Pages from the Octo­ber 17, 1879 – May 6, 1881 minute book of the Pio­neers. Print­ed with per­mis­sion of the Mis­souri His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, St. Louis.

In the last quar­ter of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, in an era when few peo­ple went to high school let alone col­lege or uni­ver­si­ty, lit­er­ary soci­eties and cul­ture clubs appeared across the Unit­ed States. In almost every town and city, women and men who want­ed to advance their edu­ca­tions met reg­u­lar­ly to dis­cuss books, hear lec­tures, and improve them­selves by learn­ing from one anoth­er. Although some clubs brought men and women togeth­er, many, if not most, were seg­re­gat­ed by gen­der as well as class and faith.

On a win­ter day in St. Louis in 1879, Rosa Son­neschein gath­ered a group of friends and acquain­tances and found­ed the first Jew­ish women’s book club in the nation: the Pioneers.

No one remem­bers the inspi­ra­tion for this name. Maybe they chose it because some were pio­neers in Amer­i­ca — immi­grants from the Old World mak­ing lives in the new. Rosa her­self was one such mem­ber. Born Rosa Fas­sel in Hun­gary in 1847, she mar­ried Rab­bi Solomon Son­neschein when she was just sev­en­teen and he was twen­ty-five. In 1868 they set off for Amer­i­ca, and a year lat­er he became rab­bi of St. Louis’s Reform syn­a­gogue, Con­gre­ga­tion Shaare Emeth.

In her new home, Rosa occu­pied her­self rais­ing her four chil­dren, and lead­ing ladies’ meet­ings and choral groups at the syn­a­gogue. Even­tu­al­ly she would become a jour­nal­ist and the founder of the first Eng­lish-lan­guage Jew­ish women’s mag­a­zine, The Amer­i­can Jew­ess.

But even before she embarked on that career, Rosa found intel­lec­tu­al stim­u­la­tion in the Pio­neers. At their first meet­ing, the club elect­ed offi­cers, agreed to meet every oth­er week in each other’s par­lors, and declared that no men were allowed. A com­mit­tee began draft­ing a con­sti­tu­tion and bylaws. Minute books, writ­ten in beau­ti­ful script, are filled with motions moved, sec­ond­ed, and approved.” The mem­bers — most sure­ly Reform Jew­ish women affil­i­at­ed with Shaare Emeth — took the club seri­ous­ly, although they also want­ed to enjoy them­selves. The motion to fine mem­bers arriv­ing fif­teen min­utes late passed; motions to fine unruly mem­bers” and dis­pense with cof­fee dur­ing the inter­mis­sion did not.

The Pio­neers soon expand­ed their hori­zons with musi­cal per­for­mances and read­ings. They also held debates, in which they con­sid­ered both philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions and cur­rent issues. Was read­ing nov­els inju­ri­ous to one’s char­ac­ter? Should women vote? Which had bet­ter served mankind, ancient Jew­ish or ancient Greek civilization?

In 1891, Lau­ra Jacob­son became the Pio­neers’ pres­i­dent. This for­mer high-school class poet had mar­ried a lead­ing St. Louis physi­cian, and the soci­ety pages called her one of the most promi­nent Jew­ish ladies of the city.” But Jacob­son was inter­est­ed in more than social stand­ing. In Sep­tem­ber 1893, she spoke about anti-Semi­tism at the Jew­ish Women’s Con­gress dur­ing the Chica­go World’s Fair.

She also redi­rect­ed the Pio­neers to devote an entire year to one sub­ject. Two mem­bers were assigned to pre­pare research papers to read at each meet­ing. The Pio­neers chose Jew­ish his­to­ry for one of their first themes. Their papers cov­ered the Baby­lon­ian exile, Jews under Roman rule, dif­fer­ences between Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty, Muhammed’s debt to Judaism, and philoso­phers like Moses Mai­monides and Moses Mendelssohn.

But Jacob­son was inter­est­ed in more than social stand­ing. In Sep­tem­ber 1893, she spoke about anti-Semi­tism at the Jew­ish Women’s Con­gress dur­ing the Chica­go World’s Fair.

Eigh­teen-year-old Alice Drey, new­ly elect­ed to the group, researched the 1807 San­hedrin that Napoleon con­vened to leg­is­late for French Jews. Sev­en­ty years lat­er, her chil­dren recalled how fran­ti­cal­ly she would work on each paper, and how much they would look for­ward to the evening after she had read it. Then they could reclaim their moth­er — until it was time for her to write the next one.

Pre­sum­ably, many of the Pio­neers’ hus­bands and fam­i­lies sup­port­ed their club work. But not every­one was enthu­si­as­tic about women’s lit­er­ary soci­eties. Crit­ics con­tend­ed that they led women to stray from their prop­er sphere and ruined homes. A car­toon­ist depict­ed a club­woman, loung­ing about with drink and cig­a­rette in hand and read­ing a book, while her hus­band washed the dish­es and her scruffy chil­dren quarreled.

Despite these objec­tions, the Pio­neers and thou­sands — if not tens of thou­sands— of lit­er­ary clubs flour­ished. Some years the Pio­neers read par­tic­u­lar authors. In 1907, when they were read­ing Leo Tol­stoy, Alice Lipp­man (née Drey) wrote the author with a ques­tion about Anna Karen­i­na. He wrote back, but didn’t answer it. Oth­er years were giv­en over to a genre, like dra­ma or detec­tive fic­tion. At oth­er times, cur­rent events took prece­dence. Dur­ing World War II, threat­ened with the end of their way of life, the women stud­ied Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy. In 1960, as colo­nial regimes were col­laps­ing across Africa, they exam­ined the awak­en­ing continent.”

Today, the Pio­neers are still going strong. They meet not in par­lors, but at St. Louis’s Reform syn­a­gogue, Tem­ple Emanuel. One new mem­ber recent­ly reflect­ed that in some book clubs, kib­itz­ing and schmooz­ing get equal billing with the book — but not at the Pio­neers. Although the group once con­sid­ered admit­ting men, it has not. How­ev­er, in 1970, the Future Direc­tions Com­mit­tee decid­ed that eth­nic­i­ty and reli­gion were irrel­e­vant for vet­ting new mem­bers. What was required was for a girl” to want to learn. Still, most of today’s Pio­neers are Jew­ish women.

This year, the club will explore Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty: what does it mean to be an Amer­i­can today? They plan to read David Hen­ry Hwang’s Yel­low Face and Moh­ja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tan­ger­ine Scarf. By exam­in­ing a burn­ing ques­tion of the moment, today’s Pio­neers fol­low in the foot­steps of their founders 140 years ago.

Pamela S. Nadell is the Patrick Clen­de­nen Chair in Women’s and Gen­der His­to­ry and direc­tor of Jew­ish stud­ies at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty. Her books include Women Who Would Be Rab­bis, a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist. She lives in North Bethes­da, Maryland.