Lawhorn’s Lawrence: A study in being social
I am at the distinguished study group known as the Ventura Club, and the topic of the day is a strawberry dessert with a wonderfully rich graham cracker crust and whipped cream.
Or maybe those are cherries. To be safe, I think I need another piece of learning. Or perhaps it was a mixture of the two fruits. Another piece, please, because I’m nothing if not studious. But wait, was that really a graham cracker crust? And . . . oh, what’s that you say? The dessert isn’t the topic of the day?
That’s right, there is a speaker. Yes, yes, you’ll have to forgive me, You see, I’m not the target audience for the Ventura Club. The Ventura Club is a women’s study club. But as I quickly discover while sitting in the finely appointed home of Bebe Huxtable, it is more than that. It also is a reminder of a different time and a different sensibility.
“The founders felt it was very important to retain a certain amount of formality in their entertaining,” says Dory Rogers, the current president of the club.
The founders of this club date back to 1895, yet the women still feel the same way today. As evidence of that, Dory notes the use of a silver tea pot and the lack of “dungarees” among today’s attendees.
But don’t be confused. This club isn’t about formality for the sake of formality. It is built upon an idea that may even be more foreign in today’s world: learning for the sake of learning.
Dory explains that the club was founded by a group of women who had graduated from the university, which was not a common occurrence for women in 1895.
“They felt very limited because the fact was there was very little for them to do in the way of a profession,” Dory says. “Quite often they married, and here all this college and learning that they had been enjoying was over.
“They felt the need for intelligent conversation.”
Much has changed since then, but oddly, my wife still frequently expresses that need for intelligent conversation. Many times, she actually interrupts me to say it.
Still, much has changed since those days of 1895. More changes are to come, it appears. The Ventura Club is in no danger of disappearing anytime soon. The club — which, in the tradition of the founders, limits its membership to 20 and has a process for voting on new members — continues to meet once a month at homes across the city. But the same can’t be said of all women’s study clubs in the city.
The No Name Club dates back to 1876, and it has been meeting in Lawrence ever since. But there are plans in October for what club members are calling “the final birthday.”
“I think we probably are going to have to wind it down,” says Nancy Larsen, who at 63 is the youngest member of the club and serves as president. “Many of the members are 90 years or older.”
Age, of course, is nothing new. That’s not the underlying reason why women’s study clubs are fading away. More women in the workforce certainly has played a role. Many of the meetings are during the weekday working hours, but even if they weren’t, juggling a job and ferrying kids to practices and everything else that women do today could make it difficult to find time to set aside the dungarees for a day and learn about the finer points of trees, female authors, origins of names, famous Kansans or the history of 1840s American furniture, which are all topics the groups have tackled at one point or another.
That’s a shame, group members say, because the presentations really are interesting. And putting together a presentation can be rewarding too.
“You get to work with your curiosity,” says Lyn Walther, who has been a member of the No Name Club since the 1970s. “Sometimes you don’t even know you are curious about a subject until someone brings it up.”
None of this is to say that modern women don’t have a desire to learn new information. But here’s a problem for groups like the Ventura Club or the No Name Club: the Internet.
“We can learn anything we want on the computer,” Dory says. “We can go to Answers.com and find anything we want.”
But going in search of an answer and having a topic presented to you are two different types of learning. On this day, the topic of the Ventura Club was a presentation from the chaplain of the women’s state prison in Topeka. I’m not sure when I would have gotten around to asking Answers.com about what happens to a baby who is born in prison.
Who knows, though? Maybe the topic will come up in a Facebook group. Yes, that’s a popular website too. For lots of women, social media may be the new form of study groups.
But here’s the thing about social media: It is not very social. At least not silver tea pot, scrumptious mints and comfortable divan social. That type of social encourages a different type of communication than what exists online.
“I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but when you are texting and using all that shorthand talk, you can lose the art of conversation,” Larsen says.
At almost every women’s study club, I’m guessing the most important study that is conducted is one in friendship and caring and compassion. Not that such things can’t happen on social media, but it is worth remembering that often you are alone when you are making those posts to your Facebook friends. Just you and your computer.
“There is nothing to giving a hug and a squeeze to a computer,” Dory says. “It is just not there. The tactile part of it, touching someone’s hand or giving them a smile, can’t be replaced.”
It is also tough to adequately study the qualities of a graham cracker crust, which despite opinions to the contrary, I still contend is a very under-appreciated realm of scholarship.