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Mining the Evidence: The BPW in Portland

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Delegates, Business and Professional Women's convention, Portland, 1925
Delegates, Business and Professional Women's convention, Portland, 1925

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Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media

What questions do the sources raise?

The historical evidence prompts questions that help the historian frame and direct further investigation. A preliminary analysis of the photographs and program suggest questions such as:

What was the purpose of the organization that, from the photos and programs, seems at least, and perhaps more, social than "business and professional" oriented?

What did the women do at the convention?

Why the costumes and other playful aspects for a convention of "business and professional" women?

Were there really "business and professional" women in the mid 1920s, some four decades before the second wave of feminism and the emphasis on women's careers and women working outside the home?

If so, what did they do for work?

Why have they largely escaped contemporary notice?

Where else to look for evidence

To answer these questions, historians seek additional evidence from a wide variety of sources.

For instance, the Maine Historical Society holds the archives of the Portland Business and Professional Women's Club. The records include three especially helpful items, a published history of NFBPWC, local membership lists and local scrapbooks created from newspaper clippings.

Portland newspapers on microfilm carry extensive coverage of the 1925 convention in Portland and a weekly column about the Portland BPW Club.

That coverage included some of the photographs of the clam bake, an outing at Old Orchard and the state costumes. But it also revealed the more serious purposes of the organization, including a debate about a world court, issues relating to child labor and the pros and cons of the name of the organization's magazine, The Independent Woman.

At the same time, the newspaper described the gowns worn by officers of the organization at one of the events.

Manuscript census records for 1920, the year the club was founded, matched with membership lists, help provide information about occupations of club members as well as personal information such as age, marital status, and living arrangements.

Some conclusions

Business and Professional Women at Grand Trunk station, 1925
Business and Professional Women at Grand Trunk station, 1925

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media

The National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, founded in 1919, aimed to elevate standards of women in business and professions, to promote interests of business and professional women, to stimulate local and state organizations, to bring about a spirit of cooperation among business and professional women of the U.S., and to extend opportunities to business and professional women through education along lines of industrial, scientific and vocational activities.

But those purposes do not capture the reality of the organization or the lives of the women who became members.

Briefly, the sources examined suggest that the women who joined BPW in Portland and elsewhere owned small businesses, worked as doctors, nurses, teachers, stenographers, milliners, worked in real estate, advertising, journalism, and various other business concerns. They might or might not have management jobs.

What they had in common was a sense of their jobs as careers and an interest in moving up the occupational ladder to more responsibility and more remuneration.

Unlike most working women in the 1920s, they did not work for several years after high school or college, then marry and leave the workforce. About 80 percent of the club members remained single and the average age of club members was 40.

They promoted the idea of business women both to help individual women advance and to open doors for all women in business pursuits – defined inclusively.

They went about those goals by garnering publicity for their activities and business efforts. For example, the Portland club, in a weekly column likely written by a club member, featured stories about individual club members and their successes in business.

The newspaper articles, club records, and a variety of other sources suggest that the costumes and other light-hearted activities at the national convention carried over into local clubs. Portland had a bowling team, a drama club, an orchestra, went on outings, held card parties and engaged in social as well as professional-development activities at its weekly gatherings.

Business women's convention, Portland, 1925
Business women's convention, Portland, 1925

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media

Why?

A large majority of club members were single; a similar majority of women in the general population were married. Single women, economically and socially independent, relied on similarly focused career women, who also were single, as their support network and social network.

The clubs served a social function and a business function, both crucial to helping the women succeed in what were still non-traditional pursuits.

Those answers only begin to explore the possibilities of what the evidence presented reveals and the questions it prompts.