As the Industrial Revolution chugged through the mid-to-late 19th century, people crowded into cities in search of factory jobs. Factory work was dangerous, hours were long, and pay was low. Muckraking journalists such as Ida Tarbell and Jacob Riis wrote articles exposing the conditions under which many factory workers lived.
As middle-class Americans learned of living and working conditions in the cities, they began to form reform societies aimed at bettering their communities. They organized clean-up efforts, created parks and green spaces, organized English language classes for immigrants, taught health and hygiene classes, and opened child care centers for the children of working mothers.
Many of these organizations were formed by women, often college educated women with the knowledge and skills necessary not only to organize local work, but also to raise money, meet with legislators, and persuade politicians that change was necessary.
While the club woman was sometimes treated by the press as a figure of ridicule, she was also a powerful force for community improvement, especially when large numbers of club women worked together.
In 1890, June Croly of New York City organized women’s clubs from throughout the nation into an organization that would come to be called the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. The clubs in the GFWC opposed child labor, and supported passage of the Pure Food and Drug laws, as well as legislation guaranteeing workplace safety, worker’s compensation, the eight hour workday, prison reform, and the organization of juvenile court systems.
The GFWC also supported expansion of the arts, especially music. They established a separate music department which encouraged members to invite musicians to perform at meetings and to donate concert tickets so others could enjoy performances. Their goal was to make good music, particularly classical music, popular.
Sedalia vocalist Helen Gallie Steele, president of the Ladies’ Musical Club, served as the chair of the Course of Study, Music Department of the national GFWC. In this position, she traveled throughout the United States, speaking to women’s clubs, and according to the Sedalia Democrat, “arousing much interest and enthusiasm.”
Mrs. Steele was particularly interested in community singing, an activity which became particularly popular in the years before and during World War I. Community singing was believed to promote patriotism and to reinforce the love of home. The Democrat attributed the national popularity of community singing to Mrs. Steele’s work, noting that she was frequently asked to organize and direct community singings in many large American cities.
Mrs. Steele was in many respects a typical clubwoman. In addition to her work with the Ladies’ Musical Club and the State Music Teachers’ Assocaition, she was active in Sorosis. She supported the establishment of the Y.M.C.A. in Sedalia with large contributions and with so much enthusiasm that the local YMCA voted to make her a life member, despite objections from the national organization. She continued to support the YMCA with donations until her death in 1920.
Mrs. Steele served on the board of directors of the Sedalia Public Library, and was an active member of First Christian Church. She was recognized for her generous nature and willingness to share her talents with her community.
Mrs. Steele was so loved that when she died in January 1920, Sedalia Mayor Al Baumgartner issued a proclamation acknowledging the “high esteem in which she is held.” He announced that city offices would be closed during her funeral services and urged local businesses to close as well. The Chamber of Commerce, “mindful of [her] great personal worth, high character, and usefulness,” joined the mayor in requesting that businesses be closed so their employees could pay their respects.
An overflow crowd filled First Christian Church to mourn the loss of one of Sedalia’s most prominent and productive women. The Reverend A. W. Kokendorffer praised the “spiritual quality” that permeated Mrs. Steele’s work in her community, noting that in organizing community singings, she always included Christian hymns.