A women’s club founded decades before women could vote, the Haddon Fortnightly is having a birthday party and everyone is welcome.
Club leaders want the public to know the 125-year-old South Jersey institution is alive, well, and eager for new members.
“Many people drive by and have no idea what this beautiful building is. We’re kind of a hidden gem,” says Marie DiMatties, a past president and 45-year member of the club at Kings Highway and Grove Street.
Other people “think a women’s club is a lot of gray-haired ladies sitting around drinking tea and quilting,” Mary Wolfe, president of the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, says. “We hear that sort of thing all the time.”
While the Fortnightly’s calendar does offer “Jingle Bell Bingo,” a masquerade ball, and a fashion show, club members — many of whom are working or retired professionals — are active in hands-on community projects. Volunteers stock shelves at a food pantry in Collingswood, prepare dinner for families of kids at the Ronald McDonald House in Camden, and mentor students at Haddonfield Memorial High School.
Along with other federation clubs, the Fortnightly provides volunteers for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of New Jersey, part of a national nonprofit network training people to advocate on behalf of abused or neglected children. The club’s commitment stems from a principle of service instilled by the small group of accomplished local women, including special-education pioneer Margaret Bancroft, who organized the Fortnightly in 1894.
The Quasquicentennial Celebration, set for 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 21 ($60 admission tickets are available through thehaddonfortnightly.org), aims to showcase the club’s headquarters and history while introducing the Fortnightly to potential new members, especially younger women. From a peak of more than 400 in the 1980s, the rolls have fallen to about 140. Statewide, the federation to which the Fortnightly belongs once claimed 40,000 members and now counts just 6,000.
“Young women our daughters’ ages just aren’t joining women’s clubs,” says Debbie Hluchan, a retired lawyer who became a junior member in 1980 and serves as public relations chair.
Two-career families and jam-packed children’s schedules surely are a factor, and the Fortnightly shares the need to attract new blood with other traditional service clubs like the Lions and the Rotary. Musty stereotypes of women’s clubs as all about tea parties and writing checks don’t help.
“We’re trying to show young women that women’s clubs can still be of interest to them,” Denise Sellers, the Fortnightly’s chair of joint ventures and a retired educator, says. Some of her most meaningful friendships are with other members, and “we want to bring more women in to enjoy the fellowship and do the work,” says Sellers. “We don’t want to become archaic.”
Adds Hluchan: “Women’s clubs everywhere struggle with these issues. We’re trying to sow seeds with the younger generation, but it’s very hard to figure out who the new audiences are and how to attract them. How do we stay viable? Do we need to reinvent ourselves?”
I meet Hluchan and Sellers inside the club house, a former Methodist church built in the style of a Greek temple in 1857. The Fortnightly bought it for $19,000 in 1931, and the tasteful sprinkle of historical photos on the walls notwithstanding, the place doesn’t resemble the Victorian enclave one might imagine. The club house is airy, bright, and busy.
“When I moved to Haddonfield in 1976, I was told by a Realtor that ‘you must be invited to join’ the Fortnightly, which made it sound like a very snooty sorority,” says Hluchan. What actually happened was that a member invited her to come to a meeting and see what was going on. That’s pretty much how it happens today as well — although some of the activities have certainly evolved.
Consider a recent sewing party: Ten women around the tables, operating machines, cutting cloth, or studying patterns for reusable sanitary pads for shipment to Malawi, where disposable tampons can be difficult to obtain and education of young women may be frowned upon in some rural areas. The reusables enable a girl to “go to school four weeks out of the month, instead of three,” says Sellers.
In 2017, the Fortnightly began to partner with the nearby borough high school’s 50/50 feminist club to host an annual art show, a connection that led to a memorable event in the aftermath of the March 2018 shootings at a Parkland, Fla., high school.
Before the nationwide walkout of students in memory of those who died, some Fortnightly members got together for a sign-painting party. And when the Haddonfield students walked out, the Fortnightly women arrived, signs held high, “the looks on their faces when they saw we had come to support them” were unforgettable, says Sellers.
While the Fortnightly remains nonpartisan and generally apolitical, an activity like the Parkland observance recalls the club’s origins in an era when women’s suffrage was a divisive national issue.
“We’re finding our voices,” says Hluchan.
Says Sellers: “We’re going back to our roots.”