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On Saturday, September 21, 1901, eleven Sonoma women got together to create something new: the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club. They sent post cards to every woman in the Valley, inviting them to come to a meeting on October 5 at Union Hall (where Bank of America now stands) to discuss their goals. All women, regardless of social status, were invited to attend. The ladies elected officers, created committees, and established a yearly dues of $1.00.
These women were working within a grand tradition of service that dated back to the Civil War. Women have always done charitable work, but during the war women organized to raised funds for Union causes, especially hospitals. When the war was over, women realized how much they could get done together, and women’s clubs began to form all over the United States. The first club in California started up in Oakland in 1876. In 1890 the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was organized to help coordinate their activities and to share success stories.
The Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club began to hold its regular meetings in the parlors of Solomon Schocken’s store, in the old barracks, across the street from the mission. From its first get-together in October of 1901, the club made its priorities clear. Committees were devoted to very specific causes: sanitation (because there were no sewers in town), parks and streets, a library, and child labor laws. The club’s first big project was the Plaza which, at the turn of the century, was a hayfield where people let loose their livestock and dumped old lumber and other junk.
Club members began to raise money to plant trees and build walkways in the Plaza. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the great philanthropist and champion of women’s causes, donated $25 to their fund. The work to upgrade the Plaza took years, and the women were recognized for their efforts. On March 25, 1904, the Santa Rosa Republican newspaper ran an article about the project, saying that beautifying the Plaza “…will add much to Sonoma’s attractiveness and though the work must necessarily be modestly begun, it will doubtless grow apace and the ambitions of the Women’s Club be fully realized. Santa Rosa is longing for just such a spot as Sonoma possesses.”
The clubhouse was turned over to the Red Cross during World War II, and members volunteered hundreds of hours to its work. Nursing classes and a Sewing Unit also met there, and the women created a Salvage Committee to save waste paper, metal, and grease for the war effort. The Well Baby clinic was set up again, and the women gave milk to needy local families. They also understood the importance of keeping on with daily life, so they set up a Story Hour at the library, put on dances, and raised money for the Boy Scouts. They also took up a local controversy. In January of 1945 the club passed a resolution condemning the Sun-O-Ma Club, a nudist colony whose members gathered in cabins near the old Buena Vista winery.
Students in Sonoma have frequently benefited from the club’s generosity. In 1904 the club members held a contest for high school students, and the prize for the best essay on the history of Sonoma was $2.50. A scholarship set up in 1941 helped send a senior to college and this was offered for decades. The high school library was always kept current with books and for many years in the 1960s the club paid to send a female student to observe the State Senate. The welfare of women, and young women, was also paramount, and in the 1970s the club donated to women’s shelters and stayed current on issues regarding women in government.
Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, and the Polly Klaas Foundation have all benefited from the work of the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club, and this tradition continues with projects like “You Can’t Quarantine Love” from 2020.
The story of the Sonoma Valley Woman's Club, now more than a century old, is one of far-seeing founders and equally dedicated members today, who continue to support the social, cultural, and educational needs of the Valley of the Moon. A reporter for the San Francisco Examiner put it best in an article which was printed in the December 16, 1903 issue. The women were working with government officials to lobby for better roads between Marin and Sonoma counties and the article concluded with this statement:
“There is not a more energetic body of women in the State than the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club.”
Researched and written by Lynn Downey