In 1884, a small group of Abilene women traveled by wagon to Junction City to meet with organizers of the territory’s first women’s literary club. Following this visit, the Abilene Ladies Literary League held its first official meeting on January 22, 1885, making it the second ladies club on record in Kansas.
The group continued to meet bimonthly for three hours of intense and serious study. They read a Shakespeare play each month. They studied English and American history. They read German, American, Italian, Greek, English, Scandinavian, Spanish, and Dutch literature. Together, they read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and other classics, assigning a pronunciation committee to make certain that they learned each word of the classic literature correctly.
Gradually, the club’s interest in education began to overlap with civic affairs. In 1900, they organized the Abilene Library Association and collaborated in local fundraising efforts, including a lecture by William Jennings Bryan. In 1904, after renting vacant downtown spaces to house their growing library collection, the women of the Literary League circulated a petition calling for a vote to approve a one-mill tax levy to support a public library. The vote passed a city election in 1905 and led to the establishment of a public, tax-supported institution. To this day, at least one member of the Abilene Ladies Literary League serves on the library board.
Throughout the suffrage campaigns of the 1890s and 1910s, there are no records of the club participating in parades or actions to promote women’s right to vote. But the league’s educational focus was becoming decisively more contemporary.
Topics from the 1907–1908 program included “What Americanism Should Stand For” and “Leading Statesmen of this Period.”
In 1913, members formally voted to act upon current events they would study. Members encouraged development of domestic science and manual training courses for high school students. They equipped a kindergarten class in the library basement and supported playgrounds for schoolchildren. They contributed to educational scholarship funds. They raised money for hospital equipment and tree plantings. During the war years, they suspended formal meetings and volunteered at the Red Cross. During WWII, members sent Christmas gifts to veterans. Beginning with the 1950s, the Literary League campaigned for safer traffic laws, drivers training programs, and seat belts.
Now, 135 years after its founding, the Abilene Ladies Literary League continues. Roll is still called at the beginning of each monthly meeting in the Carnegie Room of the Abilene Public Library. One member prepares and presents an educational program each month while a second serves as official hostess. To accommodate women in the workforce, meetings are now held later in the day.
Like their counterparts of 1885, the members of the 2020 Abilene Ladies Literary League bring diverse backgrounds, abilities and experiences to each conversation.
And, like their founders, they share a belief that while change sometimes must come from outside, when another group decides to accommodate or grant it, the most fundamental and important transformations are self-education and local action.
It is fitting that the Abilene Ladies Literary League has kept as its motto the same Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation they adopted soon after their founding: “Self-trust is the first secret of success.”
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