Federation of Women's Clubs revives active volunteerism

The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) is convinced that its time has come. With budget cuts and a call for volunteerism from local, state, and federal governments, the women of GFWC are ready to step in and use the skills and networks that they established long ago.

"Our women are community catalyst," says Mrs. Don L. Shide, international president of the organization, which has 600,000 members in the US and 10 million worldwide. "Volunteerism is the rent we pay for the privileges we enjoy."

The "rent" paid is impressive. In an interim report of activities in 20 states last year. GFWC women logged more than 74 million hours of volunteer work and raised nearly $22 million for community projects.

"We have trained a good many professional volunteers, who are necessary today ," says Mrs. Shide. "They are quite technical in their expertise."

Their projects are wide-ranging and relevant. After assessing a community's needs, club members set about gathering forces (such as local businesses or churches) to get the job done. State clubs have introduced community education programs in such issues as energy conservation, crime prevention, and civil defense.

Like many women's service clubs, GFWC experienced a decline in interest during the 1960s and '70s as women entered the work force in large numbers. Now leaders, elated by large attendance at the organization's 90th anniversary convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, predict a turnaround.

"Women are finding that they can manage a job and their family, but they miss the identity in their community and the broad base of friends that service clubs offer," says Mrs. Shide. "We address that need."

Women's service club members have been portrayed as "cartoon characters" in the past, she says, referring to a Saturday Evening Post cartoon of a woman in a flowered hat presiding over a meeting: gavel drawn, mouth flapping, and "mind closed."

"She's been replaced by the action- packed, midiskirted woman with a blueprint in her hand instead of a teacup," says Mrs. Shide, echoing her remarks at the recent GFWC convention. "We have taken off our party gloves and put on work gloves."

Darlene Berent, current president of the Michigan State Federation of Women's Club, says the action-packed image is necessary.

"Women don't always have time just to be social," says Mrs. Berent. "The federation has to be totally vital, and that has attracted women. They say. 'If I'm going to give an hour of my time, I want to give it in places that will make a change."

This has also meant a change in structure to include evening and weekend meetings, so that busy women can attend.

GFWC members have been described as people who are traditional, somewhat conservative, a composite of grass-roots America. Mrs. Shide says GFWC is neither conservative or liberal, but reflects a balance of views.

"We support President Reagan's economic program, despite the fact that some 40 other women's groups are against it," Mrs. Shide says, citing one area that would label GFWC conservative.

"But we also support programs against domestic violence, which is more of a liberal cause," she adds. She also notes that GFWC was one of the first women's organizations to support the ERA, although each state club makes its own stand.

Whether they are conservative, moderate, or liberal, GFWC clubs encourage legislative activism. When national board members visited Washington recently, they went in to visit their own representatives.

"The representative would say, 'So nice to see you. Have you been to the Smithsonian yet?'" says Mrs. Shide. "Our women would answer, 'No, we've been busy. Now, how do you feel about . . . ?'"

Interest in government continues at the state level.

"Legislation is something we like to address," says Mrs. John W. Mace, president of the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs. "It touches our lives at all times." A legislative chairman sends clubs information, both pro and con, on different issues. Members are urged to contact their representatives.

But politics is just one facet of state work. Mrs. Mace, who lives in Cocoa Beach, has championed an energy conservation program in Florida. "Energy American Style" began as a campaign to educate women's clubs on conservation. After giving their own state headquarters an energy audit, and the Florida clubs have been busy educating communities and school children on ways to save money and cut energy use.

"I think communities are eager for it," says Mrs. Mace. "The bottom line is big utility bills."

In southwestern Washington State, GFWC members had a hands-on opportunity to learn about civil defense when Mt. St. Helens erupted. Now they are ready to help activate civil defense networks in case of natural disaster or war.

"We are much more tuned in now," says Kathy Estep of Ridgefield, Wash. "It was a real eye-opener.

"Every home should have a radio with batteries," says Mrs. Estep, who is currently the GFW international policy chairman. "There should be a map in the house with routes to safety shelter. Emergency assistance numbers (popularly 911) or ham radio systems should be a part of communities."

A statewide crime prevention program in Michigan was developed through work by women's clubs in that state, says Darlene Berent of Madison Heights.

"Money is gone in Michigan," says Mrs. Berent, pointing out the need for volunteers to help law-enforcement officials. Right now a focus on shoplifting involves law-enforcement officials and communities. A series of programs in schools is enlightening.

"We find that 50 percent of all students don't think shoplifting is a crime," says Mrs. Berent. "They see it as a joke, or something all the kids do. We show how it is a crime, what it costs, how it affects prices, and what the punishment could be if they are caught."

Finding volunteers for such programs is no problem, say GFWC women.

"To be a volunteer is a special way of life," says Mrs. Mace. "It is rewarding. I don't beli eve our country could survive without volunteers."

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