The Calgary Women’s Literary Club was founded on February 6, 1906. The first meeting was held in the parlour at the home of Mrs. Annie Davidson on 13th Avenue West (across from the present site of the Memorial Library). She was one of a group of well educated pioneer women from Eastern Canada, who had followed their husbands west. At the first meeting, by-laws were drawn up, officers elected and program topics chosen. Early meetings were devoted to rather heavy works e.g. Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V, and world affairs and current events. By the 1920’s they were devoted to pure literature. Attendance ranged from 25 to 30. The fee to join was 25 cents!
At this time there was no library in Calgary and the city was booming. The population had doubled from 4000 in 1904 to 8000 in 1908. The Club approached Andrew Carnegie, a New York multi-millionaire, to finance a new library.
Carnegie had made a fortune in the steel industry in the United States. He came from humble beginnings and reading books had formed the basis of his own education. This led to the funding of libraries and ultimately resulted in an $80,000 grant for the building of a library in Calgary. The city contributed $20,000 and the land, and the province donated $10,000 towards the purchase of books.
Next the ladies undertook the petitioning necessary for a library under city by-laws. Signatures were required from at least one-tenth of the electorate. This was made very difficult by the fact that only men could sign (women did not get the vote until 1916 in Alberta). Many men did not like Carnegie, believing he had made his fortune in industry through ill gotten means. However, the women finally succeeded. Memorial Park Library was built and completed in 1912 — the first library in Calgary! Our meetings still take place here.
Try and visualize the ladies meeting in their long dresses, petticoats and tightly corseted. Apparently Bob Edwards of the Calgary Eye Opener newspaper took great delight in making disparaging remarks about the “literary ladies”. Of course those were the heady days of the wild and woolly west, with a bar and brothel on every street corner. And maybe our ladies were a little straight-laced — but God bless them every one!
The Club has survived two World Wars and the Great Depression. At well over 100 years, it is the oldest club of its kind in Canada. Active membership has fluctuated over the years, becoming perilously low following the Second World War, and since, with women working. Active membership has remained at around 30 members. The format has remained the same, with members themselves preparing and delivering papers, with occasional guest speakers. There have been many changes — hemlines have changed, hats and gloves are no longer worn to meetings. It is only since the early 1960’s that members have been known by their first names, not their husbands’ (e.g. Mary Brown was Mrs. Tom Brown).
Minutes and documents pertaining to the Club from Day One are to be found in the Archives of the Glenbow Museum. Also, there are four cement sidewalk plaques at each of the entrances to Memorial Park and the Library, honoring the Calgary Women’s Literary Club. There is a bronze plaque in the Library on the main floor in memory of our founder Annie Davidson.
The members of the Calgary Women’s Literary Club cherish their legacy and are determined that the club will carry on for at least another hundred years!