At the urging of Elise Massey Selden, a group of elite white women assembled at the Gayoso Hotel in May 1890 and founded what was soon to become the largest and most influential women's club in Memphis. Its stated objectives were “to promote the female intellect by encouraging a spirit of research in literary fields and provide an intellectual center for the women of Memphis.” (1) Initially men feared that club activities would interfere with their wives' duties in the home and lead to involvement in public affairs, which ran counter to southern notions of female propriety. But the women were determined, and while they gave continuous assurances that they did not intend to usurp functions considered unsuitable for women and would not abandon their home responsibilities, they did expect to influence the moral, philanthropic, and educational future of their city. Gradually, the Nineteenth Century Club adopted the idea propounded by earlier women's clubs in the north and northeast that the community was but a broader household which needed the “gentler spirit” and “uplifting influence” of women, and by the end of the decade the focus of the Nineteenth Century Club had shifted in the direction of civic reform. As one Nineteenth Century Club member expressed their emerging definition of municipal housekeeping: “The advancement of women in the eternal scheme of things, means the advancement of the race.” (2) The club adopted the motto “Influence is Responsibility.”
The club was a success from the start, with a steadily rising membership that reached a peak of approximately fourteen hundred members in 1926. Club members entered into public life in areas they believed to be a rightful extension of “home duties” and created for themselves a solid position as a responsible force in civic reform. They focused primarily on the needs of women and children, and they addressed problems in areas such as sanitation, health, education, employment, and labor conditions. Some notable successes included the securing of a police matron at the city jail and a female sanitary inspector at the Board of Health and the formation of the Shelby County Anti-Tuberculosis Society and a new city hospital. They played an important role in bringing higher education to Memphis in the form of the West Tennessee State Normal School, now the University of Memphis. Club members also initiated a municipal “clean government” campaign, calling attention to violations of the liquor laws and widespread gambling and prostitution and demanding the ouster of corrupt officeholders.
In 1893 the Nineteenth Century Club was instrumental in the formation of a citywide network of club women, the Woman's Council, which helped focus and unite white women for more effective action; in 1896 a state organization, the Tennessee Federation of Women's Clubs, was founded to provide similar coordination among white women's clubs across the state. Members pledged “to strive for better homes, schools, lives, surroundings, scholarship, civic health and righteousness, the conservation of forests and places of natural beauty, and protection for unfortunate children and women laborers.” (3)
At the time of its founding, the Nineteenth Century Club filled a vacuum in the lives of many women by providing an acceptable avenue by which they could develop long denied intellectual and civic opportunities. Through club work came the beginning of a public identity for these women and a heightened sense of female self-worth, with a support network entirely separate from family. But as educational opportunities for women improved and social work was professionalized, the Nineteenth Century Club gradually disappeared from the cutting edge of reform, and social functions became the central focus. The club remains in existence to this day; since 1926 it has occupied an imposing brick and stone structure on Union Avenue.
Marsha Wedell, Elite Women and the Reform Impulse in Memphis, 1875-1915 (1992)