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The Debating Society at American Women’s Club

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Authored by Katherine Waite
Published on 18th April, 2024 15 min read

The Debating Society at American Women’s Club

“All members of the Club, whether aware of it or not, are also members of the Debating Society”

Founded in May 1899 as the Society of American Women in London, the American Women’s Club (AWC), as it became known in 1916, was an organisation for female expats from America. The club’s first president, Mrs Hugh Reid Griffin, described how the AWC stemmed from a shared belief that “serious social intercourse would lead to useful service and would create a center of our own in the land of our sojourn”.[1] Throughout the nineteenth century the increased opportunities for women outside the domestic sphere led to the formation of many clubs specifically for women. While these clubs varied greatly in outlook and aims, they all acted as a welcoming space for women outside the home.

The AWC valued personal development, offering classes on public speaking, and encouraging ongoing education by providing a series of debates, lectures, and courses. In 1927 the AWC established a debating society—all members were encouraged to attend debates on the key topics of the day. Detailed reports of these popular monthly debates were published in the American Woman’s Club Magazine (AWCM), which was launched in January 1925 and which forms one of the many primary source collections hosted by British Online Archives (BOA). These published debate summaries provide valuable insights into views on (for example) democracy, feminism, philosophy, birth control, mechanisation, war, and morality that were circulating during the 1920s and 1930s. These summaries not only outline both sides of each debate that occurred, but also provide notes on how lively the atmosphere was, the attendance, and the final vote count. Debates were widely attended by women in the AWC, and sometimes their families and key figures in Anglo-American society were invited too.

British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “Debating Society", image 9.

“The dependent woman of the past was more efficient than is her independent successor today”

The first wave of feminism began in the United States and the United Kingdom in the mid nineteenth century, emerging from urban industrialisation, as well as liberal and socialist politics. This inspired fierce debate regarding the limiting role of wife and mother that women had hitherto been expected to embrace. Starting in the late nineteenth century, more women remained unmarried until later in their lives. They likewise gained an education, organised for women’s suffrage, and worked outside the home.[2] By 1900 these ideas had coalesced into the concept of the independent "New Woman" and began to sweep away the Victorian cult of domesticity and the doctrine of private and public “spheres”, on both sides of the Atlantic.[3] In November 1928 the AWC Debating Society reflected on whether the dependent or independent woman was more efficient.

Mrs Koelsch argued in favour of the dependent woman of the past. She contended that any comparison should be based on “woman’s principal work [which] has always been that of wife and mother, and would continue to be so”. [4] Thus, the “efficiency of a woman must be tested by the way she is carrying on that work”.[5] This statement typifies the conservative reaction to changing attitudes towards gender roles—many remained convinced that a women’s priority should be the domestic sphere. Mrs Koelsh went on to claim that 

she was not bothered with questions of a career or outside interests, because she had only one career and that was to satisfy her husband, and to be a mother to her children…the modern woman is trying to prove that she can do anything: be a wife and mother, do a man’s work, take part in his recreations, run her clubs, be a politician, an expert bridge player etc.[6]

So according to Mrs Koelsch, a woman who tries to do everything cannot fulfill her role as mother and wife to the best of her ability and is therefore less efficient at the role that matters. Mrs Hathaway countered this argument, asserting that through the power of “making machines save her heels” and employing “a scientific study of homemaking from every angle”, the independent woman is able to participate in society, as well as fulfilling her traditional role of homemaker.[7] As Mrs Hathaway saw things because the independent woman is better educated, she does a better job of looking after her husband and children, an example of this being that “she knows better than to feed her family on heavy indigestible food”, and so they are all healthier.[8]

A “witty and interesting” discussion ensued. Ultimately, the final vote revealed a large majority in favour of “old-fashioned women”.[9] It is interesting to note that rather than argue that a woman can be efficient outside the home, both women accepted that a woman’s efficiency must be judged on her domestic work. The resolutions of these debates were often surprising and contradictory: the old-fashioned woman was deemed more efficient, but it was also decided, later in the year, that “we have every reason to be proud of the modern girl”.[10]

British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “February Debate”, image 9.

“Scientific Birth-control Information Should be Available to All”

In February 1929 AWC members debated the availability of birth control information. The controversial women's rights campaigner and advocate of eugenics, Marie Stopes, had published Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties in 1918.[11] She published Wise Parenthood: A Practical Handbook on Birth Control the following year.[12] Advising on and recommending sex education and planned parenthood, these books were instant best sellers.[13] Many of the women who attended this AWC debate would have been aware of Stopes’ work—alongside her influential publications, she had established Britain’s first birth control clinic in London in 1921. These clinics provided barrier-type contraceptive devices, as well as general advice.[14] Despite campaigns for better public awareness of the subject, during the 1920s the British government refused to permit any access to birth control information through the public health service.[15]

Mrs Mather Thomson took the progressive position that birth control information should be available to all. She quoted a coroner who had argued that “bringing these children into the world with no prospect of bringing them up…is most cruel”.[16] Thomson went on to quote a “poor woman”, who “live[s] in constant dread of having any more [children]…I find my life is one long struggle, [and] in fact, not worth living”.[17] This compassionate perspective highlights the toll that giving birth can have on women’s mental, as well as physical, wellbeing. Mrs Mather Thomson recommended that all should follow the example of Holland, where “public free clinics were started where scientific information can be secured from trained nurses and doctors”.[18]

In response, Mrs Fortescue Pickard asserted that freely available birth control information could lead to disastrous consequences, including “moral deterioration in the individual and the race and to suicide in the nation”.[19] Mrs Fortescue Pickard flagged the example of France, where free birth control information had been available for decades, and which had led to lower population growth than in Britain and Ireland. This, in her view, was cause for concern. While “the colonies of Great Britain have found plenty of room for any surplus population”, she observed, “the French colonies are in great danger of remaining undeveloped for lack of workers”.[20] A racist, pro-colonial worldview is implicit in this line of argument: it seems inconceivable that the “colonies” could “develop” without British people to rule them. Mrs Fortescue Pickard also highlighted how statistics showed an “astonishing increase in deliberate abortions” in France.[21] In her eyes, this “increased callousness in regard to infant life was caused by familiarity with contraceptive methods”. [22] She feared, moreover, that it would “be only one step farther to disposing of the infant after birth”.[23] Mrs Fortescue Pickard concluded by outlining her conviction that what “is really required is greater self-control and higher moral standards”—in other words, abstinence.[24]

This debate was attended by “several distinguished guests”, including Mrs Monteith Erskine, wife of a Member of Parliament and author of several books on the topic. The motion was carried by an overwhelming majority, who agreed that “when more people are being born than can be decently fed and clothed and educated, so that they have to be cared for by the state, the question becomes one of national importance”.[25] A year later, the British government took a vital first step in allowing information to be given to nursing and expectant mothers at maternal and child welfare clinics when further pregnancy was deemed to be detrimental to health.[26] The write-up of this fascinating AWC debate illuminates important themes which are still discernable in our debates on poverty, morality, and abortion over a century later.

British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “The Debating Society Holds Its Second Birthday Party", image 4.

“Machinery is Freeing Mankind from Bondage”

March 1929 marked the second birthday of the AWC Debating Society. Consequently, “one of the most brilliant debates yet was arranged” in partnership with the Debating Society at the Lyceum Club.[27] This was founded in London in 1903 by writer and journalist, Constance Smedley, as an alternative to the male-only clubs prevalent at the time.[28] The topic chosen for the debate was mechanisation. The organisers deemed this “a subject which is deeply interesting to our two countries [Britain and America], and which is looked upon from quite differing points of view”. [29] There “is still much of the old guild idea in England and the love of craftmanship,” they continued, “whereas our country [America] has been eager to substitute the machine, wherever possible to take the place of hard work”.[30] Of course, encroaching mechanisation had not met with uniform positivity across Britain: in the early nineteenth century Luddites struck back at increased automation by machine-wrecking raids that quickly spread across the north of England.[31] Speaking for the opposing Lyceum Club, Miss Waterhouse argued that, far from freeing mankind from bondage, “machinery was adding monotony to the life of the worker and of us all”.[32] Monotony “is bondage of the very worst sort”, she added.[33] Machinery, she also contended, was “driving men away from nature”, to “dirty cities”.[34] 

The debate was a resounding success. The AWCM reported how the “meeting was thrown open to general discussion, which was brilliant and witty”, concluding that this was a “pleasant and delightful way of exchanging ideas”.[35] This particular debate highlights the interconnectivity of women’s clubs and how these facilitated the growth of broad networks through which ideas could be exchanged. It likewise provides an insight into some of the perceived differences between American and British society in the 1920s. This is a key theme throughout the AWC debates.

“The American Type of Women’s Club is of Benefit to both its Members and to the Community”

The March 1929 issue of the AWCM cheerfully reported that “fame of our debates has gone forth”, as the club had been asked to “bring a party before the Women’s Institute” in Buckinghamshire.[36] According to the AWCM, these women had “never heard a debate”, but the AWC believed that they “would be very interested” in listening to one and that “it might inspire them to follow our example”.[37] Evidently, the AWC’s Debating Society was very successful as a forum for women to practice public speaking and gain confidence outside the traditional domestic sphere. Significantly, reports of their debates inspired contemporary women’s clubs to follow suit. Furthermore, the debate topics detailed in the AWCM highlight key discussions and changing attitudes during the interwar period in Britain and America.

If you wish to learn more about the AWC’s Debating Society, and the AWC more generally, you can explore the back catalogue of the club’s magazine through our collection, American Women's Club Magazine, 1925–1936.

[1] British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “The History of the First Five Years of the American Women’s Club, London", available at, image 7.

[2] Amy Rudersdorf, "The New Woman," available at

[3] Ruth Birgitta Anderson Bordin, Alice Freeman Palmer: the evolution of a new woman (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 2.

[4] British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “Debating Society", available at, image 9.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “Debating Society", available at, image 14.

[11] Marie Stopes, Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties (London: A. C. Fifield, 1918).

[12] Marie Stopes, Wise Parenthood: A Practical Handbook on Birth Control (London: A. C. Fifield, 1919).

[13] Laura Robson-Mainwaring, “Family planning in the 1920s: Marie Stopes and the ‘wise precaution of delay’,” available at

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jane Lewis, “The ideology and politics of birth control in inter-war England,” Women's Studies International Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1979): 33–48, at 33.

[16] British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “February Debate”, available at, image 9.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] J. Lewis, “The ideology and politics of birth control in inter-war England,” Women's Studies International Quarterly 2, no.1 (1979): 33–48, 33.

[27] British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “The Debating Society Holds Its Second Birthday Party", available at, image 4.

[28] “About,” The Lyceum Club, available at

[29] British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “Programme of Speakers", available at, image 4.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Eliane Glaser, “Lessons of the Luddites,” The Guardian, 17 Nov 2011, available at

[32] British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “The Debating Society Holds Its Second Birthday Party", available at, image 4.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] British Online Archives, The American Women’s Club, 1925–1936, “Announcements”, available at, image 3.

[37] Ibid.

Authored by Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite is Head of Publishing at British Online Archives. Katherine studied History at Newcastle University, graduating in 2016. She has worked in the editorial and content teams at British Online Archives. As Head of Publishing she is currently working on curating a collection on the history of pandemic disease in the United Kingdom.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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