Ladies Aid Society: Answered call in Civil War

York women answer call, then and now

Northeast corner, Continental Square, York

The situation

Women of York County faced twin challenges over and above the normal rigors of war in the spring of 1861.

A massive training camp cropped up at the old York fairgrounds, southeast of King and Queen streets, to season thousands of green, freshly recruited troops in the early stages of the Civil War. And in the war’s second year, a military hospital went up on York’s Penn Common, a facility that would treat 14,000 Union soldiers by war’s end.

The Ladies Aid Society formed, a crucial community-wide women’s group in a town flooded with young men, often in distress.

Isabel Small, top photo, spearheaded the women’s efforts to provide aid to the solders. The women established an organization to recruit others – the Ladies Aid Society had formed.

The women set up in a large room at P.A & S. Small’s store on the northeast corner of York’s Centre Square. They sorted donated garments, sewed new clothing and wound bandages. Children helped, too.

Farmers opened great chests brought with them from Germany to equip the women with linen to make dressings for wounds.

The women would become skilled nurses, and Mary Cadwell Fisher used her experience at the military hospital to organize York’s medical relief efforts on the battlefield after fighting stopped in Gettysburg.

The church-based Dorcas Society provided aid for community residents in need before the war. And individual religious congregations cared for the poor and needy as well.

The Ladies Aid Society operated with a community-wide – perhaps countywide scope – a forerunner of a host of women’s groups that would form after the war.

From left, Anne McFeely, Marilyn Jennerjohn, Harriet Kastelic, and Margaret Shaffer, among the charter members of AAUW’s York branch, met at a 50th anniversary celebration at Sunset Lane Park in Shiloh.

One such group countywide group was organized about 100 years after the Civil War.

Anne McFeely, Marilyn Jennerjohn, Harriet Kastelic, and Margaret Shaffer were among charter members when the York chapter of AAUW organized in 1972, 50 years ago.

They embraced and then worked on their mission of advancing gender equity for women and girls through research, education, and advocacy.

This is the story of the AAUW’s York branch – a story that starts with the Ladies Aid Society: York AAUW at 50: Group resets for new chapter of its story (

Crystal Perry, left, with her AAUW Gateway to Equity Award. She is joined by Julie Himler, Community Education Director at the YWCA York.

The witness

Women’s organizations formed in the first four decades of the 20th century in the mold of the Ladies Aid Society to take on challenges facing the community.

A partial list of women’s associations forming in the 20th century:

The Woman’s Club of York; Catholic Woman’s Club, the Garden Club, Young Women’s Club (York Women’s Association), Junior League and the Spring Grove GFWC PA Women’s Club, among others.

Between 1915 and 1920, a York County women’s suffrage group, affiliated with statewide efforts, worked to gain a legal vote. A committee of Black women in York also worked in the state suffrage movement.

With doors often closed to them, the Crispus Attucks Community Association members organized to meet social and recreational needs for women and men in the Black community. Starting about 1915, Faith Presbyterian operated the Community House for recreational and social use, a building next to the congregation’s North Duke Street worship building.

And in 1972, women met at York’s YWCA to form an organization that later became the York-area’s first NOW chapter.


Links to recent stories about women’s history in York County:

The questions

The Ladies Aid Society formed to confront a community crisis. Can you think of other examples of associations gathering in time of widespread community need? Does the story of the Ladies Aid Society in some way prepare us for the next time a crisis erupts in the York County community?

Related links and sources: James McClure’s 100-year-old Catholic Woman’s Club in York draws strength from its past (; 15 women from York County’s past who influenced, inspired & created change (; A look at accomplished 21st-century women in York County ( and East of Gettysburg. AAUW photos, courtesy of members. Other photos, York County History Center.


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