At the turn of the 19th century, women across America came together in groups large and small to consider how to engage in the lives of their communities. Certainly some among them were looking for diversion and intellectual stimulation, but others had been inspired by the abolitionist movement and were motivated by the push for women’s suffrage. Many were searching for ways to have their voices heard in the public square.
In 1897 in Berkeley, just such a group met in a living room on Dwight Way. Twelve women formed the nucleus of what was to become the Town and Gown Club, a social club for women in the area, with a stated purpose “to create for its members an organized center of thought and action”. Showing determination and grit, the founders secured a vacant lot in Berkeley, figured out how to finance the venture, hired an architect—Bernard Maybeck—and moved into their completed and furnished clubhouse ten months later. That building still stands, and was recognized in 1975 as a Berkeley landmark.
The membership soon found itself in the thick of civic life. The women of Town and Gown spear-headed a drive to plant trees along city streets, supported the American Red Cross, and contributed to traveling libraries in underserved communities. They rallied to sew clothing for survivors of the 1906 earthquake and fire, provided financial support for war orphans in France, and opened clubhouse doors to other organizations whose buildings were lost in the 1923 fire in the Berkeley hills. The Club established a scholarship fund at the University and its members were involved early on in discussions that resulted in the creation of a “baby” hospital, to become Children’s Hospital in Oakland. Three members in the '60s were famously at the forefront of the effort to Save the Bay from encroaching and polluting development.
The connections of members through generations have enabled the Club to attract a star-studded list of speakers from academia, the arts, the worlds of science, literature and enterprise; a number of those accomplished speakers were Club members themselves. It is not unusual for a speaker to marvel that as an undergraduate at Cal, he or she would often walk past our Maybeck building and wonder what went on inside.
Many of the traditions that were put into place at Town and Gown well over a century ago remain, perhaps most notably the gracious teas served following programs. The Club still mounts an annual theatrical production, schedules monthly book review luncheons, and celebrates the beginning of the club year in September at a meeting centered in our jewel-like garden. With due respect and regard for its past, going forward, the Club aims to remain as vibrant and relevant as it was in its earliest days.