The Ann Arbor Women’s City Club was founded in 1951 out of necessity: the crush of students at the U-M after World War II had made it difficult for women’s groups to find meeting space at the university. “There wasn’t a place where women could go, where they could connect with each other and forge happy friendships,” recalls Mollie Dobson, a member from the beginning.
To meet the need, a group of energetic women raised the money to buy a large house at 1830 Washtenaw. It’s still the clubhouse sixty years later—but as the role of women in the world has changed, so has the club.
The founders were well-connected women, wives of professors, professionals, and businessmen. “At first everyone wanted to join,” recalls Dobson. New members had to have two sponsors and pay an initiation fee on top of yearly dues.
In the 1970s, as more women worked outside the home, it became harder to recruit new members. Not only were women too busy, but many were no longer content to be defined as wives of someone important. At the time, many women’s clubs across the country folded, but Ann Arbor had what Dobson calls “a hard core of members who would do anything for the City Club.”
Club leaders encouraged working women to think of the club as a place that they could bring their clients and business associates. That didn’t take off, but president Millie Empedocles says professional members did begin to use the facility for events. About ten years ago, the club dropped the sponsorship requirement and initiation fees and welcomed male members by changing its name to “Ann Arbor City Club.” Today, seventy of the 425 individual members are men.
The club has worked at recruiting younger women. Empedocles, then in her mid-fifties, joined after an elderly friend told her she would win a free dessert if she brought her to the club. Kathy Sample, now fifty, joined at the urging of her mother-in-law, a longtime member. She’s currently on the board, working on a marketing plan and running two popular etiquette classes for children.
Last April the club hired a new general manager. Greg Fleming, fifty-four, spent fifteen years as the director of the U-M’s Camp Michigania. “We wanted someone to take us to the next level,” explains Empedocles. “We’ve had good ideas that never went anywhere. We want to maintain what works while seeing what we can become.”
To bring in new people, the club has organized a series of dinner programs with speakers. A new chef, Todd Stapnowski, is updating the menu. And the club is looking into doing more volunteer work, either partnering with another nonprofit or organizing its own projects.
But with all these changes, Empedocles says “the social is still the huge thing. People make real friendships here. I find that ten years after joining, all my friends are people that I know here.”