NILES Exhibit features influence of women

The museum will conduct an open house from 2 to 5 p.m. today.
NILES -- Women's organizations held heavy influence through the years, having a hand in everything from the appearance of parks and cemeteries to the creation of city law.
Now, the women, their clubs and their work are documented in a new exhibit at the Ward-Thomas Museum, 503 Brown St., off South Main Street. The museum, operated by the Niles Historical Society, hosts an open house for the public the first Sunday of each month, including from 2 to 5 p.m. today.
The exhibit highlights not only the women and their work but also the lengths they would go to prepare their homes for meetings. Some women would completely redecorate their homes, dress in their Sunday best and serve exquisite meals and tea with the finest china and silver.
"From about the turn of the century until very recently, women's clubs were very popular," explained Meredith Elliot, administrative assistant at the museum. She noted the clubs' popularity were not germane to just Niles, but the city did have its fair share of clubs.
One example is the Niles Federation of Women's Clubs, formed in 1910. The Woman's Lyceum, Progress Club, New Century and Query Circle were original members. Eventually more than 30 clubs throughout the city joined.
The impact
"Especially around the turn of the century, women were essentially powerless," she said. "So they would join these clubs and tell their husbands they were off to the meetings. Their husbands would pat them on the head and tell them to go ahead to their little gatherings and not feel the least bit threatened."
But once they gathered, many of the women used their membership in the clubs to bring about significant change, often without the knowledge of their husbands, Elliot said.
The women assisted in the formation of the Niles Community Corp., which performed charity work throughout the city; created an office for the city's nurse; beautified Circle and Triangle parks; made improvements at Union Cemetery and the Stevens Park Youth Cabin; and waged an anti-spitting campaign.
Another significant club was the Women's Relief Corps of Niles, which got its start in 1866. The club was devoted primarily to charity work, and at one point had complete charge of the Memorial Day services for the Grand Army of the Republic.
The women served dinner to veterans, placed American flags on soldiers' graves and provided relief to widows and orphans of those who never returned from battle.
War paraphernalia
The exhibit includes ribbons, buttons and badges for the G.A.R., dating from 1861-1889. There are also newspaper accounts from several meetings, as well as pictures of many of the early clubs.
Elliot said perhaps one of the most powerful clubs from the city was the Woman's Lyceum, which boasted several influential members.
"Many of the women who had money and power in town belonged to that club," she said.
Though there are significant pieces in the museum's collection for the Woman's Lyceum, the New Century and the Garden Club, workers are always interested in receiving more donations.
"Our policy is never refuse anything," Elliot said.
For more information, contact the Niles Historical Society at (330) 544-2143.