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When Debbie Cassell moved to Evanston from Ohio to attend graduate school 10 years ago, she wanted to get involved in the community. She would walk by the elegant building at 1702 Chicago Ave., home of the Woman’s Club of Evanston, and assumed it was a place where the older, married women of Evanston went to sip tea and play bridge. 

 

“I was very wrong,” says Ms. Cassell, who was encouraged by an acquaintance to attend a prospective members’ meeting.  “Not only was I pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the other women attending the meeting,” she says, “but I was impressed by the club’s dedication to community service and philanthropic work.”

 

Ms. Cassell is now on the board of directors. She says joining the Woman’s Club was one of the best decisions she has ever made. “As a member, I’ve made friends for life, and it allows me to give back to a community that gives me so much,” says Ms. Cassell.

 

Aids Local Causes

Each year the Woman’s Club, a group of over 400 women from Evanston and surrounding communities, raises money for local causes. Last year, the club contributed over $120,000 and more than 5,000 volunteer hours to social service agencies, many of which are devoted to women and children. The club strategically allocates funds to organizations with a particular focus, and targets those most in need but least able to find funding.

 

The club hosts regular fundraising events throughout the year, including the Annual Benefit Show. A tradition since 1951, the Benefit Show is written, choreographed, directed and performed by Woman’s Club members, their spouses and friends. Other fundraisers include “Fairy Tale Trail,” a non-frightening, fantasy-filled labyrinth in which children of all ages and abilities interact with costumed characters, and Cornucopia, a popular gift fair held each November.

 

Woman’s Club members say community participation is about more than just raising money, however. Each year, members donate countless hours to service agencies, such as soup kitchens and Meals on Wheels, as new outreach projects are implemented, such as baking healthy snacks for the Family Focus after-school program and rehabbing a room for a needy family at a local women’s shelter.

 

“Philanthropy, community service and friendship are the hallmarks of what we do here,” says Julie Chernoff, the club’s president. Ms. Chernoff, a past District 65 School Board member, joined the Woman’s Club when her children were young as a way to get involved in the community. She says that, as president, one of her goals is to eliminate the misconception some people have of what a women’s club should be.

 

 “The Woman’s Club of Evanston is not, and has never been about, wearing white gloves and playing cards,” says Ms. Chernoff. “We are a vibrant, diverse organization of smart and active women devoted to bettering our community.  Along the way, we have a lot of fun and make good friends.”

 

Ms. Chernoff adds that the club is strong and healthy.

 

Although enrollment in some neighboring women’s clubs is down, the Woman’s Club of Evanston has enjoyed a continuous increase in membership. “We are in really good shape,” says Ms. Chernoff. “We are by far the best-organized woman’s club in the area, with the strongest membership.” 

 

A History of Innovators

The club was formed in 1889, when Mrs. Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, an astute Evanston wife with a Ph.D. (remarkable in those days), invited 20 friends to her home at 1412 Judson Ave. Mrs. Harbert implored the women to go out and exercise civic responsibility.

 

Of the many notable women involved in the club’s early days, Frances Willard served on the board of directors, while Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams were among the first speakers at the club.

 

The free-thinking founders saw needs unaddressed by the City and worked together to tackle social reform. 

 

One of the club’s first projects was the creation of an emergency hospital. At the turn of the century, injured or sick Evanstonians would have to travel 24 miles by horse-drawn buggy to Cook County Hospital. Many died along the way. The Woman’s Club responded by renting a house on Emerson Street and equipping it as a small clinic. When a smallpox outbreak threatened the town, the Woman’s Club held a fundraiser and collected $3,600 in seed money to establish what is now known as Evanston Hospital.

 

The doors of the clubhouse were opened in 1913, thanks largely to the work of one member, Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, chair of the building committee. Former mayor of Evanston Mr. James A. Patten agreed to fund a third of the building costs if the women came up with the rest. They did just that. 

Designed by the famous architect Ernest Mayo, the building was recently added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

The Women’s Club not only has an impressive history, but is also here to stay.

Woman⁳ Club of Evanston to Host Fall Prospective Member Workshop

North Shore women of all ages and backgrounds are invited to attend our fall Prospective Member Workshop, to be held Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the historic clubhouse at 1702 Chicago Ave.

 

Anyone interested in attending should contact Niki Moe Horrell at nlmhorrell@comcast.net.