The First Women's Club

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
February 2010

On September 3, 1838, the missionary wives established the Columbia Maternal Association. It was the first women’s club organized by American women west of the Rocky Mountains. The opening paragraph of its constitution states:

“Sensible of the evils that beset the young mind especially in a Heathen land…we the subscribers agree to form ourselves into an Association for the purpose of adopting such as are best calculated to assist us in the right performance of our Maternal duties.”

The initial meeting took place at the Whitmans’ mission. The founding members were: Eliza Spalding (President); Narcissa Whitman (Corresponding Secretary); Mary Walker (Vice President); Mary Gray (Recording Secretary); and Myra Eells and Sarah Smith. Only Narcissa and Eliza were actually mothers at that point, but Mary Walker was due soon and the rest hoped to be mothers in the near future.

Duties included having a meeting for prayer and reflection on the second and last Wednesday of every month. It was recommended for each member “to spend the Anniversary of the birth of each of her children in fasting & prayer with that child.” (No cake and candles here!) Members were also advised to read articles related to “performing the aduous duties of a christian mother, & suggest to her sister members such hints as her own experience may furnish…”

Women’s organizations were very popular in the early 1800s. By one count there were 688 by 1839. These organizations focused on a variety of issues including missionary work, helping the poor, and providing advice and support for mothers. The first maternal association in the United States was founded in 1815 in Portland, Maine. In 1833 the Utica Maternal Association started a monthly publication, The Mother’s Magazine. Subscriptions cost $1. The magazine was immediately popular.

A letter from Narcissa appeared in an 1846 issue. She discussed many things, including the difficulties of having the members so far apart:

“Owing to the distance of our stations from each other, we have not been as regular in our annual meetings as would have been desirable. But the opportunities we have enjoyed, when together, have been very precious.”

Death was a common topic dealt with within the pages of The Mother’s Magazine. This should not be surprising since the mortality rate for children under five was high and many women died from complications related to childbirth.

Some examples of titles relating to death found in the pages of The Mother’s Magazine:

“On Seeing an Infant Prepared for the Grave” (a poem)
“Tribute of Affection to a Deceased Mother”
“The Dying Mother’s Request”
“Suggestions to Bereaved Mothers”
“The Dying Mother and the Infidel Son”
“The Death Bed”

Death was to become a relevant topic for the members of the Columbia Maternal Association. Within the year one of their children would be dead.

This is part 20 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 2

Next: The Loss of Alice Clarissa



Drury, Clifford M. "The Columbia Maternal Association." Oregon Historical Quarterly (1938), pp. 99-122.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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