The American Woman’s League

AWL symbol

The American Woman’s League symbol—a wreath of acanthus leaves surrounding the League’s initials (AWL)—on the Jeffress Chapter house in Marine. The symbol appeared on every chapter house. Cropped from MCHS photograph 2008-093-0012.

The American Woman’s League (AWL) was created by magazine publisher Edward Gardner Lewis. The League had a dual purpose: to promote educational and political opportunities for women and to promote Lewis’s magazines. White women (the AWL didn’t admit black women) joined the League by pledging to sell $52 in magazine subscriptions in two years. Half the money went to the League and the other half paid for magazine publication and distribution costs. (Men could join as honorary members, but they weren’t permitted to vote.)

Terry Chapter

Photograph of the Edwardsville-based Terry Chapter of the American Woman’s League. MCHS photograph. The photograph was taken on the front steps of the Woman’s Magazine Building in University City, Missouri, possibly in May 1909. According to the unattributed handwritten identifications, Martha Terry is the left-most woman on the third step from the bottom, wearing a black ensemble and feathered black hat. Edna Jeffress is standing on the same step, fourth from left, shown in a three-quarter view and holding a muff.

Chapter houses

Lewis provided chapter houses for local AWL chapters. Once the chapter secured a site, the AWL paid for the chapter house design, construction, insurance, taxes, furnishings, and repairs.

The first chapter house in the country was built in Edwardsville on land donated by Charles Willys Terry. Constructed in 1909, the Mission-style bungalow designed by St. Louis firm Helfensteller, Hirsch & Watson still stands at 515 West High Street (now a private residence). Additional chapter houses were constructed in 1910 in Alton’s Christian Hill neighborhood and for the Jeffress Chapter in Marine. The latter, at 202 East Silver Street on land donated by A.W. Jeffress, has been repurposed as an endowed free library.

Chapter houses

American Woman’s League chapter houses in Edwardsville (left) and Marine (right), built for the Terry and Jeffress Chapters, respectively. MCHS photographs 2008-093-0004 and 2008-093-0008.

Jeffress Chapter house interior

Original interior furnishings of the Jeffress Chapter house in Marine. Notice the phonograph player in the foreground and plaque on the brick fireplace at the far end of the large meeting room. Courtesy of the University City Public Library.

Close-up of the “Woman’s Mission” plaque hanging on the brick fireplace in the Jeffress Chapter house. Cropped from MCHS photograph 2008-093-0014.

The chapter houses were typically furnished with Mission-style furniture. As seen in the photograph above, a plaque of the AWL emblem—”Woman’s Mission” designed by sculptor George Julian Zolnay—usually hung on the brick fireplace.

The American Woman’s Republic

In 1912, Minna L. Crocker of Edwardsville, Cora (Shiek) Ruhr of Highland, Angie (Rand) Schweppe of Alton, and Virginia (Evans) Springer of Edwardsville joined over 470 other AWL members in University City to establish the American Woman’s Republic. The group signed a Declaration of Equal Rights and adopted a constitution.

The structure of the organization, led by President Mabel Lewis (Edward Lewis’s wife), mimicked that of the United States, helping women learn about government so they could be informed voters when the time inevitably came. Edna Jeffress of Edwardsville was “Regent” (analagous to governor) for the state of Illinois.