The ladies of the league

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The image of the Junior League woman as a socialite in a hat and white gloves organizing a community service project over tea has become almost iconic. Certainly many people associate the Junior League of Baltimore with their “Hunt To Harbor” cookbook, Holiday Pops fundraising concert and wholesome Larks glee club.

All that’s true, of course. But what’s also true— though lesser known— is that Junior Leaguers have been advocates for women, children, people with disabilities and senior citizens since the organization’s founding at the start of the 20th century.

As the JLB marks its 100th anniversary this spring, Style looks back on its past, its progressive programs and, yes, its parties. There’s much more to the story than hats and white gloves.

Socialite Start

The national Junior League movement was undeniably a socialites’ club when it began. It was only open to young women of proven good breeding— hence the “junior” in its name.  (After members aged out around 40 they became “sustainers” who were expected to leave active status as fully trained volunteers prepared to perform good works on their own.) Though the first league in New York in 1901 was started to promote nutrition and literacy programs in settlement houses, the philanthropic mission was, in many respects, secondary to its social function as an elite, exclusive club.

Mary Goodwillie, then the chair of the Volunteer Committee of the Federated Charities, founded the Baltimore Junior League in 1912 with a mind to giving “young ladies of leisure and education” an opportunity to do some good with their free time.

At its start, there was little revolutionary about the JLB’s activities. The first members met at Goodwillie’s house to read and discuss books on civic responsibility. However, soon the women began to see that the JLB offered a way to impact their community in an era before women won the vote. Early JLB literature indicates young members were asked to boycott stores that didn’t comply with labor unions to show support for fair wages. Although the JLB didn’t take a stance on suffrage (perhaps so as not to ruffle the feathers of their prominent husbands), it did host what The Baltimore Sun called “probably the first public debate by women ever held in Baltimore on the question of woman suffrage.”

In 1921, the JLB opened its first major project, the “Diet Kitchen,” which was a facility in South Baltimore that offered poor people (mostly immigrants) education in how to feed their families on a budget. Using proceeds from its balls and theatrical performances it staged at the Vagabond Theatre on East Monument Street, the JLB hired a professional dietitian and also provided its members as volunteers to feed and instruct families.

High-Stepping ’30s

By the 1930s, anyone who was anyone wanted to get into the JLB. Potential members had to be sponsored by an existing member and survive deliberations by a secret committee. Those who made the cut were feted in local newspapers, which breathlessly announced new members’ pedigree alongside their head shot. The JLB Follies, a Broadway-style extravaganza of skits and songs, was the hit of the society pages.

When the curtain dropped, the JLB continued its work directing children’s theater performances. It also moved into the emerging field of occupational therapy. Members opened two centers in cooperation with Johns Hopkins Hospital to give leaguers a crash course in the new technology so they could volunteer helping patients with their therapy. The program was eventually taken over by Johns Hopkins.

Education and Disability

In the 1940s and ’50s, the JLB left its mark on education for children with disabilities. JLB member Betsy McDonald, 80, recalls that her mother, Elizabeth Seiler, helped start a nursery school for deaf children during her tenure as league president from 1947-49. The school was funded with profits from the Follies, and members worked there as did other professionals, such as a music teacher from Peabody who offered piano therapy. “It was started because one of the member’s children was very, very hard of hearing,” McDonald recalls. “It was thrilling to see what these volunteers accomplished in helping these children.”

At the time, the school was the only option in Baltimore for deaf children under age 5. The school was located in JLB’s headquarters (then on East Mount Vernon Place). Its mission to teach deaf children to speak would be controversial today, but was heralded as revolutionary at the time. 

In the early 1950s, the JLB opened a preschool for blind children, which was eventually folded into the Maryland School for the Blind, while the school for deaf children was also taken over by the state of Maryland.

An Era of Change

If ever there was a time that would shake the JLB to its well-pedigreed foundations, it was the 1960s. During this tumultuous era, the JLB tackled the issue of segregation and took up the emerging cause of senior citizens’ rights.

Betsy McDonald, who was president from 1967 to 1969, recalls that the JLB noticed the need for resources for the growing elderly population and partnered with the Bureau of Recreation and Commission of Problems of the Aging to rally for the $3.8 million bond required for the Waxter Senior Center (named for Judge Thomas Waxter, husband of JLB member Peggy Waxter, herself a relentless advocate for the project). “We were always doing things before our time, that’s one thing I remember with great pleasure,” says McDonald. “When we campaigned for the Waxter Center bond issue, we were out in the neighborhood on the back of flatbed trucks, which was hardly done in those days. But we felt that strongly about it.”

When the Waxter Center opened, it earned national recognition as the first institution of its kind in the country.

Others in the JLB felt just as strongly about breaking down membership barriers of class and race. “When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, that woke a lot of people up,” remembers Susie Macfarlane, who joined the JLB in 1950 and was president when the first African-American member was chosen. “In the later part of the ’60s, we realized that to credibly work in the city we needed to be integrated in our membership.”

A handful of JLB members worked with Pearl Cole Brackett, a prominent African-American educator and activist, to identify a black woman who would meet all the criteria of a leaguer and also be willing to become the pioneering member. They proposed Auldlyn Williams, an African-American debutante whose mother was a supporter of the arts and whose father was a doctor.

“Had she been white, there would have been no question about her [acceptance in the league],” says Macfarlane. “I was very much in favor of this, but was unsure that the admissions committee would accept her.”

After the membership committee approved Williams’ membership, a few members resigned in protest. Ironically, the ink was barely dry on Williams’ membership card when she moved to New York where she transferred her league membership. It was years before another African-American joined, but today, 35 percent of the new membership class is non-white.

In 1979, Helene Hahn Waranch transferred from a league in North Carolina to the JLB. In 1991, she became the JLB’s first Jewish president.

Sex, Drugs and Fashion

By the 1970s, the challenges of Baltimore City had changed and so the JLB took on the issues of drug use, homelessness and the deterioration of the public school system. M.C. Savage, 67, joined in the late 1960s. Like many members of that era, she was a working woman, new to Baltimore, who joined to meet people and get involved in community service. A graduate of Hollins College, she was part of the Betty Friedan generation Mary Goodwillie would not have recognized.

“Whenever we went to national events, [Baltimore] was always considered to be an avant garde group because we were always ahead of the curve with issues and not bogged down in what the Junior League used to be,” says Savage. “We really enjoyed that tag. Maybe it was just the right time for a women’s group to gain footing. There were so many gaps and it was clear we could do a lot in the community.”

Around this time, the Baltimore chapter pushed the national league to pass a mandate that meetings couldn’t be held at any location, such as a country club, that discriminated against African-Americans or Jews. They also made their voting more transparent before a lot of other chapters, and were more focused on performing community service than voting members in or out, which was still very important in many league chapters.

By 1972, the JLB had written and published “How Tommy Tummy Feels About Drugs,” an educational coloring book about the dangers of drugs that was given out in schools, sold at city fairs and distributed by the Maryland State Conference on Drug Abuse. With the help of local banks, the JLB created the booklet “A Home In Baltimore” to encourage city living at a time of widespread urban flight. They picked up the environmental cause, joining boycotts of non-refundable soda bottles and co-sponsoring an urban environmental conference with the Maryland Environmental Trust years before anyone was overly worried about pollution.

In 1975, they created the Citizens In Volunteerism In City Schools (CIVICS) program to pool volunteers from local communities to assist city teachers. By the mid-1970s, the program managed more than 400 community-based volunteers including parents. The JLB opened its Wise Penny thrift store in this decade, which continues to outfit the Govans community where it’s located, as well as penny-pinching fashionistas of all economic backgrounds.

As the 1980s dawned, the JLB made its most ambitious financial commitment ever when it earmarked $20,000 a year for a minimum of three years to create and run The Govans Parent-Infant Center. The center targeted parents of children from birth to age 3 in the hopes of fostering functional family units from their inception, rather than applying support services after the fact. The center opened on the heels of the JLB’s hosting of the league’s landmark national conference on children’s advocacy, “For Children’s Sake.”

In a 1979 interview, Elaine Born, director of the project for the JLB, told The Sun that in opening the center the JLB hoped to “humanize the bureaucracy and ensure that multiple-problem families don’t slip through the cracks of various social service agencies.” The JLB eventually turned this project over to its own leadership and it still operates today as the Waverly Center.

Smaller and More Agile

The JLB met an issue in the ’80s that it couldn’t beat with even the most innovative program: as more women started to work full time, they had less time for volunteerism. Those who did want to serve could choose from a blossoming menu of nonprofits. The JLB had always prided itself on training women to be community leaders, but women’s rights advances meant women could obtain those skills elsewhere. The JLB was no longer the only game in town. Like many groups, its membership decreased. Currently it has 123 active members, down from 600 at its height.

To keep pace, the JLB got rid of all barriers to membership— even age. Today, a prospective member can get to know the organization at an open house. She is asked to fill out an application not because she will be vetted on her pedigree, but to ensure she understands the hefty time commitment.

Current president Kate Sullivan, a 39-year-old mother of four, says the JLB is trying to do a better job communicating its message of service and leadership in hopes of abolishing the stereotypes.

But some things never change. Sullivan jokes that all JLBers are “type A and very organized.” They’re also still passionate do-gooders. “Every single one of us, no matter why we joined, truly believes in community work,” she says.

The JLB still runs the Wise Penny, now located at the street level of its brand new headquarters in Govans. It manages a life and work skills training internship through the shop for local women and has created its own program in support of the league’s national initiative to end childhood obesity, “Kids in the Kitchen.” The JLB is considering turning its efforts toward ending human trafficking in the future.

“I want the league to be known as a go-to place for women who feel empowered to make a difference in the community,” says Sullivan. “If people expect us to be the debutante league, they will be very sad.”

Notable JLB members
> Laura Gamble, president, Bank of America of Maryland (retired)
> Leslie Shepard, director, Baltimore School for the Arts (retired)
> Pam Malester, deputy director, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights (retired)
> Sylvia Eggleston Wehr, associate dean for external affairs, Johns Hopkins University
> Sylvia Badger, Baltimore Sun columnist, (deceased)
> Peggy Waxter, lifelong philanthropist and volunteer (deceased); Gov. O’Malley named a day in her honor, May 1, 2004 
> Barbara Bonnell, formerly of Baltimore Development Corp. (led the renovation of Charles Center in the 1960s)
> Sally Michel, activist, co-founder, Parks & People Foundation
> Maria Johnson, vice president of advancement, Girl Scouts of Central Maryland

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