“AT&T doesn’t send telegrams anymore,” says Robin Richstone, president of the group now known as the FWC. “You don’t have to be young, male, or Christian to belong to the YMCA.”

And yet, the centennial art exhibit FWC mounted at the Duderstadt Gallery in March featured that most woman-associated of media: the quilt. And everyone—including more than a few men—seemed perfectly delighted. 

“Stitched Together” had been in the works for three years. Past president (and Duderstadt Center co-namesake) Anne Duderstadt had shown FWC’s quilt group the gallery on North Campus, the space had been reserved, and the creative and painstaking work had begun. But during the pandemic, FWC’s 390 members often doubted that they would be able to see the results in person. 

“We were VERY worried that we wouldn’t be able to have the show due to Covid restrictions,” Richstone emails. “We had originally planned a reception with food, and that had to be scrapped. But finally we decided to go ahead and measure all the quilts, cut all the support dowels, and if the show got cancelled we’d try to re-schedule. So it was truly joyful to have the show go on.”

More than 100 people showed up for the opening. Their pleasure was palpable, both in the work—which spanned the spectrum from an elegant blue-and-white wedding quilt Elisabeth Murau hand-stitched and quilted for a grandchild to Richstone’s riotously colored “Tie Dragon” wall hanging—and in finally seeing one another in person again. There were all kinds of quilts—modern and traditional, small and large, intricate and colorful—but all felt like home, as quilts do.

The fifty women who gathered at the President’s House in 1922 at the invitation of Nina Burton, wife of then-president Marion LeRoy Burton, would have understood that. According to its website, the club was created, “so that women who shared similar interests could pursue them in small, informal groups.” 

“Our first three groups were athletics, day nursery, and dramatics,” says Richstone, who’s been looking at old records for the centennial. At the time, “Female athletes were very limited in what athletic facilities they were allowed to barge in on. They had a little more push behind them because they had this club—that was started by the president’s wife. 

“The day nursery was to give them a break” from child-rearing duties. And dramatics? “It’s so nice that artistic expression was always a part of it,” Richstone says. 

The founders might have been surprised at the art show, however.

“Because quilts were traditionally made by women, they were for years relegated to being [considered] a craft,” explains Richstone. “No matter how original the design was, how emotional the connection was, how visually striking it was, it was still blown off as a craft.” But during the country’s bicentennial in 1976, American quilting was reborn, she says, and “it was finally seen as an art.” 

After two years of pandemic isolation, more than 100 delighted FWC members celebrated the group’s 100th birthday at a March quilt show. Photo: John Hilton

Yet it also remains a family tradition. “I learned from my grandmother,” says Richstone, whose background is Pennsylvania Dutch. “I piece the pieces together. The top of the quilt, I do by machine, but I quilt it by hand. Fewer and fewer quilt by hand today. When we make quilts for SafeHouse, we have a professional quilter quilt them for us.”

Richstone, seventy-two, moved to Ann Arbor from California in 2009 “to marry Doug,” referring to her astronomy prof husband, Doug Richstone.  

“When I was ready to move here, Doug said, ‘How are you going to meet people?’ I said, ‘Find out if there’s a faculty women’s club’”—she knew about them because she’d been a member of one at Caltech. “And he immediately said, ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ 

“That’s one of our problems,” Richstone says. Even on campus, not many people know they exist. Another was the name. 

One hundred years ago, says Richstone, “when you said ‘faculty women,’ it was clear to people that you were mostly talking about wives of faculty. Nowadays, if you say ‘faculty women’s club,’ people think they have to be faculty to join it, but that’s not the case. It’s never been the case.”

As late as the 1950s and 1960s, when the faculty was still overwhelmingly male, “women didn’t have a lot of options for what they could do for intellectual stimulation or female companionship,” Richstone says. “We had a high of about 1,200 members” in that era. “It’s been a long, slow, downward trend” since, she says.  

That’s one reason they started admitting men as members about three years ago (Doug Richstone joined). Another “is we didn’t want to be out of line with the university’s diversity, equity, and inclusion policy.”  More recently, “we expanded it to staff as well as faculty.” Now, Richstone jokes, “FWC” stands for “formerly women’s club.”  

But Covid’s made it difficult to recruit any new members, let alone of the non-female kind. “It’s hard when there are no events to go to,” Richstone says. 

Now that they can get out again, she emails, FWC members have their choice of forty-five interest groups. Others include the Campus Explorers, “which meets four or five times a year in various campus locations for behind-the-scenes tours of everything from the costume shop at the Music School, to the libraries, to robotics labs, to autonomous vehicles at MCity. In addition to the quilting group we have eight different book groups, a music group, a painting group, bridge groups, garden groups, foreign language groups, a knitting group, a group that goes out to lunch, a group that goes out to happy hour, a group that goes out to dinner, a group that goes out to movies, and a group especially geared to newcomers that meets for morning coffee at Zingerman’s. One being organized right now will help members participate in service projects both on and off campus … Many have been unable to meet in person these last two years, but we’re starting to see the light at the end of that tunnel.”

Other challenges remain, perhaps the largest being that “women have so many options, and so little time available for activities like the ones that we sponsor,” says Richstone. 

A century ago, faculty wives might have joined for companionship, athletics, or a respite from child-rearing. Now women of the faculty are so busy with their lives and careers that it’s difficult to find the time. 

They seem to “join our club when they retire as faculty,” Richstone says. “They have time now.”