Women in the Early Credit Union Movement

This entry was posted by Wednesday, 18 May, 2011
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Women were crucial to the success of the early U.S. Credit Union Movement. Credit unions would not be where they are today without they’re leadership, courage, and talent.

This article, originally written by Gabriel Kirkpatrick, highlights a few of those women who helped shape credit unions here in the United States. Their contribution cannot be overstated.

Written by Gabriel Kirkpatrick:

Gladys Bergengren

Gladys Burroughs Bergengren

Besides being the wife of the credit union pioneer and his constant chauffeur to meetings, she organized credit unions in her own right and earned a membership in the Founders’ Club. After Roy Bergengren’s death, she represented the family at many functions, including the dedication of the Filene memorial in Boston, the dedication of the Bergengren Credit Union School in Fiji, and the dedication of the Bergengren Memorial Museum Library in Filene House. She attended many CUNA annual meetings and had an active interest in the movement until her death at the age of 96.

Julia D. Connor

An administrative secretary in the Farm Credit Administration in Philadelphia was hired by Claude R. Orchard, Director of the Bureau of Credit Unions, in 1934. She distributed information on organizing credit unions to interested groups and was an enthusiastic spokesperson for credit unions. In February, 1938 she went to work for the Pennsylvania Credit Union League where she was employed as the first full-time executive. Most of her time was spent organizing credit unions and seeking league affiliation for credit unions which already existed. She collected dues, maintained statistics, and prepared reports of league and credit union meetings. She finally resigned in 1942 because of failing health. She had endured some prejudice in her position with the league. One director remarked: “It’s pretty hard for a bunch of men to let a woman get out in front and lead them.” Her replacement, a man, received a salary which was more than double what she had received, and he was also promised an 18% increase after five years.

Agnes C. Gartland

Agnes C. Gartland

In 1928, she was hired by Roy F. Bergengren as his assistant at the Credit Union National Extension Bureau (CUNEB). Bergengren spent so much time on the road that Agnes was virtually in charge of the office during his absences. She became manager of the League Central Committee which was the forerunner of CUNA Supply Cooperative. When the national association moved to Madison, Wisconsin, she moved with it. There she continued to work as Bergengren’s assistant and was also the manager of CUNA Supply Cooperative for its first few years. In 1938 she returned to Massachusetts where she became the managing director of Massachusetts CUNA, retiring from her position in 1959. She continued to assist other credit unions and leagues as well. Her correspondence with Bergengren, after he retired to Vermont and was organizing credit unions there, is one of the main sources of information we have on the progress of the credit unions from the vantage point of those no longer in the forefront of the national movement.

Frances P. Habern

Frances P. Habern

Began working for the Massachusetts Credit Union Association in September, 1919. In 1921 she was elected secretary-treasurer of the Massachusetts Credit Union League. She edited a column, “The Pioneers”, in The Bridge for several years. This covered significant events, questions, and accomplishments of the Massachusetts League. She was the major source of information for member credit unions, and she fielded questions which came to her. She organized credit unions and followed up with each of them to be sure they became fully operational. She attended Chapter meetings and offered her services to anyone needing them. She continued to work for the league until her death in 1938.

Gertrude Shelby Mathews

As a writer for the cooperative movement, several articles on cooperative credit appeared in Harper’s under her husband’s name, but later she wrote a series of articles under her own, including one on the caisses populaires in Canada. She was an active promoter of cooperative principles throughout her life.

Louise Herring, "a mere girl"

Louise McCarren (Herring), 1909-1987

Was sent to the Estes Park Meeting in 1934 by the Kroger Company (much to the dismay of Roy Bergengren who thought she was too young and referred to her as “a mere girl”). In fact, she was the youngest delegate to the meeting. She proved herself, though, by taking an active part in the conference. Returning to Cincinnati, she organized the Kroger Company Credit Union and went on from there to become managing director of the Ohio Credit Union League and assisted Bergengren in organizing the Michigan League as well. She remained the Managing Director of the Ohio League for nine years. Bergengren wrote of her, “I am inclined to think offhand that Miss McCarren would do a better job as managing director in Ohio than almost any man who could be available. The only argument I can see against her is my hoop-skirted thinking.” She married and raised five children while continuing her interest in credit unions. Over the years, she helped to organize more than 500 credit unions and continued to manage the Cincinnati Arts Credit Union for many years. In 1976, she was recognized by the Ohio General Assembly as the “mother of the credit union movement in America.” Then in 1983 she was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame, alongside Edward A. Filene and Roy F. Bergengren. Several of her children also became credit union employees.

Dora Maxwell

Dora Maxwell (Steigman), 1897-1985

The most prominent woman in the early credit union movement, she learned about credit unions through her interest in the cooperative movement. In 1920, she helped organize a community church credit union in New York. This brought her to the attention of Roy Bergengren, who was looking for talented people to help him organize credit unions in each state. He helped her to organize the Brooklyn Postal Employees Credit Union and she went on to organize more on her own. In 1931, Bergengren asked her to work as a field organizer for the Credit Union National Extension Bureau (CUNEB). She was one of the signers of the CUNA constitution and bylaws at Estes Park. When CUNA was established in Madison, she worked as a field representative and wrote a column, called “Howdy Gals”, for The Bridge. She also wrote the column, “What About it” for a time. She became the Director of the Organization and Education Department of CUNA. By 1947 she had risen to be in-line for the Assistant Manager position at CUNA. Ultimately, she resigned because other directors would not accept the idea of a woman being managing director. She returned to New York State and continued to work for the Eastern District as a credit union organizer until 1955. CUNA’s Social Responsibility Recognition Program was named after Dora Maxwell and recognizes credit union involvement in community projects and activities.

Angela Melville

Angela Melville

A field representative for the National Credit Union Extension Bureau (CUNEB). She organized credit unions, primarily in the South (Kentucky and Tennessee) particularly among women’s groups, the poor, miners, postal workers, and railroad workers. She helped organize several leagues and chapters. Her service with the credit union movement was short-lived, but she nevertheless achieved much for CUNEB, including writing the first guide to credit union practice, Some Hints as to Usual Credit Union Practice, which ran through many editions and was the only publicity item for the movement for years. Angela Melville eventually moved to Jamaica where she became active in the credit union movement there.

Lillian Schoedler walking with Edward A. Filene

Lillian Schoedler

Administrative assistant to Edward A. Filene during the last six years of his life, she accompanied him on his credit union trips around the United States in 1933, 1934, and 1935. She set up meetings between Filene and credit union leaders in each state. She took extensive notes on all the credit union meetings and maintained lists of everyone he visited. She was an active participant at the Estes Park Conference and left a detailed record of proceedings there. She also accompanied Filene on his last trip to Europe and was with him at his death in September 1937. After Filene’s death, she sorted and archived his papers, eventually turning them over to the Twentieth Century Fund. They were ultimately presented to the CUNA.


3 Responses to “Women in the Early Credit Union Movement”

  1. Interesting… One thing that this post makes me wonder is how having prominent and active female movement leaders showed up in the demographics of early CU boards and committee? Has any survey been done of the gender make-up of those groups over time?

  2. Shawn San Roman

    Matt, there has not been a concerted effort to track or document “modern” female leaders. Credit Union Magazine has done some articles on women and the Filene Research Institute will have some reports with gender taken into consideration. This is an area that could use a good update.

  3. What makes this especially interesting is that one of the chapters in _Consumers Against Capitalism? Consumer Cooperation in Europe, North America, and Japan, 1840-1990_ discusses how consumer co-ops were a privileged sphere of female empowerment in the 19th century, since they were (a) their household’s primary shoppers and (b) able to vote in co-op elections long before they could vote in State elections. Indeed, the author notes that one of the symbols of the European co-op movement was a woman carrying a shopping basket. As such, I’d be *really* curious to know of continuities and differences between those European co-operative traditions and American credit unionism in the first 3/4 of the 20th century…


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