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Petaluma Woman’s Club celebrates 125 years of tradition, independence

Mere mortals don’t often turn 125 years, but when a civic organization does, it is time to celebrate (1895-2020). Petaluma Woman’s Club hoped to celebrate in 2020, but the pandemic postponed it, twice! Hopefully, we’ll enjoy an elegant dinner on Oct. 21 to mark our quasquicentennial. There’s even a word for it!

By 1913 the Craftsman-style clubhouse was dedicated, designed by noted architect Brainerd Jones. This is where generations of women, from Petaluma and beyond, have enjoyed friendship and civic projects. The building is also rented by the public for weddings and anniversaries, birthdays and memorials. There’s hardly a resident who doesn’t have memories of events held in the comfort of the grand building. In addition to monthly club meetings and fundraisers, I have attended weddings and memorials.

I became a member in 2006 and was taken with the history of the woman's club movement during the Progressive Era (1896-1932) when social activism and political reform swept through the country. The formation of clubs allowed women, who had little political standing at the time, to have influence in their communities. As women gained more rights, the need for clubs to exercise political and social influence became less important. Over time, participation in women's clubs has waned in the United States. However, many clubs still operate and influence their communities. Petaluma is proud to still have a vibrant Petaluma Woman’s Club.

At the turn of the 1900’s, Petaluma was gradually developing from village to town, town to city. Petaluma Woman’s Club was all about self-education. Sub-groups invested a year to study one foreign country in-depth. They studied college-level music appreciation. The sub-groups were known as Ladies’ Choral Society, Church Goers, The Literary Club, Reading Circle, Professional & Business Women’s Club, Merchant’s Variety show, the Piano Department, Book Club, and were foundations and extensions of the Club.

Mrs. George McNear was the first president, 1895–1900. Her sister Nellie Denman presided 1903-1904 and 1910–1912. The first creed adopted was: “We desire to do all in our power to make Petaluma an ideal town, that may be known as the home of good citizenship.…clean streets, good water, pure food …”

I loved the tradition of the long, unbroken line of women who cared about their community and maintained their own building. I soon met Louise Benanti, who wore the daunting title of House and Grounds Chair. I followed her from basement to the third floor, operating a different key for every closet and room. Okay, it was maddening, but now the keys are labeled! We found the file cabinets under the third-floor eaves, where our history is preserved in dusty minutes, clippings and annual yearbooks. Club members are mining these records for an upcoming exhibit of women’s groups who have influenced the city at Petaluma Historical Library and Museum. Read on for some of the treasures we’ve found.

The Woman’s Club supported construction of a Paul Bunyan-sized chicken to reinvigorate the local poultry image. The Club went from its longtime somewhat “lace-curtain” image to hosting variety and fashion shows, dinner dances and parties that were well attended. Political activism backed women on the Petaluma City Council, which eventually led to the first popular female mayor and Woman’s Club member, Helen Putnam. Student scholarship programs began in 1948. The Club’s active support established the construction of a new Library to serve the city.

The ‘60s brought on a project that gained national and international interest that included protection of the region’s redwood trees and earned a commendation of the Club by Mrs. Lyndon Johnson. The ‘60s also attracted celebrities, politicians, business leaders and entertainers to headline at events. Mrs. Kathryn (Bing) Crosby addressed the club to promote her book “Bing and Other Things” in 1967. A fashion show was produced by a visiting Italian designer, compared to a more recent Coco Chanel event.

In 1995, as the Club celebrated its 100th anniversary, Connie Mahoney looked ahead to recruiting younger members. She formed the Evening Dinner Group, to attract working women, and tapped her daughter Colleen Mahoney as its first president, 2009-2001. Daughter Kerry Mahoney-Davison became president 2001-2002. Colleen presided for the 100th anniversary and is co-president this year with Sue Bunker, and the two are co-chairs for 125th activities. We even have a 4th generation member, Cheryl Coldiron.

In 2017, Linda Buffo, a past-president 2005-2006, recreated the same USO Dance that was hugely popular at the Clubhouse during the war years.

Recently, Colleen Mahoney launched the Petaluma Woman’s Club Speakers Series that hosts conversations with women leaders in the Petaluma Community.

PWC’s growing, diverse membership focuses on community and friendship with opportunities to participate in a wide variety of leadership roles. PWC is home away from home to a lively membership of community-minded, spirited women who meet regularly for luncheon and/or dinner events. Members have a commitment to the community and culture of Petaluma.

The annual fundraisers for building restoration include Sips & Bites and the Best Little Crab Feed. The Spaghetti Feed fundraiser raises scholarship funds for local high school students entering their first year in college.

Remember, you don’t have to live in Petaluma to be a member. Visit the website and take the virtual tour,

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