Imagine the sheer pluck of 16 young women living in Bristol in 1920. Inspired by Billy Sunday, who was the Billy Graham of that era, they formed a Bible Study Group which quickly morphed into a service organization designed to find solutions to what these women perceived as the critical needs of their time and place.
Pauline Massengill DeFriece, the first president, is quoted as saying that “We found we were not happy studying mere words. We must translate words into practice ... We must help others and do our bit.” Thus began the Blue Stocking Club, which continues today as a group of 35 equally earnest, but mature, women who volunteer and advocate for the betterment of their community. The rather curious name is a reference to an 18th century term for a group of women who chose to pursue literary and intellectual pursuits, which was a bold departure from English societal norms at that time.
The club has taken pride in identifying needs which, though compelling, are not widely recognized, and finding a way to respond. Early efforts included founding the first outpatient clinic and furnishing the chapel at Bristol Memorial Hospital. Friendship Houses were established to help educate young parents. The Twin Teen Tavern provided activities for youth.
The club has remained agile in choosing projects, frequently focusing on assistance in circumstances where government safety nets were not available. The same agility was brought to bear on fundraising efforts, which have evolved from a tea in 1920 that netted $45, to decades of producing a fundraising luncheon and fashion show called Society Day. The final Society Day was held in 1994 at the newly reopened Paramount Theater. From then until the present, every major fundraising endeavor has been held at the Paramount, providing stellar entertainment to patrons while generating revenue to support carefully selected recipients.
Volunteering in the community is a requirement of membership. Volunteer placement opportunities are voted on each year and have included assignments as diverse as gardening at Steele Creek, helping with homework at Boys and Girls Club, and teaching cooking and arts and crafts to the Tech Gyrls at the YWCA. Currently there are Blue Stocking docents and gallery assistants at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Blue Stocking data input associates and intake counselors at Bristol Faith in Action, and Blue Stocking health kit assembly assistants at Healing Hands. As part of the club’s 90th birthday celebration in 2010, the 35 members tallied their volunteer hours for nine months. A total of 5,300 hours of service to schools, churches and various non-profit agencies was recorded.
In recent years, beneficiaries of major campaigns have included Abuse Alternatives, Bristol Emergency Food Pantry, Bristol Faith in Action, Bristol Public Library, CASA, the YWCA and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Proceeds from additional events have been dedicated to Adapt-O-Play, the Alive and Well initiative at River’s Way, Camp Caterpillar, Girls Inc. and The Nature Center at Steele Creek Park. More than $700,000 has been donated to these and other worthy organizations since the turn of the century.
This dynamic group of women has persisted throughout the past 100 years in looking for opportunities in which a small number of energetic, visionary, and caring individuals can make a difference. The Biblical admonition to “love thy neighbor” continues to inform the ways that the ideal of “Bristol, a Good Place to Live,” can be realized.