Mary Lucy Clark (1868-1929), a native of Portland, WI, was born to James Adams and Mary Hughes Clark on December 5, 1868. Mary attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although the University first admitted female students in 1863, it was not yet commonplace for women to attend college. At Wisconsin, Mary was a member of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority and president of her class. She was also a member of the women’s Laurea Literary Society.
Literary societies at that time were concerned with the arts of debate and oratory, and forensic competitions were often held between rivaling societies, focusing on contemporary issues. Laurea debated the only other female literary society, Castalia, as well as the male societies. Mary received a Bachelors of Letters in the “Modern Classical Course” in 1889, along with 71 other graduating seniors. She married Thomas later that year, on her 21st birthday.
Mary was actively involved with the Women’s Club of Madison. Established in 1893, it was attended by the wives of the city’s most prominent figures. The club’s membership lists invoke a modern-day map of Madison: Atwood, Olin, Vilas, Proudfit, Slichter, La Follette, Mills.
Privilege had armed these women with more education and free time (in the form of nannies and servants) than their contemporaries, but they were still shut out of the political and business spheres, as dictated by strict social mores. They were forced to employ less traditional means to achieve their agenda.
The Women’s Club began as an educational forum—the group’s programs were at first literary and musical—but it soon developed into a surprisingly effective vehicle for social and civic reform. In no small part, the club’s successes lay in the willingness of its members to use their very real, if unofficial and domestic, power over the most prominent men in the city.
Mary Brittingham served multiple terms as chair of the Women’s Club education and social committees, sat on the Advisory Board, and filled the post of corresponding secretary. She was a member for over 30 years, but her leadership roles were concentrated during the group’s most influential period, the first decade of the 20th century. Among the results of the club’s efforts were the introduction of garbage collection, milk inspection, kindergartens in public schools, and a children’s library. The club was also the main proponent of a new city hospital, and acted as the driving force behind the initial fundraising campaign for what would become Madison General Hospital.
Ultimately, the club was more egalitarian in its public efforts than with its members. Membership in the elite club was capped, spawning a large waiting list and a number of similar organizations. To their credit, groups like the Civics Club, the Catholic Women’s Club, and the Girls Civic League also helped to affect civic policy, but they never quite matched the high society allure of the Women’s Club.
A Wisconsin Journal article on her husband gave Mary a few lines of attention, describing her as a “university woman [who] combines home making with the Woman’s club and other events of the larger life that interests [sic] bright women in these latter days.” UW-Madison’s Alumni Association was the hub of many of those “other events.” Mary served on the WAA’s Board of Directors from 1906 until her death in 1929, including several terms as vice president. She was also the galvanizing force behind her class reunions; in fact, Mary was busy planning her class’s 40th reunion when she died, missing the event by days.
Mary passed away on June 19, 1929, after a stay in a sanatorium in Tucson, Arizona. While in Tucson, she wrote to former classmate Annie A. Nunns, the formidable assistant to the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, indicating that she was busy planning their next class reunion. The day following her death, the Capitol Times led with the blaring headline “Mrs. T.E. Brittingham, Senior is Dead.”
Her will left money supplementing her late husband’s grant to the University of Wisconsin-Madison; together, their bequests became known as the Brittingham Fund, which has enriched the university for decades and is still managed by Thomas and Mary’s descendants.