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Mining the Evidence: The BPW in Portland

Text by Candace Kanes

Images from Maine Historical Society and Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media

Within a year of its formation in 1920, the Portland Business and Professional Women's Club had more than 500 members. By 1922, the club had 655 members and was the largest in the country in proportion to its city's population (about 70,000).

Portland and Maine in general were enthusiastic supporters of the BPW concept. The group, which began nationally in 1919, was a federation of some existing and some newly created organizations of women who worked in business and professional fields.

It sought to promote and assist their activities and to promote ethical business dealings.

Maine led the eastern U.S. in the formation of BPW clubs for some six years in the 1920s.

The stories of Portland and Maine's business and professional women of the post World War I era offer one example of asking questions of the available evidence to provide a more complete and more nuanced story of the past.

The immediate evidence:

Two types of evidence -- written and visual -- are available. The written evidence, records of the Portland club and census data provide some details about the organization and its members.

The visual evidence, mostly glass plates, complements the written evidence, but does not necessarily match it.

• A program from the July 1925, seventh annual convention of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, hosted by the Portland and the Portland Business and Professional Women's Club.

The welcome from NFBPWC President Adelia Prichard used the analogy of a garden and flowers to welcome convention-goers. She discussed love, loyalty, hope for the future, courage and endurance, development and growth.

"Six years of careful cultivation, of earnest devotion, has increased the size of this Federation Garden, has added to its beauty, its influence …, Prichard wrote.

Also in the program are oval portraits of the various officers and conference officials, many of which reveal fancy necklines and pearls.

The convention's first two activities were teas, one at the Portland Country Club and one at Brantwood, Blackstrap.

Resort locations and clothing and department stores are the majority of advertisers in the program, which also includes a schedule of business meetings and entertainments.

• A collection of 110 glass negatives taken by a Portland newspaper photographer of BPW convention delegates shows women arriving at the Grand Trunk Railroad station, in other locations in Portland, at a Peaks Island clambake and in Old Orchard Beach.

The train station photos suggest a pride of place, with delegates dressed in costumes appropriate to their home states, or carrying or wearing signs that indicate where they traveled from. They suggest a sense of playfulness and of camaraderie, important clues to the nature of the organization and the unidentified women pictured in the images.

One photo, for example, shows a group of women at the train station, all wearing fashionable women's hats, and many with pointed party hats with "Kansas" written on them, worn on top of the other hats.

The newspaper photographer apparently was taken with the costumes. There are photos of a group of women from Oklahoma, all wearing "Indian" headbands and feathers and a group from Connecticut in colonial garb, some dressed as men, some as women.

One shows two young women, one holding a child, dressed in bloomers and blouses with neck ties or scarves.

What do these sources suggest?

The immediate evidence rarely answers all the questions a historian poses. The historian examines the evidence, asking the "who, what, when, why and how" questions of it, then following those answers to seek new evidence and raise additional questions.

• The program lists vice presidents in each of 42 states, suggesting BPWs appeal and reach.

• Interests also were wide-ranging with committees on Legislation, Publicity, Finance, Personnel Research, Education and Health.

• As hosts for the 1925 convention, the Portland Club split into more than 20 committees that oversaw various local arrangements.

• Most of the advertisements in the program are aimed at a fairly traditional idea of women – department store ads for clothing, corsets, shoes, household products, shops catering to women, and ads directed to women as family consumers.

• Teas, music, receptions, and sight-seeing were interposed with committee meetings, and hour-long introductions to parliamentary law.

• The substantive activities of the convention are hidden from view in the program.

• Many women traveled with other women from across the United States – apparently with no male escorts.

• The women seemed to enjoy a certain camaraderie, as evidenced by the costumes and the entertainments.

• They seemed to court publicity, judging by the number of photographs taken at several events and locations.

• The large numbers of women in some photos, along with the range of home states, suggests an organization that resonated with many women.

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

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.

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.