How People Get Together Has Benefits As Well As Faults
By Paul Smart
Looking through the history of fraternal organizations and secret societies in America, pages and pages of names and acronyms appear. They came in three great waves, the first concurrent with the upheaval of the Revolution and including the advent of Freemasonry and the Oddfellows.
During the Civil War, The Order of the Knights of Pythias was founded by a Washington, DC businessmen seeking to re-establish a sense of brotherhood among men. He got Abraham Lincoln’s blessing and a Congressional charter. Soon, other groups sprang up with equally noble causes. They included the Grange, the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks, the now right-to-life Ancient Order of Hibernians, and a secret society now known simply as the KKK.
Eagles started the third wave when competing Seattle theater owners got together to create an “Order of Good Things” and finished a meeting with a keg on hand. Eventually, the group grew to 1,700 communities with six 20th century presidents among their members and renown for such deeds as the founding of Mother’s Day, the basic plan for Social Security, and the movement towards workman’s compensation insurance. Similar turn-of-the-century groups have included the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary International.
Tying together such groups—which have included everything from the timber industry’s Hoo-Hoo International to the Phoenix Uniform Club (for gay men with a special interest in uniforms)—were several threads. Such groups provided a safety net for men’s families through insurance and other benefits. Club members looked after their own. They also established a class system for the polyglot and the still striving new country that we were in during these periods. Many times, businessmen looking for success would join three, four and more clubs and societies to establish themselves in the eyes of peers.
“If each of us thinks back to when we petitioned the lodge we will find that there are striking similarities in the reasons that we did so,” wrote one Brother Charles Tupper of the Masons a century ago. “Some of these are: Many of our male relatives were Masons and it was the family thing to do; Many of the men we worked with and associated with were Masons. We wanted to fit in with the crowd. People that we admired and respected were Masons. We wanted to emulate them and we wanted to belong to the most respected fraternity in the world.”
According to the renowned historian Alf Evers, the most notorious of local men’s groups he came across in his voluminous studies was the Unified Order of Junior Mechanics, which was organized in the 1840s by local men opposed to immigration of any kind. The group faded after a number of years and then returned in the early part of the 20th century after the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony came into existence. Artists were seen as immigrants and the Order secretly worked to make their lives miserable.
“There’s always this thirst to perfect one’s act,” added former Fug Ed Sanders, who wrote the definitive book on the Manson clan. “There’s also long been a clubbiness among men in general, from Boy Scouts on up. It’s a survival mechanism in the vale of tears, a class thing that allows some to separate from others. I think Mark Twain talked about it all as the Royal Nonesuch. It’s not really dangerous until guns come along. Otherwise, it’s one of the things protected under our Bill of Rights, as is the shining of flashlights into these dark lairs where the club members hide.”
For women, the big birthright organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and Colonial Dames (which has two main components) were founded in 1890 when would-be members were rejected from similar male organizations. Junior Leagues began in 1901 and grew alongside new secular charity movements, along with the suffrage effort (which also led to the 1904 founding of the International Alliance of Women). Both found roots in the first of such endeavors, the International Council of Women first discussed in 1882 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony…in Europe.
The Young Women’s Christian Association, originally founded to help certain women in need find housing and other help, started in 1856 with no links to the YMCA, quietly shifted its focus from women in the home towards studies of sociological and economic opportunities in the early 20th century. The League of Women Voters began in 1920 as a means of supporting new voting rights. Motor Maids, begun in 1940, was for women motorcycle enthusiasts.
For over a century, many women’s groups were offshoots of men’s, from a Pocahontas sidecar to the Improved Red Men to various Pythian and other auxiliaries. The National Organization of Women came to life in 1966; late, in 1979, the conservative Concerned Women for America arose as part of the new Christian right.The Red Hat Society began in 1998.
One of the oldest and strongest of women’s groups on par with the big fraternal organizations, still operating if quieter than their male peers, is the Royal Neighbors of America, which has been focusing on empowering women to better their lives “through financial protection solutions and opportunities to give back to their communities” since 1895.
“Everybody has a certain need for certainty,” Woodstock therapist Peter Blum once noted for a story I was writing about the groups we join, years back. “You put on a certain pair of glasses, you see the world in a certain light. It takes time to realize that uncertainty is, in fact, better. It seems to be our gestalt to seek groups, be it the volunteer fire department, the bowling league or, God help us, the KKK to find a comforting hierarchy. It’s as if everybody needs to belong to a club.”
Blum went on to talk about new groups working from a principle of exclusivity and the stressing of differences, versus an older community ideal based on barn building.
Maybe it’s time for not only new gender- and ethnically-diverse organizations to pull us together, but clannish ones with an empathetic base, as well. You’ve got to re-start somewhere.