When social histories of the United States are written, the women of the Garden Club of America are usually - unfairly - overlooked.
Who were they, anyway? You're thinking wealthy white ladies puttering around huge gardens in Rittenhouse Square and Newport, breaking for tea and sandwiches and chitchat.
That's the stereotype, and it stubbornly persists in 2013, despite the club's 100-year record of civic engagement through two world wars, the Great Depression and the Great Recession, and untold other transformative events, including the gender revolution that forever changed the lives of both men and women in this country.
"I think of GCA as an informed voice, a citizen voice for the things they were interested in, and nationally, one of the most important," says historian William Seale, author of The Garden Club of America: 100 Years of a Growing Legacy, scheduled for publication in March by Smithsonian Books.
The GCA was founded in 1913 by Chestnut Hill neighbors Elizabeth Price Martin and Ernestine Abercrombie Goodman to promote horticulture, flower-arranging, and conservation. Today, its network comprises 17,500 members - overwhelmingly women, but some men - in 200 clubs in 41 states and the District of Columbia.
Historically, it's true that the founders and many members, especially in the first half of the 20th century, were women of means. And, true, they were crazy about flowers and gardens.
But these women were sophisticated and smart, with the time and energy to identify the great civic issues of the day and act on them. It didn't hurt that they had remarkable access, often because of their successful husbands, to presidents (Harry Truman, for one), cabinet secretaries (Interior, Agriculture), and legislators and power brokers at every level.
"Although the organization's business was gardening in all its forms, sometimes gardening required some politics," says Seale, who lives in Texas and Washington, D.C., and is married to a GCA member.
One notable example: Ellen Stuart Patterson, then president of the Garden Club of Philadelphia, who would later become the honorary president of the GCA at its founding, led her fellow members to lobby for passage of the Weeks Act in 1911. Considered one of the most important conservation laws ever passed in this country, it protects almost 20 million acres of national forest land.
That early effort demonstrates a serious interest in conservation on a grand scale. The women's success also helps explain their desire to found a national organization that would give them a permanent, collective voice on such matters.
Over the last century, the GCA has used that voice to support the creation of a national arboretum and botanic garden, and the preservation of open space, clean air and water, redwood forests, and native wildflower meadows. The group also has fought against billboard blight on public highways and in cities, artificial lakes and dams, the slaughter of wild horses, and the use of DDT.
On the ground, GCA members have planted trees and flowers by the hundreds of thousands. They've raised millions of dollars for national projects, such as the refurbishing of the East 69th Street entrance to New York's Central Park, and smaller, local projects, such as new vegetable gardens at Fairhill Elementary School and Hannah House, a halfway house for female prison inmates in North Philadelphia.
"If you add up all the work of all the clubs around the country over the last 100 years, I think it would be hard to find another nonprofit that has done as much to protect the environment as Garden Club of America," says Amy Freitag, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, who is researching a book about the GCA.
Freitag, an Ohio native who studied landscape architecture and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust for six years before moving to New York, still belongs to the Weeders, one of 10 garden clubs in Philadelphia that are part of the GCA. (She's also the daughter of a former GCA president.)
To commemorate the GCA centennial, members from across the country picked Philadelphia as the site of their annual meeting from April 30 to May 2. While here, they'll visit Concourse Lake in West Fairmount Park, which has just completed a four-year $500,000 restoration, thanks to GCA clubs in Philadelphia.
"Last fall, our volunteers planted 16,000 bulbs in 90 minutes," says architect and landscape designer Jorie Nailor of Phoenixville, who drew up the planting plan and heads the group of GCA clubs in Philadelphia. (She's another second-generation GCA member.)
Such industry and enthusiasm don't surprise garden historian Jenny Rose Carey, director of the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University and a Garden Club of Philadelphia member, who lectures widely on the contributions of Philadelphia women to conservation and horticultural education.
"They didn't wait for opportunities to come along. They took them. They had a vision," she says.
Today, Freitag sees no shortage of new causes needing GCA attention, among them seed diversity, sustainable agriculture, food security, and the preservation of historic houses and gardens.
"But GCA is graying a bit. The clubs have to make more of an effort to recruit younger members," she says. "Otherwise, [GCA] won't be as relevant and successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th."
Seale, the GCA author, has no worries.
"GCA has always maintained, and become larger. You think, for example, the war would knock their socks off, but they come back just as strong as before. The wheels go right back on the road," he says.
Jenny Rose Carey explains the influence of Elizabeth Price Martin, cofounder of the Garden Club of America.
Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.