132 West 31st Street, 11th Floor
The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. is an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable.
The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. is the umbrella group for close to 300 local chapters of one of the nation's oldest and best-known women's volunteer organizations. Junior Leagues operate in cities across the United States, with half the members concentrated in southern states and the rest spread through other regions of the country. In addition, the group has chapters in Canada, Mexico, and in the United Kingdom. Junior League members are involved in a host of different charitable activities, many specifically benefiting women and children. Many Junior Leagues are active particularly in issues relating to children's health and education, including the financing of a children's hospital in Nashville and the running of a special school for children with speech problems in Atlanta. Junior League projects are quite various, and are carried out independently by local chapters. Some core concerns of the Junior League are family literacy, transitional housing, affordable and accessible daycare, caregiver education, and breast and ovarian cancer prevention, among others. All Junior League work is carried out by volunteers, often in association with other charitable groups such as the Red Cross. The group is financed by member dues, by fundraising activities such as charity balls, and by individual and corporate donations. Membership is open to women who commit to a certain amount of training and volunteer hours. Total Junior League membership is more than 190,000 women.
Founding in the Aftermath of a Ball
The Junior League was founded in New York City in 1901 by 19-year-old Mary Harriman. Harriman was from an extraordinarily privileged background. Her father, Edward H. Harriman, had made a fortune in railroads. Harriman's brother Averill went on to become governor of New York. While Mary Harriman was a freshman at Barnard College, she had her traditional "coming out" ball, a fancy dress affair that left her the next day aswim in bouquets of roses presented by her admirers. Harriman was apparently agitated by the waste of the flowers, which would soon fade, and she organized a group of friends to distribute the bouquets to patients in hospitals. Harriman soon formalized a group of 80 or so of her friends into what she named the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements. The settlement movement had gotten its start at the end of the 19th century with Jane Addams. Addams encouraged women to work to solve the problems of poverty in the cities, and settlement houses provided services such as daycare for working mothers. Harriman's group took the epithet "Junior" because the founding members were young. Later the group lost the specific association with the settlement movement and became simply the Junior League, though social work continued to be the focus of the group's activities.
Harriman's Junior League seemed to provide a needed outlet for young women in New York. Harriman wrote in the group's 1906 annual report, "It seems almost inhuman that we should live so close to suffering and poverty, that we should know of the relief work that exists within a few blocks of our home, and bear no part in this great life." Women like Harriman, who were wealthy and educated, were not expected to hold paying jobs, but it was acceptable to volunteer. The New York Junior League helped to find housing for young working women, brought dental care to children, and taught classes in art and music for poor children. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of six Junior League members to become First Lady, joined the Junior League in 1903, and taught dance and exercise classes. The Junior League quickly spread to other cities. Boston opened a chapter in 1907, and in 1910 Brooklyn, New York, and Portland, Oregon started Junior Leagues. By the early 1920s, there were more than 80 chapters spread across the United States.
The focus of the early Junior Leagues varied from group to group, but most issues related to health and education. The Brooklyn Junior League was instrumental in getting its community Board of Education to provide free lunches to public school children. Other groups worked on the campaign for women's suffrage. During World War I, the groups turned to war relief. In conjunction with the YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association), some Junior League members went to Europe to support the troops. The Junior League in San Francisco started a motorized delivery service that became the model for the Red Cross Motor Corps. In 1921 the various Junior League groups were put together under the Association of Junior Leagues International, headquartered in New York. The group was truly international, as the first Canadian group had gotten its charter in Montreal a few years earlier. The first Junior League in Mexico joined in 1930.
Fighting a White Gloves Image Mid-Century
Although community action was the core of the Junior League, from its earliest days the group also was seen as a blue-blood domain, its members pampered and privileged, more interested in appearing in the society pages than in truly changing society. In most groups, prospective members had to be nominated by two existing members, and this system ensured a certain homogeneity in those who joined. For most of its early history, the Junior League was overwhelmingly white and Protestant, and the New York group, which was for a long time the largest, had a reputation for containing only upper-crust, fashionable young women. The New York group built a $1.2 million home for itself in 1929 that had a swimming pool and a squash court. It was supposed to contain a nursery for children whose parents were ill or unable to care for them, but the posh clubhouse was evidently more known for its elegant Persian Room and hair salon than for its daycare center. Other groups outside of New York were far more modest, meeting in garages or in municipal buildings.
In the 1920s, many Junior Leagues instituted children's theater groups. The Chicago chapter first tried a children's theater project, and within a few years, more than 100 Junior League chapters made this a prime activity. Junior League fundraisers often came in the form of a "Follies" night, where League members put on a musical or dramatic show. Junior Leagues in many cities also became famous for elaborate balls, put on to raise money for League charitable projects. This kind of gala event helped fix the image of the Junior League as more or less aristocratic. Meanwhile, Junior League projects were often not only needful but less than glamorous. In the 1930s, during the worst years of the Great Depression, Junior Leagues ran soup kitchens and milk stations. Junior League volunteers also staffed or funded birth control clinics and training schools for nurses, as well as daycare centers for working mothers. In the 1930s the Junior Leagues also became more broadly politically active, forming Public Affairs committees that worked to track and influence legislation relating to public welfare policy. During World War II the Junior League was instrumental in finding women to fill civilian jobs left vacant by men who were fighting overseas. The Association of Junior Leagues International's executive director in the war years, Katherine Van Slyck, eventually became the head of the federal Office of Civilian Defense.
By the end of the 1940s, the Junior League boasted 47,000 members in 159 cities in the United States, plus several international chapters. The Junior League had many projects to be proud of, including a veterans rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, a school for speech therapy in Atlanta, a blood bank in Milwaukee, and group homes for troubled children in Detroit and St. Louis. But the Junior League was still plagued by its reputation as a haven for wealthy do-gooders; for some members, charitable work consisted of donating used clothing to League thrift shops. Other Junior League members confessed to being poorly trained for social work, or to being set tasks of dubious usefulness such as clipping photos out of magazines. In 1948 the Junior League launched a concerted campaign to refocus its energies on concrete projects, and to change its image with the press and public. The New York Junior League sold its clubhouse that year, finding that the luxurious building detracted from the message the group wanted to present. The League put out a pamphlet for its members called "How to Get Off the Society Page," and individual chapter members across the country met with newspaper editors to ask for more coverage of their charitable projects and less emphasis on their names and faces. The League also standardized its training program for new members and instituted stricter minimum requirements for how much charitable work members must take on. In addition, the group developed stricter guidelines for new groups wanting to become Junior League chapters. One national Junior League officer told the Saturday Evening Post (February 7, 1948) how petitioning chapters had previously been selected: "We took them in if we liked their handwriting and their stationery," she told the reporter. Starting in 1948, the group instituted a three-year process in which groups wanting to become Junior Leagues had to be inspected annually and comply with a program of community service.
Adapting to New Roles for Women: 1970s-80s
The group continued to grow strongly in the postwar years. By the early 1960s, the Junior League had more than 200 chapters and 88,000 members. However, as more and more women began working for pay in the 1960s and 1970s, the volunteer group began to seem in some cases outdated. When Mary Harriman began the Junior League, educated women had few options for a career outside the home. As professional jobs opened up to women, the Junior League had difficulty attracting new young members. One woman who became the director of the Association of Junior Leagues' Washington office in the 1990s told Town & Country (May 1993) that she had been ashamed to join the Junior League in the 1970s and had kept it