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Women’s clubs endure despite challenges of changing times

Martha Michalewich (left) and Mary Ellen Duggan set up for the Northboro Junior Woman’s Club fair trade luncheon.
Martha Michalewich (left) and Mary Ellen Duggan set up for the Northboro Junior Woman’s Club fair trade luncheon.(Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe)

When Martha Michalewich helped to organize the Northboro Junior Woman’s Club in 1975, she was one of a handful of stay-at-home moms — mostly in their 20s and 30s — who shared a common aspiration.

“We wanted to build our minds, do some good in the community,” said Michaelwich, 72, the past president of her club.

Today, most members of the Northborough group hold jobs outside the home, and their average age is 55. While their projects have changed with the times — they’re gearing up to host their annual “Women in STEM” event for middle school girls in March — their mission is the same.

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“We all know that the world is broken right now, but [women’s club] members are doing great work in their area of the world,” Michalewich said in an e-mail.

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs, an international organization with national and state offices, was founded in 1890 by Jane Cunningham Croly, a female journalist who in 1868 was denied entry to an all-male press club that was honoring the British writer Charles Dickens.

Progressive Democrat Eleanor Roosevelt was a respected member in her day. So was Margaret Chase Smith, a moderate Republican from Maine who was the first woman to hold seats in both houses of Congress.

Like many other volunteer organizations, however, women’s clubs have been buffeted by the time-crunched society around them. Across the country, membership in the federation — which includes women’s clubs, junior women’s clubs, and juniorettes for girls — has been steadily dropping.

Not quite 20 years ago, there were 130 clubs in Massachusetts serving 8,000 members; today, 63 clubs provide volunteer and social opportunities for 1,800 women, according to the federation’s state office. (Some clubs have left the federation, but still operate.)

Yet the women’s clubs press on with their work — everything from collecting pajamas and toothbrushes and distributing them to the homeless to tutoring kids in schools and visiting residents at nursing homes.

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“Most clubs are smaller,” said Lynne Stader, 67, president of the state federation and a past president of the Westford club. “[But] All clubs remain focused on social and civic contributions.”

Stader, a retired middle school teacher, joined the Westford club in 1987 and has watched membership decline from roughly 90 through the 1980s to about 20 in recent years. Most new members today are recent retirees who seek social and volunteer opportunities, she said.

The Westford club no longer runs an annual Breakfast with Santa, which used to raise several thousand dollars for scholarships. But members do collect pajamas and slippers for victims of domestic abuse, assemble dental care packages for deployed US troops, support the town’s veterans’ affairs officer, and take on other smaller projects.

In Northborough, the Junior Woman’s Club recently held a fair trade luncheon and fair followed by a movie about human trafficking, aimed at raising awareness and money to help survivors. During soccer season, club members installed sunscreen dispensers at a local playing field, and they currently volunteer at a local church that serves a free, hot meal every week. Over the last quarter century, the club’s membership has held steady at around 50.

On the national level, the federation of women’s clubs supports programs to end domestic abuse, human trafficking, and teen suicide, and promotes public safety legislation in Washington. Michalewich called the organization “one of the best kept secrets around.”

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Membership also offers women something on a personal level.

“It teaches leadership and confidence,” said Mary Ann Pierce, 70, a past president of the state federation who has been a leader in the Needham Women’s Club since she joined nearly 35 years ago.

“The best way to describe it is the club does ‘Structured Acts of Kindness’ all the time for those in need,” said Brenda Derby, 58, who joined the Northboro Woman’s Club a year ago after attending a few meetings as a guest.

“It has been fabulous to be with all these generous women doing great things for the community and definitely one of the most fulfilling and rewarding things I have ever done,” Derby said in an e-mail.

Terry Rouvalis, 72, a past president of the Braintree Women’s Club, said she joined a decade ago, after she was widowed.

“A good friend of mine gave me a piece of advice to help with the loneliness,” Rouvalis wrote in an e-mail. “She told me always to say “Yes’ when you are invited to go or do something … so I applied this advice to being a member, and I have grown tremendously, gained self-confidence, and made some great friends.”

Members of the Westford Women’s Club assemble dental care packages for US troops.
Members of the Westford Women’s Club assemble dental care packages for US troops.(Terry Stader)

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein04@icloud.com.