The Dallas Federation of Women's Clubs (DFWC), originally named the City Federation of Women's Clubs, was created in 1898 as the amalgamation of five existing women's cultural and literary clubs. The DFWC was organized by May Dickson Exall and Isadore Minor Calloway. Their original stated purpose was "to have a share in moulding the life of their own communities." The two women took inspiration from other national women’s organizations with their goals for urban revitalization and civic progress. Elite White women made up the DFWC’s membership, and they prioritized municipal welfare and community health for struggling women and children. These Progressive Era reform movements provided a path for Dallas women of status to extend their influence into the public and political sphere. Often the wives or relatives of prominent Dallas politicians or businessmen, the DFWC members advocated environmental, social, and educational reform for the betterment of the city. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the tactics of the DFWC proved successful and influential and led to increased efforts for the passage of woman suffrage. Through the 1990s the DFWC headed projects to improve the lives of women, children, and families. Their efforts helped to establish libraries and cultural centers and provided numerous programs of support and uplift for women and children in the Dallas community.
At the World’s Columbian Expedition in Chicago in 1893, Texas clubwomen were inspired by sessions presented by the World’s Congress of Representative Women. In October of the same year at the Texas State Fair, Dallas clubwomen hosted the first meeting of the Texas Woman’s Congress. Soon after that the Dallas Equal Rights Club was established, and that set in motion the origination of the DFWC in 1898. One of the first initiatives of the DFWC was to construct a Dallas Public Library. Through fundraising efforts and the generous contributions of Andrew Carnegie, the first Dallas library opened on Harwood Street in 1901.
The women of the DFWC found their introduction to a public forum by focusing on issues related to women, children, and community welfare. They fought for free kindergarten programs, day nurseries for working mothers, and they taught cooking and sewing programs. They also established the “Neighborhood House” to help community members in need. The DFWC fought to improve jail conditions and programs for troubled youth in their early years. When they heard of two local youths who had been arrested for stealing spools of wool, they were prompted to act. The children were subjected to adult trials and also held with the adult prisoners while they awaited the process. In response, in 1903, Isadore Calloway headed a campaign to reform the Dallas jail and lobbied for the establishment of a police matron. The matron was in charge of the incarcerated women and minors, and the city jail was expanded to include a separate area under her supervision. Additionally, the DFWC funded payments for Dallas’s first probation officer. They also founded the Industrial School for Boys at Hutchins and protested for changes in policy at the Gainesville Reformatory for Girls. They combated child labor laws and lobbied for access to birth control as well. Importantly, the DFWC established a baby camp for sick infants from indigent families and a baby hospital which became a central component of the welfare program in Dallas. By 1912 the organization had also established free daycare for small children whose mothers worked in the Dallas factories, girls' and boys' clubs for older children, and clubs for mothers.
The efforts of the DFWC were paramount in helping to establish many Progressive Era reforms. These included educational seminars on fire prevention, the state’s first clean-up campaign, the establishment of a pure water filtration plant, and pure food and drug laws that called for inspections and sanitation in dairies and other production facilities. They provided a public education for young boys and girls, funded scholarships, playgrounds, and held an Empty Stocking Crusade for underprivileged children during Christmas.
The DFWC inspired other important Dallas organizations through their activism. Some of these include the Dallas Library Association, the Dallas Art Association, the Kindergarten Association, the Sunshine Club, the Dallas Mother’s Council, the Mouth Hygiene Association, the Rural Welfare Association, and the Child Guidance Clinic, which provided mental health counseling to Dallas youth. The DFWC also inspired the organization of the Dallas Women’s Forum, which became an extension of the federation. The Forum encouraged self-development by teaching art, Bible and sacred history, music, philosophy, science, literature, household economics, pure food, civics, philanthropy, and current events.
The Dallas women who represented the DFWC used the press as an essential means to communicate their agendas. Their early successes were due in part to the rapid membership increase. Within twenty years, the club had grown to include fifty-three various women's clubs and recorded a total of more than 2,000 members, including the Graduate Nurses' Association and the Council of Jewish Women. The involvement and leadership of Isadore Minor Callaway, who was a columnist for the Dallas Morning News from 1893 to 1916 as "Pauline Periwinkle," benefited the organization through her publications and connections to other newspapers and city leaders. "In her capacity as the paper's first "woman's" editor, she coordinated news of club projects and sprinkled even the most innocuous columns with arguments in favor of suffrage and expanded roles for women. Her efforts were instrumental in causing the transition of women from exclusively home-centered roles into public extensions of a woman's traditional sphere."
The DFWC took on an active role in the home-front effort in the Dallas area during World War I. For example, the Dallas Canteen, officially called the Recreation Canteen, provided servicemen stationed at Camp John Dick (located at Fair Park) with meals, entertainment, letter writing assistance, and other hospitality services. The DFWC raised funds, provided volunteers, and organized its opening. Later the Dallas War Camp Community Service took over those responsibilities, but the DFWC continued its volunteer contributions. Wartime support efforts by the DFWC transitioned into a broader movement by clubwomen that became part of the argument for woman suffrage, which was ramping up at the outbreak of the war. Both in Dallas and across the nation, suffragists “leveraged their presence at patriotic community events as opportunities to keep their cause in the public eye. As women's contributions to the war effort mounted, newspaper editors, lawmakers, and other influencers who supported votes for women began to position voting rights as a ‘just reward’ for women's wartime service."
The DFWC attracted the membership of prominent White women in the Dallas area. Their efforts, while important, generally ignored the well-being of women, children, and families of color. In 1918 the organization proposed to build a community park for the Hispanic community members in Dallas, but such attempts for outreach and support were minimal, and the federation’s goal more often excluded minority communities. In some instances, the DFWC worked directly against the goals of non-White community members. For example, Mrs. George A. Ripley, a “prominent Dallas clubwoman and civic leader” was the chairman of the League of Women Voters of Texas that successfully campaigned to enforce poll taxes, which actively suppressed the African American vote in Dallas. These exclusionary tactics pushed Black and immigrant communities to organize separately for their own well-being. In 1919 the Texas Federation of Colored Women’s Club organized and advocated their own rights and protections in the workplace and in their homes.
In the 1920s the DFWC established a prenatal and postnatal clinic in cooperation with the Red Cross. Later labeled the "Motherhood Class," the clinic provided limited medical care but also maternity wear and baby clothes and other essentials for new mothers. Along with a large variety of fundraisers, lobbying for environmental and civic reforms, and beautification efforts for the city, the DFWC began several scholarships for men and women to attend local schools. In the early 1920s the Mamie Folsom Wynne Scholarship Loan Fund was established, and an annual fund was initiated to help Dallas girls attend business colleges. In the 1930s the DFWC also spearheaded the establishment of the Historical Museum of Dallas.
In the early 1940s the federation led a fundraiser and bond campaign that was successful in raising $20,025 for the purchase of a bomber plane for the military in their name and urged club women around the state to run similar drives. In 1948 DFWC members were active in supporting a butchers boycott as meat prices soared. The members used telephone calls to members, friends, and relatives to urge housewives all over the country to boycott butchers for up to a week at a time. The boycott became a national movement, "with the result that sales dropped as much as 20 percent," and some butchers closing their doors until the boycott died down.
Much like the larger Texas Federation of Women's Clubs, the Dallas Federation of Women's Clubs was a major player in the civic life of Dallas for much of the twentieth century. The organization was actively involved in the building of the infrastructure of Dallas as well as many legislative changes and civic improvements. By the 1980s the organization began to fade, and the records held at the Dallas Public Library which they established back in 1901 end in the early 1990s.