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Age, changing society imperil the mission of women’s clubs

Margaret Atkins, 84, reminisced over old meeting dates of the Cabot Club in Middleborough as Anne Lovell, 96, and Ellen O. Grant, 86, talked to each other. The club has 15 members. Margaret Atkins, 84, reminisced over old meeting dates of the Cabot Club in Middleborough as Anne Lovell, 96, and Ellen O. Grant, 86, talked to each other. The club has 15 members. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / November 26, 2010

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Over the past century, the hundreds of women who served in the Cabot Club in Middleborough have made it their mission to perform good works.

They have crocheted bandages for soldiers in World War II, sent books to impoverished children throughout Appalachia, and did everything from teach girls with tuberculosis how to cook to clean local rivers and parks.

Since its founding in 1897, the club has organized rummage sales, fashion shows, and craft fairs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for scholarships for local students, support for veterans, and many other causes.

Now, like a growing number of women’s groups nationwide, the ladies in Middleborough have decided to disband.

“It’s a real shame,’’ said Margaret Atkins, 84, who joined the club in 1950 and is its longest-serving member. “We just are not getting enough younger members to join and learn the ropes. It’s sad because we have put thousands of hours into volunteer service into this community and the state. Who’s going to fill that niche?’’

After decades of shrinking membership, the Cabot Club is the state’s latest women’s group to shut down. At their peak in the 1970s, there were about 40,000 women who participated in more than 400 clubs in nearly every municipality in the state; today there are fewer than 5,000 women in 168 clubs, according to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Massachusetts.

Nationally, the number of women who are members of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs has plummeted from more than 2 million in the 1950s to about 100,000 today.

Michele J. Mount, a spokeswoman of the federation in Washington, D.C., attributed the decline to the dying of generations of women who built the clubs and changing societal mores that have provided a wealth of opportunities for women.

“The problem is that now when people think of women’s clubs, they think of their grandmother’s women’s club,’’ Mount said, noting the clubs last year still collectively raised nearly $40 million. “The kind of women who used to be our members are now CEOs or leaders of organizations. Between having a career and a family, they don’t have time to dedicate to a women’s club, and they have found new avenues for philanthropy.’’

But she and others argue that something important has been lost, and as a result, the federation is making changes, such as suggesting clubs move meetings from days to evenings to allow those with jobs to join, promote junior clubs to draw in younger women, and even encourage men to join booster associations.

“We’re trying to bring a 19th-century organization into the 21st century,’’ Mount said. “Other organizations do walks and community improvement projects; what we do is promote community service by building a community. We are concerned about losing that community.’’

In Massachusetts, Laura Coppola, 86, of Agawam, has served in several federation clubs for 53 years. At least two of those groups have disbanded. She is now president of the state federation and still does a lot of volunteer work, from serving as an usher during funerals at the Massachusetts Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery to raising money to fight juvenile diabetes. She has gone so far to raise money as serving as a contestant and judge at the annual Ms. Senior Massachusetts Pageant, in which she tap danced during the talent competition.

Like others, she laments the decline of her beloved federation. “We don’t like to advertise the losses,’’ she said. “Unfortunately, people died, and aside from the juniors, most of the remaining people are in their 80s or 90s.’’

The state’s federation was formed in 1893, three years after the national federation, under the motto: “To learn, to teach, to serve, and to enjoy.’’

Among their accomplishments, the organization has helped establish many of the state’s libraries and raised tens of thousands of dollars for organizations, including the New England Assistance Dog Service project, the Talking Information Center for reading services for the vision impaired, the Children’s Trust Fund, and the Pine Street Inn.

More recently, between 2000 and 2002, the state federation says its women collectively volunteered for 1.7 million hours, and raised $1.7 million for community service projects and $333,000 for club and state scholarships.

“You get us something we’re interested in, and we keep working on it,’’ Coppola said. “The sad thing is that all the things we’re doing might not get done without us.’’

Catherine Faucher, 85, a member of the Women’s Club of Newton Highlands and a president of the state federation in the 1970s, said state agencies and other nonprofit organizations have taken over a lot of the work the clubs have traditionally done.

She sees the decline in her own club — which now has 59 members, about one-quarter of its peak membership — but says it still provides a way for friends to gather and serve a common purpose.

“I’m not worried about the future of the organization,’’ she said. “I think there will always be women who want to help others.’’

Among them are Jacquolyn Payne-Thompson, former president of Women’s Service Club of Boston, who has taken part in efforts to support English language programs for non-native speakers and helping the homeless.

“I just feel there’s still a need for what we do,’’ said Payne-Thompson, who declined to give her age. “Given all the problems in society, I think we need the clubs more than ever.’’

In Middleborough, the remaining 15 members of the Cabot Club have been reminiscing about all their good works and good times.

They are making final arrangements with a Boston bank to administer an account that will continue to provide $9,000 in scholarships a year to Middleborough High School students, for as long as the money lasts.

“We’ve been an integral part of the community for a long time, always helping where we can,’’ Atkins said. “I hope people remember what we did and that these scholarships continue to benefit the community.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.