by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In 1892, 25-year old Michigan teacher Sabina (Bina) M. West decided to devote herself to assisting women achieve financial stability and security by creating a mutual benefit association, of which there were many for male-dominated professions or for men’s fraternal orders and societies. Nearly two decades before, in Boston, there was a Working Woman’s Mutual Benefit Association to help employed women who were sick, in financial need, or whose funeral expenses were to be paid.
West was a member of the women’s auxiliary of the Knights of the Maccabees, a fraternal order established in London, Canada in the late 1870s to create low-cost insurance plans for its members and the reference to Maccabees concerned the Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV in the 2nd century B.C. After tensions arose within the Ladies of the Maccabees organization, however, West launched, on 1 October 1892, the Ladies of the Modern Maccabees, which, in 1915, became The Woman’s Benefit Association of the Maccabees for the specific purpose of offering life insurance to women members.
The WBA grew rapidly under West’s leadership so that, by the time that organization held its “Marathon Day” at Patterson Field at Occidental College in northeast Los Angeles on 29 May 1923 as part of its national convention held in the Angel City and in San Francisco, there were over 250,000 members and nearly 20,000 junior members with over 2,600 local units (known as “hives” from the bees in Maccabees) in in the United States and Canada and the organization proudly asserted that it was “the largest fraternal benefit society composed exclusively of women in the world.”
The highlighted object from the Museum’s collection for this post is the Marathon Day program at Occidental (there were events of this kind also held at Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada during the convention, as well) and it contains a wealth of material about the history of the organization as well as the event. The latter comprised introductory music and interspersed choral singing; an open march; a six episode pageant including nationalities (mostly white Europeans) and states and provinces/territories represented, as well as a procession of the years and closing tableau and recessional; the comedic “Revels of the Joys,” covering the Marathon story including its “Old Man Quota” beaten by “Victory” as it was the quality of the work not quantity of members or dollars in assets that mattered, by the junior members from California; and a “Crowning of the Victor” led by West honoring all of those present who were denoted “Marathon Victors”, with a farewell closing the program.
The pageant was described as “a historical record in pageant form of the growth and activities” of the WBA from its founding three decades prior “and the principal world vents during this period of time.” It was also important to mark the Association’s achievements “and to memorialize the pioneers who have left a permanent impress upon its history. Beyond the half-dozen episodes, there were also six five-year groups in the procession of the years noting the work done by the organization. It was added that:
On the education of the children in the principles of self-government, personal liberty and individual thrift, and the lessons of fraternity and goodwill toward others, depend not only the future of our Association, but the welfare of our Nation and the peace and happiness of the world.
With respect to the second episode and the nationalities found among the membership, it was almost exclusively white European with groups of English, French, Dutch, Irish, Belgian, German, Swedish, and Russian, among others, while there was a southern European contingent of Spanish and Italian, as well as an Armenian one, with this latter said to be “blending a tang of Palestine, Constantinople [officially changed to Istanbul in 1930], and Bag[h]dad” though it was also added, “May the people of Armenia find a haven where they may dwell in safety, conserving their nationality.”
The third episode concerned the states, the states, territories and provinces who had members in the WBA with it noted that “from the snowy slopes of Alaska to the sunny bayous of the South; from the rugged grandeur of the Rockies to the fertile uplands of the East; from tropical Hawaii to Labrador’s ice-girt coast, all are gathered here in this fraternal circle.” Moreover, because America’s spirit was professed to be amalgamation, “bound together in one great fraternal endeavor, woman here demonstrates her title to a place in the great world of affairs into which new conditions have placed her and rising above every difficulty, she shows to the world her ability to build wisely and well for home and womankind.”
The procession of the years forming the fourth episode concerned “the gradual, sure growth of this woman’s movement, typifying the breadth of the protection which the Association gives to every home entrusted to its care.” In 1892, it was added, “the world was at the morn of a new era” while “woman’s part in the business life of the Nation was not then recognized.” With the growth of women’s clubs, the formation of the WBA represented a way for women to provide “protection for their homes in a society of their own” at a time when “women speakers in public places were still a novelty and life insurance for women as a means for home protection was practically unknown.”
At the time of the Association’s formation, teaching was still one with low pay, while it “was practically the only profession open to women” while society broadly was starting to move into the era of industry, even as “the world was still more sentimental than scientific.” As to Los Angeles, it “was a good sized town surrounded by a vast expanse of undeveloped land with a population of a little over 50,000 and the orange and fruit groves, nut trees and vineyards of southern California were just being planted.” This latter statement, of course, was incorrect (the writers were both from WBA headquarters in Michigan), as agriculture had long been practiced, though the national effect of regional agricultural was not felt in a significant way until that era,
In any case, the prologue to the procession asserted that “the thirty years of healthy, prosperous growth of the Woman’s Benefit Association has been coincident with the progress of woman herself.” It also lauded those pioneers comprised of “faithful women who labored unceasingly during those early years with little hope of realization of financial reward” but who were “memorialized for all time in the structure they helped build” and which allowed for “homes protected and lives made happier by fraternal deeds of love and kindness.”
A figure denoted as Miss 1892 and sporting a banner reading “No Members—No Funds” was symbolic of “the spirit of young womanhood, of courage, determination, and vision facing an unknown future.” Behind her was a procession of women representative of the WBA’s members as well as “the trials and successes, the hardships, joys, and encouragements of the years and the various branches and activities of the Association.” A pair of standard bearers also dressed in costume of the day carried a banner reading “1892—1897—24,049 Members.”
It was noted that West was appointed supreme commander for the first year and had two other trustees in 1892, with the first benefit certificate issued just over a month of formation on 4 November, while, by the end of the year, there were 319 members and new units in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania (though Ohio lacked full official status for several more years.) On 25 September 1893, the first death claim, for $1,000, was paid out and, when that year closed there were over 2,400 members with nine more states added the rolls, including California.
The first national congress was held in Buffalo in 1894 and membership more than doubled, to over 5,500 during that year, and the WBA “was securely established financially.” In 1895, Lillian Hollister, with extensive leadership experience in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and other organizations, was appointed supreme commander and held that executive position until just before her death in 1911, after which West took that position. It was added that “the new Association was now fairly on its feet” and a supreme review was inaugurated for better organization, while membership nearly reached 10,000 at the end of 1895. Two years later, articles of incorporation were filed in Michigan and the member roll topped 24,000.
With the next five-year period of 1898-1902, there were standard bearers, again in clothing of the era, whose banner noted that there were more than 112,000 members by the conclusion of the second year of the new century. In 1899, West pushed for the establishment of an emergency fund for the WBA as well as a resolution calling for “twelve rate payments a year on all new business.” In March of the next year, a new Maccabee Temple was finished in Port Huron and the third floor was rented by the Association. 1902 not only marked the tenth anniversary of the organization, but the milestone of 100,000 members was celebrated.
The 1903-1907 standard bearers proclaimed the growth of WBA membership to just north of 158,000, while an official coat of arms was created that first year and a relief fund set up because of fire, flood and other disasters causing a felt need for assistance. In 1904, total assets topped $1 million, while a medical board was established and a new table of rates for new business set. 1906 found the WBA establishing a partnership with the Canadian Council of Women while also creating a reserve fund of $1 million invested in conservative municipal bonds, this latter considered “an unusual accomplishment in woman’s adventure in the realm of finance.” The last year brought the formation of disability protection programs.
Growth in membership was modest from 1908-1912 compared to prior periods, with just over 9,000 women added, though, in 1911, the Hospital and Home Fund was broadened in scope and Hollister was memorialized at the first hospital service, established in Detroit, wile the Junior members were given amore formal ritual within the WBA. For the 20th anniversary, a historical souvenir was published.
There was a stronger growth in members for the 1913-1917 era, with almost 25,000 added to the rolls. The second hospital service program was founded in Chicago, with Illinois being the first state to have $5,000 in hospital contributions. In May 1914, it was decided to change the organization’s name from Ladies of the Maccabees of the World to The Woman’s Benefit Association of the Maccabees, while new benefit plans were announced (though not specified here, while 1917 did bring a “Whole Family Protection” plan). In 1915, the cornerstone of a new “Home Office Building” was laid at Port Huron and the next year was referred to as the “Building year” with the dedication done in time for the 25th anniversary in October 1917. The structure included a first aid room and a print shop and it was considered “a monument to the success, stability, and future achievement of a woman’s fraternity.”
For the final period of 1918-1922, the standard bearers were representative of “the war girl in khaki” with the First World War and its aftermath, of course, significant. Membership leapt impressively by nearly 60,000, as well as with almost 19,000 juniors and wartime efforts including the formation of home nursing, knitting and surgical dressing groups, while a patriotic fund was established and liberty and victory bond purchases totaled some $500,000. The flu pandemic of 1918-1919 “found the Association ready with nursing and medical aid for members and families.”
As membership surpassed 200,000 in 1919, a Peace Jubilee was held at Port Huron, while it was decided to hold the Marathon in California. The following year brought a license for more official work in Canada and “Americanization work was now seriously undertaken” as part of a postwar concern about undue foreign influence amid a Red Scare because of the rise in the Communist Soviet Union, though this was not specifically stated. What was mention was that “American ideals and community standards of living where taught,” something discussed in other posts on this blog, while “the influx of families from the war-burdened areas of the old land [northern Europe, presumably] to this country made this a work of fraternal patriotism.”
In 1921, a “Cradle Roll” for children of members who were under a year old was developed, “making the Association interests in the home complete” while the official WBA print shop opened (this program was a product of that entity, as well.) For 1922, the expansion of health services in cities was advanced so that members could obtain free advice, while summer camps and Girls’ Clubs reflected more “progressive work” by the Association, especially in promoting “the benefit of out-of-door living to young women.”
With the development of the Marathon, “the Association achieved its highest mark in the growth and expansion of its membership,” with more than 52,000 members and 17,000 juniors added. It was observed that “the golden Marathon years complete, then, the cycle of achievement in the Procession of the Years” and a short poem added,
Now, are we come in our Marathon
To finis, to the end of our high aim;
And we have won! This end, then let us claim
As a beginning, whence we shall go on.
In the closing tableau, an unfolding rose with petal by petal opening yielded “Youth” emerging from the flower and symbolizing “the perpetual renewal through its Juniors of the life of the Association.” The assemblage lifted their arms to pay homage to the idea of “faith in the younger members, the perennial hope which is alway[s] predominant in the presence of Youth, the joy, the optimism and the vista of continuous and perpetual renewal of the very existence of the Association which Youth personifies.”
What then followed was the group singing of the WBA’s official song, the first of three verses of which was:
The Woman’s Benefit Association,
You’re the joy of all our hearts,
You help the needy one,
And guard the little ones,
And for you we’ll do our part;
So let us sing it,
Till echoes ring it,
It’s our watchword known to fame,
The Woman’s Benefit Association,
We praise your name.
With the recessional, all of those in the Procession of the Years, headed by Miss 1892, made their way around the venue, trailed by the representatives of the nationalities, while the Rose emblem and accompanying trumpeters were taken by a Miss America and Miss Canada to the reviewing stand, where Youth in the emblem took in the close of the event before the emblem left and participants returned to their seats.
As for the WBA, which opened membership to men in 1931, West continued in leadership for another quarter-century, ending 56 years as the prime mover of the Association until she retired in 1948, six years before her death. In the mid-1960s, the organization was renamed the North American Benefit Association, but, in 1996, to emphasize the importance of gender, another change was made, to Woman’s Life Insurance Society, and with the 130th birthday coming this October, the organization has over $200 million in assets.