Faculty wives’ organization turns 75
Section Club has shaped campus culture since the 1920s

By Jacquie Frost


club members and baby

Ben Karcher, left, shares a train set and a laugh with Section Club President Judy Gordan at the YWCA, where the club leads a weekly program for families of international students and scholars. His mother, seated behind him, is now a volunteer in the program; his father, Armin Karcher, is a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley Lab.
Peg Skorpinski photo

23 January 2002 | They call themselves “spouses” now, not “wives,” and they’ve long since ceased greeting newcomers with hand-delivered calling cards. But the members of the University Section Club still practice such old-fashioned virtues as hospitality and service.

Founded on Jan. 28, 1927, to promote “friendship and sociability” among wives of Berkeley faculty, their families and the campus community, the organization turned 75 years old this month. To celebrate the club’s first meeting at University House, members and guests marked the occasion at a dinner at the home of Chancellor Berdahl and his wife, Peg.

Over the years, the Section Club’s membership has changed to include the husbands of female faculty members, as women joined the professorial ranks in greater numbers. But the club’s founding charter has not strayed.

The club is comprised of interest groups or “sections,” from which it gets its name. Members meet weekly or monthly to serve the campus in a variety of ways, play tennis or bridge, act, cook, speak French, Italian, German or Spanish, watch birds, take photographs, play music or visit the Botanical Garden and museums. They walk, practice tai chi and write.

Despite its low profile, the club has played a powerful role in developing the campus’ unique culture.

Club members staff the information desk at the Tang Center and stitch Cal bears as Christmas presents for children of international students and scholars. They write emergency checks, from their Services Offered Students (SOS) fund for students in need of quick cash to help with many types of crises — anything from covering medical expenses to buying books to getting people back on their feet after an apartment fire. SOS funds also support such campus organizations as the Disabled Students’ Program, Women’s Resource Center and the Re-entry Program.

One section, a service group called the Foreign Student Committee, holds a weekly program at the YWCA for families of international students and scholars, offering practical tips on living in the Bay Area.

“We try to show them what living in Berkeley is like,” said Judy Gordon, the club’s current president. Newcomers are given an opportunity to meet with other young families from many countries and share experiences from their cultures, in addition to learning about American culture, customs and holidays.

The section also hosts gatherings to celebrate uniquely American holidays, like Thanksgiving.

Club members host a luncheon and auction each February, to raise money for their emergency student grant program and for new projects benefiting students and families.

Member Sigvor Thornton, who began helping with the annual auction in 1956, collects a garage full of donations and prepares them for the sale. “I have done hundreds of loads of laundry and ironing,” she says.

The 80-year-old native of Norway also offers a sympathetic ear to new students, many of them Norwegians who have heard of her even before their arrival in the United States.

While members stress the importance of service and donations, club historian Mary Lee Noonan points out that the organization’s social function is also crucial.

“In an era when women’s organizations are often viewed as fossils from another age, we hope that these (service) activities will justify our existence,” Noonan says. “But to neglect or deny the social dimension of the Section Club is to misunderstand our role as a force for community within the vast, often impersonal reaches of the Berkeley campus.”

When Theodisia Stewart founded the club in January 1927, she was looking for a casual way to get acquainted with other young faculty wives. At the time, says Noonan, the highly formal college teas, started by Mrs. Benjamin Ide Wheeler, were the only structured means of introduction for women.

“These were command performances,” reports Noonan, who has spent hours researching the club’s history at Bancroft Library. “The teas were organized by the wives of senior faculty members and were very hierarchical. She (Stewart) started the club as an informal complement to the college teas.”

Throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, women flocked to join such sections as Progressive Education for Mothers, Peace Education and Home Nursing. The Philanthropy Section (later renamed Services Offered Students) stitched baby clothes for student families. In 1949, it provided 24 full sets of clothes, bedding and accessories for newborns.

Newcomers to campus also received a special welcome. Stewart told the Berkeley Gazette in 1964 that “every faculty woman and faculty wife was called upon by ladies dressed in hats and gloves and armed with calling cards.”

As the campus grew, hand-delivered calling cards gave way to personal notes of welcome. By 1946, Carol Sibley started hosting teas to welcome new women faculty and faculty wives. By the early 1960s, membership burgeoned to more than 800, and serious fundraising for student aid was launched.

Since then the club, like society as a whole, has changed. Today’s working women don’t have time to attend daytime club meetings, much less sew baby clothes. Many new members are retirees.

“We’re more likely now to write a check than to sew a complete layette,” says Noonan. Yet, the club’s most important function — as an important force for building community on campus — remains unchanged. “More than ever, we still need to belong to a community,” she says.


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