GREENVILLE — When members of the Per Gradus Club gathered for their first meeting in 1904, women were still 16 years away from being granted the right to vote. Although 1904 was the year Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe, few women of the time pursued university degrees.
Waitress, domestic servant, nurse, school teacher … these were the opportunities available to the fairer sex. And the lion’s share of those jobs went to single women. Once married, most gave up the workplace in exchange for lives as mothers, wives, homemakers.
Yet those women had minds every bit as fine as their modern day counterparts, just as hungry for knowledge, art, literature.
It was into this world that Per Gradus was born, a conduit to bring all the finer things once denied to the lives of Greenville area women.
Those early members read and reviewed books, explored the political and socials issues of the day and pooled their combined resources and talents to enrich the community through myriad service projects.
Just as importantly, they became friends and sisters — what might these days be called a support group.
They came from many walks of life and every social stratum. Within the group, there was no “upper crust” or “working class.” They were just good women who yearned for a richer life for themselves and their community.
As the group prepares this year to celebrate its 110th anniversary, that much has not changed.
“(We) value each other’s diversity,” said club member Frances Schuleit. “We benefit from one another’s varied skills, background, ages, education and experience. We welcome and appreciate everyone’s point of view. Most importantly, we stand by each other in times of need.”
The group meets each month in the home of one member or another — it varies from month to month — to discuss ongoing community service projects like the Opportunity for Success program, which provides necessities to area homeless children.
According to Per Gradus Secretary Elaine Pendrick, the group contributes both monetarily and with goods.
“That’s been our focus lately,” Pendrick said. “One month we give all types of toiletries and one month we try to bring clothing to our meeting. At the end of the year, whatever is left in the treasury, we discuss at great lengths what to do with that money. We try to do good things in the community.”
This year, the group is considering the Special Olympics and programs at St. Paul’s in Greenville. In recent years, Per Gradus also donated extensively to programs that promote the arts for area children. For years, Per Gradus provided funding for and transportation to community theater productions.
“It gave children a chance to be in a play and to see a play,” Pendrick said. “We used to walk them to the plays or take them by bus. We did that for quite a few years.”
Funding for all these efforts comes primarily from dues and fees the group charges its members for its frequent luncheons.
Though the role of women in society has changed dramatically in the past 100-plus years, the social aspects of the club are every bit as important to members now as they were in 1904. Though unfettered by the restrictive social mores of their turn-of-the-century forebears, today’s members still count on the regular meetings to catch up on community news, enjoy fellowship and learn new things.
At March’s meeting, for example, members heard from Michael Stafford, a former Fulbright Scholar and current director of Cranbrook Institute of Science with an emphasis on Danish culture, who gave a talk on Danish prehistory. The group also frequently reviews books or examines social and political issues, such as human trafficking. Oftenimes, the group goes beyond talk and takes action to help address these problems.
Several of the club’s members are “legacies,” tracing their membership back through mothers and grandmothers. Others are recent additions. The oldest legacy member joined the group in 1960.
“The purpose back then was strictly a literary club,” Pendrick explained. “Mostly, we gave book reviews. The purpose was to be a learning experience. We are still attempting that.”
Somewhat ironically — considering the club’s storied history, — its motto is a Zen-like council to live in the moment:
“Yesterday is dead / Forget it / Tomorrow does not exist / Don’t worry / Today is here / Use it.”
As the group moves into the future, Pendrick expects it to remain strong and vibrant. Through an influx of new members as well as the efforts of current members, the club will retain its relevance far in days to come.
In 1904, at least eight “ladies clubs” were active in the area. Only a handful remain. But for the members of Per Gradus, their mission is, if anything, more critical than ever.
As long as a child is hungry or homeless, as long as the arts need willing patrons, Per Gradus will have a vital role to play in this community’s future.
“Per Gradus,” by the way, is Latin for “step by step,” or, literally, “by degrees.” And that’s how the club has been improving the lives of its members, and the area, for the past 110 years.