Sunday, April 30, 2023

Reached their Quota: The Short History of Elmira's Quota Club

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Elmira businesswomen were galvanized, back in the spring of 1919, by the news that a woman in Buffalo had founded the International Quota Club—an organization similar to the various men’s business clubs, but solely for women. In hopes of starting an Elmira chapter, a group of local women advertised in the Star-Gazette for potential members. The ad ran in May, and by June, more than 75 women had applied for a Quota Club charter. In August, however, before the charter paperwork had even arrived, the group abruptly disbanded. The Quota Club of 1919 never took hold in Elmira.

Quota International Logo

Clubs have been around a long time, and the first ones were formed primarily around sports or social causes. Two of the earliest examples include the Schuylkill Fishing club in Delaware, which can be traced back to 1732, and the Sheffield football club in England, formed in 1857. Business clubs didn’t show up until the early 20th century, and offered professionals the chance to network and do good deeds.

Three of the earliest business clubs - Rotary, Optimist, and Kiwanis - began near the turn of the century and are still going strong. The oldest of these is the Rotary Club, which was formed in Chicago in 1905. The name comes from the fact that the group rotated official meetings among the members’ different business locations. In 1912, with the addition of clubs in Canada and Europe, the name was changed to the International Rotary Club. Early rules prohibited women from being members, and each chapter allowed only one representative member per job classification. They did not have official restrictions on race, though many early clubs excluded Black members until 1980. The restriction on job classifications was eliminated and women were allowed to join in 1989. Elmira’s International Rotary chapter was started in 1916.

The Optimist Club was formed in 1911 in Buffalo. As the name suggests, members sought to take a positive approach when addressing societal problems. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Optimists accepted women as members. Today there are over 3,000 Optimist clubs with more than 80,000 members. Elmira’s chapter was founded in 1988.

Perhaps most directly influential on the Quota Club was the Kiwanis organization, founded in Detroit in 1915. First known as the Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order Brothers, they soon changed their name to Kiwanis. Early members thought the word was a Native American word that meant to trade or build. It actually is a misunderstanding of an Ojibwa phrase meaning “to fool around.” The organization became Kiwanis International in 1916 when chapters from Canada joined.

Like the two other professional service organizations, Kiwanis was slow to offer membership to Blacks and women. Blacks were officially invited to become members in 1980, and women were invited in 1987. In Elmira, the Kiwanis chapter started in 1974.

These three business clubs became immediately popular and offered businessmen a chance to network, hang out, and work together. Not to be left behind, women wanted their own club. In 1919, Buffalo businesswoman Wanda Frey Joiner established the Quota Club.

Wanda Fry Joiner

Born in Russia, Wanda Frey immigrated to Buffalo with her family as a child. At 28 years old, she married Robert Parks Joiner, who owned a company in the paint and glass industry. He died three years later, leaving her to run his business. She was a guest attending a Kiwanis Christmas party when she was inspired to form a similar professional club exclusively for women.

Women’s rights were in the news. One year earlier, women in New York State had earned the right to vote, and now the United States was poised to give all women that right, having passed the 19th amendment. (However, it would take the adoption of the Voting Rights bill decades later to address voting barriers for Black women.)

News of the newly formed Quota Club spread quickly. As the Star-Gazette pointed out, “Combining social, business and civic activities in the manner of these clubs is a quite modern idea.”

The Elmira group elected a board of directors and waited for their chapter to be officially recognized. They elected officers and held planning luncheons. To celebrate their upcoming formation, they scheduled their first “annual” event for July. They had originally planned to meet at Sullivan’s Monument, but changed locations when a heavy rainstorm came through the area. They went instead to Brand Park, where 60 members participated in pie-eating contests, footraces, and skilled sports competitions like baseball throwing and unnamed “stunts.” Apparently, some of the footraces created a ruckus; according to the newspaper, a few of the heftier racers insisted on entering footraces for slim or lightweight women, though everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Events finished with an excursion to Rorick’s Glen to attend an opera that evening.

Less than one month later, the Star-Gazette reported that one of the local organizers had said the “reputation and character of the national organizer of the club has been assailed,” and the local group refused to accept official recognition. They would be returning all paperwork when it arrived.

Whatever specific disagreements the Elmira group had aren’t clear, but the seeds were sown for discontent and soon the group broke apart. Some women moved away, while others reorganized into the Elmira Business Women’s Club. In December 1919, this group joined Zonta International and formed a chapter in Elmira. Zonta International was a businesswomen’s club formed in Buffalo, and the Elmira chapter was one of its first five chapters. It is the only Zonta chapter that owns its own house, and it is still going strong today, though I don’t know if they have any footraces scheduled.

Elmira's Zonta House
Author's note: Corning Painted Post had a Quota chapter for years though Quota International disbanded operations in 2020 due to dwindling membership. 


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