This article was originally published in the February 2018 Princeton Echo.
The stately home at the corner of Stockton Street and Library Place is more than another historic building in an historic part of town. The discreet brass plaque on the front door identifies it as the Present Day Club.
I had heard of this venerable women’s club from almost the first moment I moved into Princeton in 1995 and it was often spoken of with hushed and reverent tones. I was curious to learn about it, but life got in the way of things. Besides, I was new in town and I had heard you needed sponsorship from a member to belong. Chin deep in demands of corporate America and a grueling commute, I had other priorities.
Over the years I did get to know some folks who mentioned belonging to the Present Day Club, almost as an afterthought. Still I hesitated to inquire further because the members I met were older than I. Did I really want to join a private women’s club filled with ladies who lunched and played bridge all day? I mean, wasn’t it really just a relic of a by-gone era?
However, three years ago I heard that one of the activities at the club was a Mah Jongg group. Rather than a game for old gentle ladies, Mah Jongg conjured up for me images of Myrna Loy as Nora Charles and tiny cocktails of the 1930s and was something that I had always wanted to learn. I made some tentative inquiries and suddenly found I knew more members of the club than I realized and they were hardly blue-haired biddies. I was enthusiastically encouraged to come as a guest to one of the Wednesday luncheon lectures, just to “check it out.”
And so I found myself walking up the steps to that stately home on Stockton Street. Part of the fabric of Princeton for more than 180 years, the house was originally built around 1835, one of many homes in the Mercer Hill Historic District of Princeton designed by Charles Steadman, famed architect of numerous houses and public buildings in Princeton in the mid-1800s. He is best remembered for the Woodrow Wilson house at 72 Library Place and the Nassau Street Presbyterian Church.
The question was, what really went on inside? Why had the club been started at all? By the end of the 19th century, society and technology had advanced to the point where women, primarily those in the middle to upper class, had more leisure time to engage in intellectual pursuits. While men had long had social institutions based on business, alma maters, or fraternal organizations, women’s clubs began to proliferate during the post-Civil War era of the late 1860s.
By this period, many women were highly educated but without the outlets for continued intellectual development. Women’s clubs served as study and reading centers, often housing the book collections of members. Emphasis on education and intellectual advancement dovetailed with the desire to actively engage in civic and social causes. The clubs supported social welfare aims, especially encouraging literacy by fostering schools and public libraries. The book collections often served as the beginnings of those libraries.
The Present Day Club was founded by several women in Princeton, including Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, whose husband was then president of Princeton University. The primary stated purpose continues to be “to stimulate an interest in science, literature, art, and social and ethical culture and to create an intellectual and social center of thought and action while celebrating women’s contributions.”
One of the founding members had attended a meeting of a group that met for literary and social purposes in Pittsburgh. Why not one here? Initially the idea was met with cautious interest but some women expressed concern that such a thing would be “radical” in Princeton. Such concerns aside, the Present Day Club was born on February 18, 1898.
The minutes of the March 7, 1898, meeting reports that Princeton University put two unfurnished rooms at the Club’s disposal, rent free. “The Nassau Club gallantly rose to the occasion and offered to lend two tables, and the 21 members, gratefully accepting male assistance, set to work.” Annual dues were set at $5. (Currently $660).
After losing their rooms at the university when they were taken over in 1900 by the town council, the club met at various locations until the owner of the Princeton Press rented them space on Chambers Street. From the beginning, lectures by prominent speakers were par for the course. The members heard about the “Modern Applications of Electricity” in 1905 and by 1911 the club was investigating women’s suffrage.
World War I dominated club activities, naturally, by 1914. A resolution was passed to “cooperate with the adjuration of the N.J. State Federation in search of suspicious characters.” Fundraising for the Red Cross and the War Relief Fund was paramount.
By 1928 membership was at 250 with a waiting list and new meeting rooms were found. The club faced a “burning” question at that point: the need for a separate smoking room. Members agreed that “the smoking habit was no more untidy or extravagant in a woman than a man”.
With the advent of World War II, Present Day Club members became involved in the war effort in several ways. They invested in war bonds; provided the American Red Cross weekly access to the clubhouse to sew items to be sent overseas for the troops, and invited the wives of area servicemen to become guest members with full club privileges. Most notably, an evening violin recital performed by Albert Einstein, accompanied by a club member on piano, benefitted British Refugee children.
The sophistication of the lectures never wavered. Smith College Professor of Physics Dr. Gladys Anslow discussed “Atom Smashing — The Alchemy of the Twentieth Century.” British philosopher and Nobel laureate Sir Bertrand Russell addressed members on “Education for International Understanding.” In April of 1944, Mrs. J. Borden Harriman spoke to the club on her experiences as the United States Envoy to Norway from 1937 until the occupation of Norway by the Germans.
Fast forward to my introductory lunch. As I admired the architecture, then President Sara Hill, formerly with the Citizens Research Foundation as a campaign finance law analyst, explained that “the house serves as a gathering place to connect women from different backgrounds and professions who live and work in the greater Princeton area. Our members enjoy the benefits of belonging to a club that has a strong sense of community.” As I looked around, there was nary a blue-hair in sight.
The strength of the club was evident in 1930 when the decision was made to purchase the stately home on Stockton Street. The price of the existing building and the proposed renovations, including an auditorium, complete with a stage, was $45,000. The bricks and mortar are the face of the Present Day Club to the larger community and it has been upgraded and expanded over the years. A full commercial grade kitchen lets staff provide lunch for more than 100 guests each week and cater numerous evening events for the club and for other organizations such as the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which rents space for its events. Parties thrown by both members and others who have club sponsorship light up the night. In fact, frequent speaker and former food editor, now national editor, of the New York Times, Sam Sifton, is a fan of chef and manager Christine Larkin, who has directed house operations for 25 years.
Two years ago, the club undertook a major restoration and renovation to preserve the fabric of the building. Preservation architect Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner of Historic Building Architects in Trenton oversaw the construction that would take more than two years to complete. With the external structure secure, the Club has now turned its attention to preserving the interior.
But why spend all that money on a women’s club today? Women’s clubs are no longer common. There are several alumnae groups such as the Mount Holyoke Club, the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Club (famous for its book sale), and the Women’s College Club, but purely social organizations are few and far between.
While many existed in New Jersey in the past, the Present Day Club is believed to be the only one surviving in this area. Trenton had been home to the now-defunct Contemporary Club, also founded around the turn of the 20th century. The names of both these organizations reveal the attitude of their founders who focused on current events and sharing up-to-date information.
The Present Day Club’s current president, Susan Kapoor, who retired as assistant commissioner for family health at the State Department of Health and Director of the Tobacco Control Program, expresses the continuing draw of a women’s club this way: “The Present Day Club is engaged in the here and now. We concentrate on the issues that affect everyone. Our aim is to present new ideas and concepts and to challenge preconceived notions. Women are relationship driven and what better way to exchange ideas and learn than in a social setting. Friendship and intellectual inquiry mingle.”
Indeed, I found that this was far from being a club only for ladies who lunch. Thanks to the efforts of the program committee, the speakers who lecture at each Wednesday meeting and at evening events are prominent authors, doctors, artists, reporters, professors, and scientists from the New York-Philadelphia region and beyond.
Topics are fresh from the headlines, and it is not uncommon to have speakers who have won Pulitzer or Nobel prizes. Speaker Sarah Maslin Nir of the New York Times galvanized the audience when she spoke on her Pulitzer-nominated story “Unvarnished” about the injustices heaped on nail salon employees. Brian Rosenwald, media professor at the University of Pennsylvania, turned around everyone’s preconceived notions about the rise of talk radio and its impact when he spoke on how the phenomenon began and where it will lead. Last fall Stephen Pacala, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, floored everyone with his insight about climate change and the proposed solutions to the moral issues facing humanity.
Humorist and staff writer for the New Yorker Patricia Marx; best-selling author and journalist Jonathan Alter; and entrepreneur and civilian astronaut Greg Olsen have all spoken, some on several occasions. Bob Mankoff, recently retired as cartoon editor of the New Yorker, brought the house down. Almost every best-selling author has the club on their agents’ radar. No one receives an honorarium to speak.
Encouraged by the warm reception I received, I joined. Yes, you do need a sponsor but everyone is keen to bring in new members. And yes, I am now learning to play Mah Jongg.
It was upon joining and becoming engaged in the activities that I really discovered what it meant to be “in the Present Day.” At first, I planned to attend only the lunch lectures that I thought were of most interest to me. However, after being invited a few times to join friends for a program I had not thought to attend on my own, I realized that no matter what the topic, I was riveted by the speaker. Now I just reserve a space for every lunch and I am never disappointed.
But the activities of the Present Day Club go far beyond the weekly lectures. The Activities Committee routinely gets tickets to Broadway shows that become blockbusters. Who would have believed a musical about Alexander Hamilton would catch on? Members also have private tours of museums, historical sites, art exhibits, and more. In addition to my now beloved Mah Jongg lessons, women meet to learn or improve skills in needle arts, play competitive level bridge, discuss provocative books, or attend a monthly study group led by experts in the field being discussed.
Women are social thinkers and gatherers, making the weekly meetings stimulating, informative, and laugh out loud funny. Speakers have admitted on several occasions that they were challenged by the penetrating questions and additional insights that the audience provides. Those penetrating and insightful questions stem from the members’ eclectic backgrounds. Three members are World War II veterans. Any number of them are leaders in the fields of medicine, law, art, politics, and so on. It is not unusual during the Q&A after a lecture for someone to stand up and say, for example, “When I spoke to Stephen the other day,” and mean Hawking.
So why still have a women’s club now that formerly men’s clubs admit women? Clubs where members gather to expand opportunities, seek new business, and increase professional learning should be open to the community regardless of gender. But full networking participation is often honored more in the breach than in the observance. Lip service to equality becomes apparent when the real networking subtly but deliberately moves from the general meeting to the bar or golf course later.
As a product of the late 1960s and ’70s, I have had enough of watching women sit in the back of the class/conference room/meeting quietly listening to the men in the room dictate the agenda and the discussion. It’s no secret that women often have a different perspective on things. Not better, just different, and that difference deserves a forum for expression.
And frankly, it’s a delight to have the opportunity to talk about events and life without a guy instantly mansplaining that I have a problem and here’s how to fix it or subtly implying that I have totally missed the point of the matter and he’ll inform me of where I’m wrongheaded. Something tells me that I’m not alone in this perception.
The crux of the continuing viability of women’s clubs is the ability to provide a space where women know they are not alone in what they are thinking or what they are curious about. The key is adaptation. Social circumstances may have been radically different in the late 19th century when the Present Day Club was formed but the desire to be informed and exposed to current events, the latest thinking, and technology is a basic need. Curiosity has no gender and places where that learning takes place should be as varied as the people doing the learning.
The demographics of the Present Day Club are changing and that change is welcomed. Long time members know that the continued vitality of the club is dependent on bringing in new members. In fact, the current membership goal of 310 has nearly been reached. Luncheon lectures are routinely sold out. Technology in the workplace now makes it easier for women to be out of the office and attend mid-day meetings. In addition, newly retired baby boomers who are used to the collaborative engagement of the work force find the conviviality of the lunches, special events and activities fits their expectations.
The diversity of backgrounds is evident when members organize lunch tables for special interests. It is entirely possible to pass a table speaking only French or Spanish or one where everyone seated is from New England or even Old England. A random mention of a professional specialty can reveal several other members in that field. Sharing a story of the trip of a lifetime leads to joining a table of members who have also kayaked the Amazon. The social and professional network among these women is beyond impressive. The Present Day Club celebrates its 120th birthday this year. This longevity speaks to its consistently meeting the needs of an ever-changing society.
Are we ladies who lunch? Damn straight we are. We are also women who think, innovate, challenge, participate, and achieve. And we do this all together in that stately home on Stockton Street.
Present Day Club, 72 Stockton Street. 609-924-1014. presentdayclub.org.