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University Women's Club closes after 100 years on campus

Members and spouses of the University Women's Club enjoy the final gala on October 18th. (WUFT News | Matthew Bell)
Members and spouses of the University Women's Club enjoy the final gala on October 18th. (WUFT News | Matthew Bell)

One of the longest-tenured members of the University Women's Club, Stella Cunningham, recalls some of the interest groups that she participated in during her time with the organization.

"The 6:00 Scholars was my favorite interest group and also the 'Bridge-o-rama', but we don't have it anymore," Cunningham said. "We used to play Bridge in different houses. I also enjoyed the French club."

Cunningham joined in the early 1970s and says not much has changed during her time in the organization.

After a century of operations, however, the University Women's Club is closing its doors.

The organization celebrated its 100th anniversary recently at a gala with live music from local jazz band Swing Theory.

President Barbara Bengston remembers when she joined the club.

"Here I was in Toledo, Ohio. I was very young in 1974. I just thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world that somebody knew I was coming to this little town in the South." Bengston said.

Bengston said the club offered her a chance to meet new people when she moved to Gainesville.

She explains that a number of reasons have attributed to the group closing down.

This includes declining membership and other outlets for faculty and their spouses to meet people in the city.

"I feel it's a shame. Times have changed and women now don't need a way to meet people. There are gyms, there are all sorts of other avenues that weren't available prior to the 90's." Bengston said.

Bengston also attributes a decline in membership to a privacy issue that arose in the early 2000's that prohibited the club from inviting new members when they arrived on campus.

Speaking at the final dinner for the club, Bengston recalls the number of members the club once had.

"At one point, there were 442 members of the University Women's Club. I joined in 1974. There are several people who are here from before that time," Bengston said. "We have 77 members right now and I think it's lovely so many of you are here this evening."

While some members of the University Women's Club are also members of the Gainesville Women's Club, the two groups are not affiliated.

Dr. A.A. Murphee, the University of Florida's second president founded the club in 1922.

Originally named the University Dames, the club hosted three annual events each year: the Fall reception for new members, an annual party for husbands and the Vespers tea for graduating seniors.

The group also sponsored activities such as musical events, discussions on current news and hosted campus visitors like William Jennings Bryan, Bill Tilden, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

The University Women's Club also began offering scholarships to undergraduate students in 1954 and graduate student scholarships in 1998.

Current scholarship recipients include Emory Wellman and Natalie Johnson.

Wellman is second-year PhD student studying fisheries and aquatic sciences as well as oyster and salt marsh restoration.

At the final gala, Wellman said she is honored to have received a scholarship from the organization.

"It's a terrific honor, but also it's a little bit bittersweet because I didn't realize until very recently that it's their last year. I'm a little sad that I'm coming in at the end." Wellman said.

The bittersweet feeling Wellman has is shared by other members.

Johnson is a fourth-year PhD student earning a degree in pharmacology and therapeutics.

She said the scholarship couldn't have come at a better time.

"It means a lot. I can't emphasize that enough," Johnson said. "It came at a perfect time when prices for as and food were crazy over the summer. The fact that this group is generous enough to spend the time to organize and give out these scholarships is amazing."

The organization offered members a chance to connect through activities like bowling, tennis, golf, and daytime or night-time gourmets.

After 100 years on campus, the University Women's Club earned a historical marker, a metal plaque that commemorates organizations, recounts campus history and culture and highlights individuals and groups who've made important contributions to the University of Florida.

The historical marker is scheduled to be finished and placed outside the club's headquarters in late November or early December.

Matthew is a Digital Producer and Reporter for WUFT. His work focuses on sports and education, but he ventures out into other areas as well. In the spring of 2021 and summer of 2022, Matthew worked for ESPN Gainesville where he provided hourly sports updates and wrote for the website. In 2022, Matthew began contributing to The Point Podcast and providing local hourly news updates on All Things Considered. He may be reached by emailing