For 50 years, a book club has provided a refuge to its members


Members of the Third Tuesday Book Club, including, left to right, Carol Cavanaugh, Peggy Eastman and Willie Young, who is reading a review from one of the book club members who couldn't make the meeting, have been meeting for 50 years. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
May 20, 2013

The book club began in an Arlington County apartment building in 1963, right after two young mothers got their kids down for their afternoon naps.

They’d race to the phone to call each other, sliding down the wall to sit on their linoleum kitchen floors, tethered in place by the curly phone cord. Their conversations were a lifeline to a world beyond the clouds of baby powder and piles of diapers that defined their lives.

They devoured one another’s thoughts about the books they were reading, always aware of the chubby, sleeping little time bombs who would end their literary assignations with a wail.

“What if we did this in person?” Virginia McKinnon suggested one day. And Tammy Eichelburg loved the idea.

They added a third desperate housewife, Willie Young. They brought the kids and tried to talk through the foghorn cries of needy babies. The first book they discussed in person?


A stack of the book "Lean In" awaits members of he Third Tuesday Book Club which has been meeting for 50 years. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan.

They were jittery from the coffee they drank and the excitement of what they were doing. They agreed to meet again, without the kids and with several more women.

And so, 50 years ago on a Tuesday in June, the Third Tuesday Book Club was born.

Now, 600 books, five dead husbands, 39 kids, 66 grandkids, two member deaths and one divorce later, they will celebrate a half-century together at next month’s meeting.

Their book? “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg.

The arc of feminist pioneer Friedan to Facebook COO Sandberg is not lost on the Third Tuesday women, who married young and spent most of their 20s raising babies and taking care of their men.

“I remember sitting in this house with three kids, 10 hours a day, always thinking there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t getting joy, like the magazines told us we should, out of polishing the furniture or cleaning the house,” remembered Young, who eventually began working at the Department of Energy. “[The Feminine Mystique] made me think I was halfway normal.”

In the early years, the book club was their window into the outside world — drugs, the art scene, war, protest, politics, civil rights. Most of the 23 members reveled in setting aside time each month to debate, to think, to grow and, sometimes, to escape.

“We couldn’t talk about the children. That was one of the rules,” said Frankie Colby, who raised her family, divorced, remarried and went to law school, all while reading with the club.

“And we would only talk about our husbands if we were really mad at them,” said McKinnon, who was widowed at 45 and has worked as an artist, caterer, department store manager and Ireland travel specialist.

Their lives evolved as their children got older. They earned advanced degrees or simply finished a bachelor’s degree that was interrupted by marriages and pregnancies. They took jobs as medical secretaries, schoolteachers, paralegals or federal workers. Others found new careers, lives and identities after their husbands died. There are five widows and two sets of sisters-in-law among them.

Throughout all those life changes, losses and gains, they kept reading and meeting. They did the ’60s with Irving Wallace and Tom Wolfe. They revisited the classics, picked Pulitzer Prize winners, embraced sleepers and did all of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Though they were all female and all white, they were split ideologically. And that made the conversation more delicious.

“We are half conservative, half liberal. Half Democrat, half Republican. Half Catholic, half Protestant. And you know what? After 600 books, no one has really changed,” said McKinnon.

“I did,” asserted Carolyn Cavanaugh, who flourished as an artist in later life.

“That’s because your husband died!” the rest of the group shouted her down.

They held their May meeting in McKinnon’s Alexandria townhouse, where nine women, mostly in their 70s, sat at a round table, all but two sipping wine.

“Drinks! Oh, we drank!” Young declared. “Whiskey sours and daiquiris.”

“Highballs. It was highballs back then,” said Colby. “This wine, this is new.”

“When I was invited to join, I asked what to wear,” Colby said.

“Hose and heels,” about three of them chimed in. Yes, they dressed up. And the club meetings went for hours, sometimes until 3 in the morning.

When they talked of this to wives outside the club, there was shock. “Did you get in trouble from your husband?” some would ask.

At the end of the year, they held a party that included the men. The hostess wrote down names of characters from books they had read throughout the year and threw them in a hat. Each woman came to the party dressed as the character she drew.

Some things changed as the women aged. Food offerings became more generous and eclipsed the alcohol selection in importance. The club moved the Tuesday night meetings to Saturday afternoons, because some members can’t drive at night.

There is a raging debate about e-books vs. real books. “You can make the print bigger on the Kindle,” lobbied Young.

Jill Hersey Barr, who joined the club in 1978, admitted to straddling that divide. “I use a Kindle for my other book club, but always read real books for this club,” she said. “This is my real club.”

And through births, deaths, and 10 presidents, it remains a real lifeline. One members still treasure.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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