The Denver Woman’s Press Club is an organization for women newspaper writers and authors founded in 1898. At the time of its founding, the club demonstrated the new social and political power of women through its involvement in a range of causes, including the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. Today, the club remains an active supporter of women writers through annual contests, scholarship programs, and fundraising events.
The Denver Woman’s Press Club was founded more by accident than by design, in an effort to keep Denver from appearing backward to a visiting group of eastern club women. In 1898 Denver journalist Minnie Reynolds was contacted by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which was planning its biennial meeting in Denver. The group asked Reynolds if the city had a club for newspaperwomen. Never at a loss for words or actions, Reynolds replied that it did and hastily organized a meeting of her female colleagues on March 18. She quickly developed a constitution and bylaws for the infant club and presented them to a group of seven women newspaper and magazine writers. The Denver Woman’s Press Club was suddenly an entity.
Initially the club’s membership included a number of nonwriters. It was open to leading club women of the city and wives of well-known businessmen, as it occurred to the financially struggling reporters that the spacious homes of its associate members would be better suited for meetings and lectures than their own boarding house rooms. Through many years, the arrangement proved mutually beneficial.
The founding members of the club included the first state superintendent of public instruction, Helen Marsh Wixson, as well as the first poet laureate named in the United States, Alice Polk Hill, and the first woman graduate of a Colorado medical school, Eleanor M. Lawney. The club also designated several honorary members, the most devoted being Mary Elitch Long, who with her first husband, John Elitch, founded the world-famous Elitch Zoo, Botanical Gardens, and Amusement Park. Mary Elitch remained a member and friend of the press club until her death in 1936.
The club’s primary goal of advancing and encouraging women writers first bore fruit in September 1899. When the club’s initial fiction and poetry contests were announced, participation was mandatory for all members. By 1928 it was merely a “club duty” to submit entries, and today, members are offered the opportunity to enter competitions with their peers.
The club calculates its collective soul from the sum of its members’ creativity and spirit, and its poets have nourished that spirit in their own special way. Alice Polk Hill, named Colorado’s first poet laureate in 1919, was the prototype poet laureate for the rest of the nation as well as a newspaper reporter, music teacher, and the first female member of the Colorado State Historical Society (now History Colorado). Another club member, Clyde Robertson, was named the state’s third poet laureate in 1952. Born in Indiana in 1870, she had an early career as a concert singer before poor health forced her to abandon the stage. Years spent in primitive mining towns with her engineer husband showed her a grittier side of life and provided poignant themes for her highly successful poetry.
After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, members of the Denver Woman’s Press Club never stopped campaigning to improve the lives of women. Its members were at the forefront of historic efforts in the 1920s for better working conditions for women and children. They were also determined to acquire a home of their own in Denver.
A Home of Their Own
Club members had talked about seeking a permanent meeting location as early as 1907, but nothing came of the discussions. As the homes of well-heeled hostesses became less available, the club met in local hotels for a while. Sites such as the Chappell House were offered, but the women would not settle for less than their own quarters. The search began in earnest around 1923, and by mid-1924 the club acquired the charming home of artist and ethicist George Elbert Burr, at 1325 Logan Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The $9,000 deal was closed on September 16, 1924. The Burrs donated some of George’s paintings to the club at the time of the purchase.
For three years after the purchase, the women’s efforts focused on paying for the house. Because they were still mostly relegated to covering “society” and other subjects thought to be of interest only to women, women of the press were in an excellent position to offer the sort of fundraising events that would appeal to their followers. From 1924 to 1927, the club sponsored a series of fancy dress balls held every January to open the new social season. It was an ideal match: Denver’s financial, social, and political elite not only attended the dances but supported the club by purchasing program advertising. A 1924 ball raised funds for the $3,000 down payment on the house, and the remainder of the purchasing price was garnered by 1927.
Even though they finally had their own headquarters, members of the Denver Woman’s Press Club quickly realized that the house was too small. Although an addition would have been ideal, the arrival of the Great Depression prevented it. But club members, always resourceful, found funds for its redecoration in 1935. The walls were covered in burlap, replacing the heavy velour hangings on which Burr had displayed his work. The women traded in their old piano and acquired a Chase piano for $495. Helen Bonfils, publisher of The Denver Post, opened the 1935 program year by delivering a speech in the newly redecorated house. Though not an active member, Bonfils was given honorary membership in 1955.
Woman’s Press Club members were also involved in the efforts of both world wars. The club’s 1918 yearbook noted “In Service Overseas” Gertrude Orr, Leonel Ross O’Bryan, and Frances Wayne. Orr and O’Bryan worked with the American Red Cross in canteen services and publicity, and it is likely Wayne joined them there as there is no record of women covering the war at the front. During World War II, the club organized a “Writers Roundup” for soldiers who were writers or interested in writing. The project, held at the clubhouse, was jointly sponsored by the Colorado Authors’ League and the Poetry Fellowship of Colorado. The subject for a July 1942 presentation was “Writing for the Movies,” and speakers included writer Forbes Parkhill, playwright Mary Coyle Chase, and novelist Davis Dresser.
Presently, as an outgrowth of its mission to encourage literary excellence, the Denver Woman’s Press Club holds an annual “Unknown Writers” contest. In recent years the contest has drawn up to 800 entries from throughout Colorado; each entry is read and commented on by a club member. The club awards several scholarships each year and supports other literary philanthropic projects. The club of the twenty-first century reflects the progress made by women writers over the past 100 years and the new opportunities available to them. No longer confined to being journalists, writers, and poets, club members now include historians, educators, attorneys, public relations professionals, and articulate advocates for women’s issues.
Adapted from Eva Hodges and Cle Cervi, “Founded by Accident: The Denver Woman’s Press Club,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 17, no. 4 (1997).