The year was 1890, and Highland County was a place of antiquated elegance. Ladies in their delicate lace petticoats and parasols paraded through the streets of downtown Hillsboro amid bustling horses and carriages. Men in their coats and hats jaunted merrily to their workplaces. The world was at peace. Benjamin Harrison was in office, the financial panic of 1873 had faded from the minds of Americans, and whispers of a new invention known as the automobile spread through the streets of small-town America.
One Friday in 1890, several young ladies met for tea on Marilou Mathew’s home on Willow Street. That day, a decision was made by the women to transform the social balance of the time. They wouldn’t stand for the way Hillsboro ladies were treated anymore, and they set out to change the status quo.
From that pivotal moment on, the meetings grew to include dozens of other ladies. Their mission was simple — elevate the education, opportunities and etiquette of Highland County women. The club members spent their days reading the classics, playing music, writing poetry and studying Shakespeare. Their husbands were tolerant of the “Friday Club,” as it became known, as most figured it wouldn’t last a month, and that their wives would return to their homemaking. The town men often joked about the Friday Club, equating it to nothing more than a glorified gossip circle.
As the years went on, the Friday Club became increasingly organized. Programs were neatly scripted for all members, complete with a full itinerary and noted speakers. They raised money for community events, including the creation of the Lynchburg Public Library. It was as if the town men’s cynicism fueled the club’s success. The club, though frowned upon, was booming, and the women of Hillsboro had never been so educated. In fact, famous members of the Friday Club included Mother Eliza Jane Thompson of the temperance movement. Perhaps her crusade against liquor was inspired by these Friday rendezvous. Another figure of significance is Dorothy Hodson, a Hillsboro leader and member of the Highland County Historical Society Hall of Fame.
The Friday Club lasted much longer than initially anticipated by the town men. Throughout the years, the women worked to improve themselves and their town. During World War I, the club knit clothing for soldiers. Even the fine ladies in all their sophistication did not protest when they were forced to wear their old dresses instead of buying newer gowns for the season. The 1918 minutes noted: “The ladies are donning their old left-overs so comfortable and ready these war times.” With the extra money saved, the club members bought U.S. War Bonds to support troops overseas.
The Friday Club celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1990 and is still going strong today. One hundred and thirty years of women’s empowerment, education, and community action have come from this club, an organization no one expected to last long. Now the club’s many members have the historical honor of changing the social climate of Hillsboro and introducing women’s independence to a small rural town. The extent of these women’s work reaches internationally, and the inspiration some received from the Friday Club has had an immeasurable impact on history.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.