Toda por la Patria y el Hogar

The Politics of Female Benevolence

Many women of the Westside advocated for their community through women’s clubs and sociedades mutualistas (mutual aid societies). These women came from upper class, middle class and working class backgrounds. Whether or not they worked outside of the home, they addressed the most pressing social problems in their community through their roles as mothers protecting their community’s interests, speaking out to improve their neighborhoods and their children’s education. While they were part of the broader women’s club movement of the early twentieth century, women in the Westside were also protecting and preserving the language and culture of Mexicanos.

In the United States, women’s clubs had long been a part of middle class women’s lives. They were spaces where women could speak in public and exercise political influence even without formal political rights. In the 1880s and 1890s the number and scope of these clubs expanded, as a growing number of women joined clubs devoted to education, self and community improvement. They studied literature, history, music, law and the sciences, even as higher educational opportunities were limited. They held discussions, presented essays and theatrical productions. As Progressive reform movements arose in the early twentieth century, women created new voluntary associations to address the social problems of industrialization — including child welfare, poverty, public health, and city sanitation. Throughout the country they put together impressive campaigns for municipal reform. They put a great emphasis on education, and moral reform.

National women’s club federations excluded non-white women, but women of color formed their own organizations. The black women’s club movement grew in the late nineteenth century as well. In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) formed. With the motto “lifting as we climb,” the NACW launched an anti-lynching crusade, and advocated for civil rights along with women’s equality. Women of color did not have the same economic resources as white women, but they provided financial assistance and services for their communities.

The Women’s Club of San Antonio, established by Mary Eleanor Brackenridge and Marin B. Fenwick, was organized in 1898. It was the first club in the state to endorse women’s suffrage, and also supported the Protestant Orphan’s Home, created a Parent-Teacher Association, and raised funds to save the Spanish governor’s palace in Military Plaza. The club advocated for political reform as well, promoting a juvenile court, altering the city charter to allow women on the school board and obtaining passage of a health ordinance prohibiting spitting.

San Antonio was a racially and ethnically segregated city, and most middle class ethnic Mexican women on San Antonio’s Westside were not a part of San Antonio’s Women’s Club. San Antonio’s Pan American Round Table, begun by Mrs. Florence Terry Griswold in 1916, was one of the few women’s organizations that included women of both European and Mexican descent. Griswold founded the organization to support refugees from the Mexican Revolution, and "to provide mutual knowledge and understanding and friendship among the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, and to foster all movements affecting the women and children of the Americas."

The Pan American Round Table's membership was limited to the upper and middle class. Mexicanas in the Westside also created their own voluntary associations, drawing from a long tradition of sociedades mutualistas (mutual aid societies) both in Mexico and the United States. These mutualistas provided support to ethnic Mexicans who were neglected by city government. Like other mutual aid societies founded by African Americans and new immigrants throughout the United States, they provided refuge from discrimination and economic deprivation. They provided vital economic support like sickness and burial insurance, loans, and legal aid. They also sponsored social and cultural activities and classes. Some mutualistas, like the Sociedad Morelos Mutua de Panaderos, were trade unions. Other mutualistas, like La Gran Liga Mexicanista de Beneficencia y Protección, focused on civil rights. In San Antonio, La Agrupación Protectiva Mexicana organized against lynchings and unjust sentencing. La Liga Protectora Mexicana advised South Texas farm workers of their rights and advocated for state laws protecting tenants’ shares of landlord’s crops.

Women in San Antonio’s Westside formed women’s associations as well, including the Asociación Protectora de Madres, which provided financial assistance to expectant mothers. The Sociedad de la Beneficencia Mexicana established the Clínica de la Beneficencia Mexicana, which served persons of Mexican descent requiring medical services, and the Círculo Social Feminino de México was a women's group dedicated to help people of Mexican origin.