Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


I had the chance to share local history tales last month with the Woman’s Club of Arlington. Its members responded by sharing with me a rich history slice of their own.

At their headquarters on South Buchanan Street (the property itself a neat strand of their story), I perused, thanks to members Ann Swain and Sandy Newton, the club’s archives dating to the 1930s.

The artifacts compose a portrait of our county from an era in which, though gender roles differed, Arlington’s civic-mindedness was stronger than ever.

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (100,000 strong) has roots going back to 1868. That’s when New York journalist Jane Cunningham Croly was denied entry to a lecture by visiting author Charles Dickens, so she formed her own club. The members threw themselves into charitable work, libraries and advocacy for food safety.

By 1890, women’s clubs numbered 63, and a decade later chartered the federation’s headquarters in the nation’s capital, where since 1922 it has stood at 1734 N. Street NW.

The Arlington branch was born Oct 22, 1931. Surviving minutes from June 4, 1934, record “an attendance of 45 and a number of guests.” Members said the Lord’s Prayer, sang songs, and once presented a silver platter to a retiring president. They planned bake sales, bazaars and theatrical productions for scholarships and the Red Cross.

Nearly all the women went by their husband’s name. Scrapbooking, then in vogue, meant the Arlington club’s books were lovingly assembled with wholesome Dick and Jane-type drawings and “dedicated to conservation of paper and time.”

Club archivists saved everything. News clips from the Washington Star, Post, Times-Herald and Northern Virginia Sun, but also some less-remembered papers: The Arlington Daily, Columbia News, the Arlington Chronicle. The Sun had a column “The Club Woman Speaks in Arlington” featuring the countywide club and counterparts in neighborhoods like Clarenford, Lyon Village, Lyon Park, Waycroft, Williamsburg and Ashton Heights.

The all-Arlington club’s organization included committees (or departments) for membership, welfare, publications, publicity, programs, civic affairs, gardens, “fine arts,” “home,” and interclub relations.

Perhaps its most shining time came during World War II, when the women worked on salvage campaigns and promoted war bonds—including at a big rally at the Buckingham Theater. The club’s Recreation Center at Clarendon Methodist Church offered grateful troops on leave ping-pong, piano singalongs, books, refreshments and dancing.

For its first quarter-century, the Woman’s Club of Arlington met at private homes, Arlington Hall and Trinity Episcopal Church. But eventually it would become the only women’s club in the county to own its headquarters. One husband deeded land at 1012 S. Walter Reed Drive, which, despite initial opposition from the planning board and neighbors, was traded in 1956 for four tracts at Buchanan and S. 7th Street. Total cost $52,000.

From the new building, the women created a “Teen Town Club” for service families as well as the South Arlington Cotillion. They started a library that grew into Columbia Pike branch and in the 1970s supported Gulf Branch and Long Branch nature centers. The women later adopted Barcroft and Randolph Elementary Schools, and in 2006 provided midwife kits to Kenya.

The club’s peak membership reached 167, but is about 30 today (plus 10 inactive.) It is now moving to evening events to attract working women.

May their future be as bright as their past.

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Last week’s obituaries for former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, did not mention that he lived in Arlington. The New York Times, but not The Washington Post, noted the names of his daughters, Virginia and Kay, who graduated from Yorktown High School.