For Women By Women: The Woman’s Department Club
For almost 100 years, the Woman’s Department Club (WDC) has symbolized the determination, strength and power of women coming together.
Founded in 1919, the organization has existed to “provide a center of thought and action to focus on the strength of women for the promotion of educational, literary and artistic growth of Shreveport and its vicinity.” The club is located in the same building members have congregated in since 1925, on the corner of Margaret Place and Line Avenue in Shreveport.
The WDC hosts a variety of events from September through May each year, such as luncheons, book reviews, performances and classes, and women of all walks of life are invited to join. Over the years, the nonprofit has played an important part in women’s society, establishing a legacy of educational opportunities for women and community service that continues even today. Despite the challenges of addressing the ever-changing 21st century, the club still flourishes and has remained true to its core values as an organization.
When the club began, WDC had over 800 members. It was organized into seven departments: literature, education, art, music, home economics, sociology and civics. There were classes, activities and lectures given in each department, such as French, bridge, art and flower arranging. These events were designed to provide an education that many women at the time lacked, as very few went to college.
Roxanne Bosserman, the current Woman’s Department Club Madam President, said, “In 1919 women had just been given the right to vote … the thing that amazes me the most about the women at that time is they took on a venture. They looked at this building as a place where women could come and learn.”
The result of these meetings proved to be a group of women who worked together and not only helped each other, but made things happen. Just six years after the club’s birth, the women raised $100,000 from among the members to construct their own building in 1925, no small feat in that day.
The club’s facility, a beautiful red brick structure with white columns, contains a large meeting area on the bottom floor with a commercial kitchen and office space. Several years later, an art gallery was added to the back of the first floor. The building houses a theater on the second floor, which contains seats for 440 people, two dressing rooms and a backstage grand piano, sound system, lights and excellent acoustics.
“The women raised the money to buy that land, then raised the money to put up the building. Then they had an auditorium that didn’t have chairs so everybody was bringing apple crates or something like that and watching the performances. They decided that every member would buy one chair,” said Maredia Bowdon, who has been involved with the WDC since the 1960s.
The long hallway that leads to the art gallery displays photos of every WDC president from its beginning. The women of the club have also kept records of meetings and events over the past 97 years with a scrapbook of each year that is stored in the archives of the Noel Memorial Library.
“[The Woman’s Department Club] does have a long line of history of women coming together, working together, and providing and empowering women with educational venues,” Bosserman said. “More importantly, there is such a respect for the women who brought this to fruition at such an early time in our history.”
The facility became a sought-after event space for all kinds of receptions, ceremonies and business meetings and is often still rented out today.
“When this club was started, it probably was one of the only places in town to have wedding receptions, dances and plays…it was the center of culture,” Bowdon said.
Over the years, the Woman’s Department Club developed into not only a place of learning, but a social outlet for women. Teas, pageants, luncheons and cooking events provided a sense of community outside of their families. While attending these events, women built meaningful relationships and worked together to impact each other and those around them through promotion of the arts and community service.
“There weren’t a lot of things women were able to do. Although they were probably involved with whatever their husband [did], they were usually viewed as an extension of his arm,” Bosserman said. “So you had a group of women that said, ‘We need to have a focus here. We need something that we can come to.’”
Famous acts, such as singer Grace Moore, pianist Lyle Saxon, poet Robert Frost and actress Katharine Hepburn with her stage production The Philadelphia Story, have performed on the WDC stage. In addition, various art exhibits were displayed, including artwork by Arthur Morgan and Thomas Hartbenton. But they also encouraged theater on a local level — Centenary Choir’s first concert performed in the building, as well as numerous productions by the Shreveport Little Theatre, before they had their own theater and after their facility was damaged by fires in 1986 and 2008.
Throughout the trying times of the Great Depression and World War II, the women kept the organization afloat and played a huge part in the war effort, raising money through selling war bonds and collecting metal, fat and furs. They also donated space at the WDC building as a place to roll bandages. During the Fourth War Loan drive, they sold over $500,000 in war bonds, amounting to a donation of 7,000 hospital beds.
“The women of the Woman’s Department Club raised enough money to outfit a whole floor in a hospital with sheets and everything. They gave their mink coats to the Air Force … Then, they kept selling war bonds and they raised enough money to buy two airplanes: a bomber and a fighter. Both say, ‘The Woman’s Department Club of Shreveport, La.’ And the president and everybody wrote letters of thanks,” Bowdon said.
Even after a century of existence, the dream of the women who began this endeavor is carefully preserved.
“There’s hardly anything that has been around that long and has been supported by women … This was built by women, for women and continues to be that after 97 years,” said Shirley Kelley, the Woman’s Department Club manager.
Now, the club consists of four departments: education, art, entertainment and home enhancement. Each department has a series of lectures and classes, and the organization still holds luncheons and teas, often hosted by a past WDC president. In addition, many of the traditional events still take place such as the Hanging of the Greens, a time of decorating the building for the Christmas season, and a Mardi Gras brunch. They also have participated in the Highland Tour of Homes. The club also holds monthly book reviews and hosts a different artist each month, inviting them to showcase their work in the gallery and hosting a luncheon in their honor. Fundraisers, such as the antique auction, are among their activities, and the facility is a popular event space for wedding receptions and other events.
As in the beginning, the club is organized into a board with a committee over each department and type of event who plan different activities throughout the year. The club manager, vice president and madam president help plan and direct the events of the club.
“We’ve done things for the Salvation Army, food drives for the poor, lots of luncheons and things … cooking classes and schools … we take things over to the Rutherford House when there’s leftovers. We do lots of little things that we don’t get a lot of recognition for,” Kelley said.
The club funds a scholarship called the Katherine Jackson French Scholarship, after one of the founders of the WDC who was a Centenary College professor, which is awarded to a female studying literature or education at Centenary College.
As with many nonprofit organizations, the WDC has struggled to keep up their membership numbers. The club currently has less than 200 members — at one time they were at the maximum capacity with a waiting list. According to Bosserman, people don’t seem as interested in becoming involved in clubs and organizations. She attributes this to the changes in society and culture, as many women now focus on their careers and work longer hours.
“The whole paradigm for women has changed over the years that the Woman’s Department Club has existed,” Bosserman said. “In order to address the change in the paradigm of what women want and need, we’re having to change our programs to reach out and attract that audience. We also have to look at ways to generate revenue and membership, which is one of our biggest challenges.”
“We didn’t have so many women in the work place for so many years, and now women are working until they are 65 or 70-years-old,” Kelley adds.
The club has sought to update its programs to make them more relevant, engaging in topics that are interesting to women today. The WDC also has carefully planned their schedule to include events in the evenings and on the weekends, so that those who work full-time can also participate.
Despite these challenges, the Woman’s Department Club seeks to stay true to the vision that these women had nearly a century ago. In order for the club to thrive, they must embrace the attitude of the women who began it in 1919.
“It’s going to take women who have a vision, like the women in 1919, who want to see something for this area that enhances and empowers women’s desires for education and art,” said Bosserman.
For many of these women, the most important aspect of the club is the sense of community and friendship that it provides, which continues even with time and age.
“The camaraderie and the fun of working with women who have the same ideas, the friends that you meet and the contacts that you make are wonderful. When you get older, it’s wonderful to have someone to call on,” Bowden said. “When my husband died, when my daughter died — the people that rally. People who take care of you, but they don’t just take over, you know. That’s needed in this world.”
“Aside from losing members, it hasn’t changed. It’s the same beautiful club with the same goals — the personalities, the same ideals for personal growth are still here,” Kelley said. “It is the camaraderie and the friendships that I’ve made over the years that are just phenomenal. It’s a friendship that you don’t lose.”