The Madison Civics Club Celebrates its Centennial

As the venerable Madison Civics Club turns 100, members reflect on the great impact the organization has had on the city and look forward to a future of the same

Mrs. Conrad Elvehjem, an unidentified Civics Club member and Mrs. James Woodburn at an event.

Mrs. Conrad Elvehjem, an unidentified Civics Club member and Mrs. James Woodburn at an event.

Martha Reynolds isn’t sure exactly how long she was a member of the Madison Civics Club. At ninety-two years old and currently living in Florida, she estimates she belonged to the organization for about fifty years—or half of the club’s existence.

But that’s not unusual for Civics Club membership. Madison resident Marjorie Davenport, who served as chair from 1976 to 1977, says, “Everyone belongs for years and years.”

It’s a simple idea: four to five luncheons each year during which members listen to a lecture from an expert in a given field and ask questions. But to members, the Madison Civics Club is far more than a good lunch and a speaker.

“It’s raising awareness of issues that might not be on everyone’s radar,” says Barbara Arnold, club chair from 1992 to 1993.

And now, the years have added up—this one marks the venerable organization’s one hundredth anniversary. Members plan to celebrate with a year’s worth of events devoted to looking back at the club’s past to see how far it—and the city of Madison—have come.

But to look at the history of the Civics Club is also to look at the history of the women’s movement in Madison, as that’s where its story begins.

From 5 to 75 to 550

“Women’s suffrage was our most prominent subject,” said Georgia Lloyd Jones. “We had come to grips with the
legislature—which left us battered and dazed.”

It was 1912, and the women’s suffrage movement was in full swing. Women were increasingly frustrated by the resistance to the bill they proposed to the Wisconsin state legislature that would give them the right to vote, as lawmakers deemed women’s suffrage a “revolutionary movement with extreme implications.”

Jones would be “battered and dazed” no more. She joined forces with four others—Edna Chenoweth, Alice Bleyer, Lucille McCarthy and Mary Orvis—to discuss their frustrations and learn from their mistakes. Together, the five of them would found the Civics Club. Through word of mouth, a gathering of five grew into an organization seventy-five members strong in time for the first official luncheon in 1913.

During the club’s first few years of existence, luncheons were structured as forums to discuss ideas that would better the Madison community. They also included bold calls to action. The Civics Club made child welfare a primary concern, addressing child labor laws and childcare, creating spaces for recreational play and demanding improvements to the school board system. In particular, the club called for the election, rather than appointment, of representatives to the Madison School Board—a petition that first led to a Civics Club member’s appointment to the board followed by election to the board of founder Alice Bleyer in the first city-wide school board election.

The club’s impact on the issue of affordable housing also was notable. Historian David Mollenhoff, author of Madison: A History of the Formative Years, says the Civics Club helped launch a public awareness campaign, which led to the creation of low-income housing in Madison’s poorer neighborhoods. After inviting housing law pioneer Lawrence Veiller to speak at a luncheon in 1916—he scolded Madisonians for allowing slums like those found in Chicago and New York—the Civics Club helped build six four-room dwellings as a model of affordable housing. And in 1919, the club proposed that the city build a community center to host and entertain large groups.

But that was only the beginning.

The Civics Club soon evolved from group discussion to a forum for speakers, hosting an impressive field of America’s who’s who. Anthropologist Margaret Mead came to speak at a 1931 luncheon. To commemorate the club’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech, “Youth in a World of Turmoil.” Amelia Earhart held forth on aviation in 1936 and future vice president Nelson Rockefeller delivered “The American Republics” in 1941. In 1965, the club enjoyed an international guest, Winston S. Churchill, grandson of the late British prime minister, who spoke on the subject of “The Changing Face of European Politics.”

As the years passed, the Civics Club grew rapidly. Meetings were held at the Loraine Hotel until 1963, when surging membership required a move to a larger venue: Inn on the Park on the Capitol Square. The club was so popular that quite a lengthy waiting list for membership developed.

“Being on the waitlist, you could usually get to the meetings, but you couldn’t join until somebody died and there was a place to fill,” Marjorie Davenport says with a chuckle.

Membership was a waiting game, but getting a good seat was a competitive sport. Many members arrived the day before to have dinner, stay overnight and arrive at the doors early—after all, there was usually a line.

“When [the meetings] used to be at the Park, that line would be all the way up the stairs and out the door,” says Davenport.

Those who didn’t plan ahead were out of luck. Late arrivals were taken to a back room of the Park where they viewed the day’s speaker on closed-circuit television.

“That was clearly an indication that we needed a larger space for the luncheons,” Arnold says.

In 1997, the organization would move yet again to its current meeting location: Monona Terrace, which better accommodates the now 550-member club. Luckily, the location change spelled the end of the waitlist.

It’s only fitting that the Civics Club would wind up at Monona Terrace. After all, it’s exactly the kind of community center the club proposed to the city back in 1919.

A New Chair, a New Mission

Like the club’s founders, members who eventually serve as chair of the organization have their own unique vision for the Civics Club. Some select speakers based on personal interests, others choose themes as pertinent to current events and still others, like Barbara Arnold, approach the season’s lineup, as well as local guests and honorees, with the goal of enacting change within both the club and the community.

It was the early 1990s, a time when America’s older population began to outnumber younger generations, something Arnold noticed at Civics Club luncheons.

“It was getting grayer and grayer,” she says. “What is it that we can do that will really help our members understand all the good contributions that young people are making to the greater Madison community?”

The answer was to invite young Madisonians to attend Civics Club gatherings in a year titled “Closing the Generation Gap.” In a tradition that continues today, the club honors youth groups in a wide variety of disciplines—typically those that complement the day’s speech—and presents them with an honorarium.

“It’s a two-way street,” Arnold says. “Members get to see young people as great contributors to our community, and the young women and men who come and are guests of the Civics Club, they get to see the Civics Club members as people who really care about our society and ourcommunity and really care about the issues of the day.”

Other chairs selected speakers with global influence—and even stirred controversy along the way. Such was the case when Davenport invited former CIA agent David Atlee Phillips to speak in 1976, which resulted in organized protests due to his controversial involvement in South America. While police were on standby to assist, protesters came in mass numbers and entered the Inn on the Park along with the seven hundred Civics Club members already present for the luncheon—and that’s when the atmosphere grew tense.

“The police felt as a matter of safety, they couldn’t start ousting people without having it be dangerous to our members who were coming and going ... so it became kind of a standoff for awhile,” Davenport remembers.

However, the protesters were peaceful, opting to sit in the hallway between the main dining room and annex. While the protesters didn’t want Phillips to speak at all, Davenport remedied the situation by allowing the group to deliver a statement before his address.

“Our comment was that we have controversial figures, we listen to them speak, we ask penetrating questions,” she says. “We do not endorse anyone who comes in front of the Civics Club, but we’re here to hear all sides. So I was bound that our speaker was going to speak.”

And from that, the rest of the day went smoothly.

100 Years and Beyond

As co-chairs for the centennial 2011—2012 season, Kristi Williams and Laura McFadden are the first to admit the club has changed greatly since its inception. While the organization was born during the suffrage movement, it is not a women’s club any more—men are more than
welcome to join, and many do.

In addition to a remarkable lineup of luncheon speakers (see sidebar below), Williams and McFadden are planning a series of events throughout the year to look back on the hundred years of history of the Civics Club—and potentially return the club to its trailblazing roots.

“I’d like to see it really encouraging more individual activism,” says Williams. “That was where the organization started. And I would like us to get back in that way.”

The club may have changed, but one thing remains the same: the Civics Club is an important facet in Madison’s cultural landscape.

“The meetings did something. You learned something,” Davenport says. “It was a diverse crowd of people who you normally wouldn’t have met. And it was such an interesting addition to life in Madison, I think.”


Famous Last Names

Madison Civics Club members’ menfolk were movers and shakers, too

Mrs. Philip LaFollette
Philip was the famous three-term governor who helped establish the Progressive Party.

Mrs. W. T. Evjue
William was a newspaper proprietor, served as managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, and later founded The Capital Times. “Evjue” is the name of a stage at the Bartell Theatre and the Evjue Foundation generously donates to local causes.

Mrs. M.B. Olbrich
Michael commissioned Olbrich Park and Olbrich Botanical Gardens and as a UW Regent laid the groundwork for the creation of the UW Arboretum.

Mrs. Oscar Rennebohm
Wisconsin’s 32nd governor, Oscar founded Rennebohm’s Pharmacy (on the site of the current Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery) and the UW pharmacy school.

Mrs. E.B. Van Vleck
Edward Burr was a famous mathematician after whom a UW mathematics building is named.

Miss Lelia Bascom
She served as chair of the Civics Club in 1929 and is the daughter of John Bascom, president of UW–Madison from 1874 to 1887 and for whom Bascom Hall is named after.

Mrs. Aldo Leopold
Aldo is Wisconsin’s most famous environmentalist, the founder of wildlife ecology, and author of A Sand County Almanac. The Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail System was created in his honor.


Big hitters tapped to commemorate the Civics Club’s 100th

September 17
Janet Napolitano
Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Known as a tough pragmatist with bipartisan credibility, Janet Napolitano was U.S. attorney, attorney general and then governor of Arizona. In 2002 she was the first woman in the U.S. elected governor to succeed another elected woman governor. She was reelected in 2006 by a two-to-one margin, the first woman to be re-elected to that office.  President Barack Obama appointed her to lead Homeland Security, a sprawling department encompassing 22 separate agencies. The Senate confirmed her on January 20, 2009. Secretary Napolitano will speak just days after the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

October 29
Gwen Ifill
Moderator & managing editor, “Washington Week,” and senior correspondent, “The PBS NewsHour”

The best-selling author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday, 2009), Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. She has covered six presidential campaigns, and in the 2008 campaign season won the George Foster Peabody Award for bringing “Washington Week” to live audiences around the country as part of a ten-city tour. Prior to joining PBS in 1999, Ifill was chief congressional and political correspondent for NBC News, White House correspondent for The New York Times and a political reporter for The Washington Post.

Visit to learn more about the Civic’s Club’s history or to become a member.

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