When I think about doing a special event, I always see if the Women’s Club is available,” the energetic Gimbal enthused during a recent phone conversation, “The Women’s Club is the place you choose to have those things happen. The first thing I ever did … in the early-'70s I did a benefit for Tom Hayden, in ‘74 or ‘75. A spaghetti feed. It was a really successful thing.”
Countless fund-raisers and other events followed, but none more impressive or special than the 50th-birthday bash she put on for her husband, longtime Chico musician Kim Gimball (also a member of Spark ‘n’ Cinder). With the help of Fay, who convinced him they had to play a wedding gig at the Women’s Club the night of the surprise party, Paige was able to contact every band Kim ever played in, all the way back to high school. Around 15 showed, including his high school crew, the T-Birds.
“We had all these musicians talking behind his back,” Paige said.
In addition to all the former bands and band mates, the This is Your Life guest list included Kim’s music teachers, the babysitter he had when he was 3 years old and relatives and friends from everywhere—L.A., Arizona, Hawaii. When Kim came in the back door onto the stage, there were a couple hundred people from throughout his life smiling at him and joining the band for a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
“This is what it really comes down to,” Paige explained. “There’s a whole group of us who came to town in the ‘70s—Danny West, John LaPado, Bob Speer [current CN&R senior editor]"—she ran down a list of prominent music makers and arts enthusiasts who have frequented the clubhouse over the past three decades. “We can trust what we’re going to get from here. … You walk in, and you feel like you’re home. It’s sacred”
One of the most creative events to happen in the hall in recent years was the 2003 wedding ceremony of former Bone Gruel front man Johnny Ricketson and his wife Vanessa. Taking advantage of what they perceived to be the “medieval look” of the hall, with its large wood beams and iron chandeliers, the couple created a “Pirate and a Princess” theme.
“I was the pirate,” Ricketson explained, “and she wore a 16th-century French gown. My whole family dressed up like pirates!” At one point in the ceremony, the preacher asked the crowd the obligatory, “Is there any reason why you feel that these two should not be married?”
“We had a pirate guy planted, who said, ‘I protest, these people should not be married.’ I gestured over to the pirate minister, and he pulled out his flintlock musket and shot him. My pirate friends dragged the body off while the rest of the ceremony took place.”
Both Quinn and Renaud moved away from the Bay Area because of the erosion of community and the increasing congestion. They both also work in fields that involve working closely with others, Renaud as a licensed social worker operating out of her home, and Quinn in a variety of fields: Jump Start is her “organizing and coaching” business, where she helps people get their lives in order, and Sacred Play is a service wherein clients are reintroduced—through movement, sound and song—to the concept of having fun in life. Their appreciation for the friendlier climate of Chico and their expertise in working closely with others are shared attributes that thus far have served them well in revitalizing the Chico Women’s Club.
For her part, the tall, free-spirited Quinn is just the kind of enthusiastic extrovert who’s needed to proselytize a large group of women. In addition to her call to action in her opening speech to the new members, she added, “I have some idea how much power and creativity and wisdom are present in this room right now. And I know that we are ready to build off the legacy of generations of Chico women who have come before us.”
The soft-spoken, diminutive, 69-year-old Renaud, on the other hand, just might be the new guard’s secret weapon. She’s the steady balance to the more freewheeling Quinn. Looking like a sweet and gentle aunt or grandmother (though her floppy tie-dyed hat is a hint that she’s not as conservative as she might look), Renaud has quietly and diligently put in the work as membership chairwoman, as well as digging through the archives to help put the club’s history into perspective for the new charges.
Now made up of women mostly in their 50s (Quinn is quick to stress that the club is open to women of all ages), the club is buzzing with new plans and a new program of activities. A big priority is bringing access to people with disabilities at the clubhouse up to code, and an endowment from former club president Hester Patrick, who passed away a couple of years ago and left the club $5,000, will likely go towards the project.
A recent tsunami benefit brought in more than $3,000 that the club donated to Oxfam. The club also sponsored an Earth Day dance, and Christopherson has instigated a Tuesday-night program series featuring monthly book clubs, jazz vocal workshops, guest lectures and the “Talking Stick Circle.”
“Our membership is really the ‘sandwich generation.’ They’re people with kids at home and old parents to take care of. … Our members are pretty busy,” said Quinn, explaining the changing needs of the modern woman.
Added Renaud, “Now if you look at the club, I’d say at least half the women are single. A woman’s identity is not through her husband anymore.”
The teas aren’t so formal these days, and saying the Pledge of Allegiance is long gone from meetings, but the old guard isn’t being left to twist in the wind. Christopherson is quick to stress that, “The new people are very aware … we have to support [the older members] and learn from them. We’ve had to step back on some things and really just breathe and take time. … We’ve consistently built this on personal relationships…”
The monthly Talking Stick Circle, led by Beth Sisk, is one attempt at preserving intergenerational bonds. At the first one, Quinn shared, excitedly, “We had every generation represented. We had a 16-year-old and a 76-year-old. The connection between the youngest and oldest members was really quite striking.”
A group of 17 women, from one teen to those in their 20s, 30s and all the way up to one woman in her 80s, even hiked up to Bald Rock and shared lunch on a recent sunny afternoon.
In Christopherson’s mind, there are a lot of “educated, curious women sitting here in this rural county [wondering], ‘How can we keep our brains alive?’ This is it. This is the work we’re meant to do together.”
It remains to be seen whether or not this resurgence will be a lasting one or not, but the ingredients, both old and new, are in place for the house that Chico’s women built to be once again a focal point for women’s activity. As Blythe put it, “The work has already been done. Now our job is just to carry on.”