The Junior League joins the world ...
For years, in an atmosphere of canapés and cocktails, these wives and daughters of the rich played at doing good. But they stopped pretending. Now they’re elbow deep in everything from dishwater to Debussy
I come of native ruling stock, My family perched on Plymouth Rock, And ever since by fire or sword I’ve been the chairman of the board.
This jingle, printed in last April’s issue of the Junior League Magazine, suggests that the most exclusive women's service club in all the Americas is able to laugh at itself. Such a virtue justifies a closer look at a tiny band of women between the ages of eighteen and forty who used to be widely reviled as unabashed and unapologetic snobs.
In the Thirties Junior Leaguers were described by one American columnist as “social butterflies playing at Lady Bountiful” and by another as “those mink-coated Florence Nightingales strutting through the wards in a cloud of Chanel.” A cartoon of the same era showed a woman undergoing a blood test with the doctor saying: “Nurse, bring me a blue filter: she’s a Junior Leaguer.”
Since Junior Leaguers are now engaged in a vigorous program of volunteer work that includes acting as nurses’ aides, organizing symphony concerts and puppet shows, reading to the blind, producing educational radio features, sorting old clothes for sale and staging art exhibitions. they may—and do—claim to have cast off their old affectations.
The official first object of a Junior League is still what it always was: “to foster interest among its members in the social, economic, educational, cultural and civic conditions of the community and to make efficient their volunteer service.” The Junior League Handbook of Information adds that the League helps a woman "to realize two vital concepts: (I) that she is not an onlooker but is herself a part of the community; (2) that the community in turn is not an isolated unit but part of the nation and the world.”
But even though the Junior League has now joined the world only hand-picked women may join the Junior League.
From its well-appointed headquarters in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, the Association of the Junior Leagues of America enforces unwritten rules that make it almost impossible lor a girl who lives on the wrong side of the tracks to become a member. These rules apply with equal force to one hundred and eighty Junior Leagues in the United States, Mexico and Honolulu and to seven in the Canadian cities of Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. In the entire international network, drawn from communities with a total population of seventy million, there are fewer than sixty-eight thousand members. Canada has only twenty-seven hundred.
“To get in she has to be unblemished — socially, morally, financially. She has to be ST”
Before any group of young women may engage in social service as a Junior League they must band together under some other name and serve a minimum probationary period of three years. During this time they must pay for three inspection visits by AJLA board members and may at any time have their hopes of affiliation with the central authority dashed.
The rules of admission for individual members vary slightly from League to League but all observe the same general principles. There is no such person as a successful applicant for membership. Women applying of their own volition are told to find themselves sponsors who are already in the League. The name of each woman who does get in is first suggested to the president by one League member and endorsed by up to five more. Ihe candidate is then interviewed by the president and if she looks promising is invited to fill out a form listing her date of birth, telephone number, address, length of residence in the community, maiden name, parents’ names, schools and colleges attended, extracurricular activities, paid positions held, volunteer positions held, special interests and talents, church, names of friends inside and outside the League and references.
The form is submitted to the Admissions Committee, most of whom by now have made an opportunity to meet the candidate socially. As one retired Junior Leaguer puts it: “A candidate may be able to get away with a.black-sheep uncle in Africa or one wild night out on her own in Nassau. But not much else, lo get into the Junior League she must be unblemished, socially, morally, financially and intellectually. She has to be IT, and once she’s in she's THERE.”
They’re finished at forty
Having got THERE, the entrant serves one year as a Provisional Member. During this period she attends regular lectures on her city’s background and chaiacteristics, municipal government, industrial conditions, housing facilities, cultural and recreational resources, public education and welfare services and community planning. She makes field trips to hospitals, factories, art galleries, slum areas and orphanages. At the end of twelve months she faces a stiff written examination. If she fails she must keep putting in another year as a Provisional Member until she passes and becomes an Active Member. Now she has a vote in the affairs of the League and a chance of promotion to office. At forty she’s stripped bf her vote and all forms of office and relegated to a list of Sustaining Members. Sustaining Members usually fade out of League activities within a year or so.
In a recent study of the social prestige attached to four hundred women’s organizations on this continent. Myhra S. Minnis, an American sociologist, decided that the Junior League had by far the most. Its members, Miss Minnis found, are predominantly the daughters of families that have prospered on this continent for three or four generations. The Junior Leaguers are largely the products of private schools and universities. Most of them are married to young industrialists, merchants, executives, professional men and other husbands in the higher-income groups. Their homes are usually in expensive districts. Though there are Catholic and Jewish members in many Junior Leagues. Miss Minnis detected a measure of racial and religious prejudice in the fact that the great majority are Protestants of northern European descent.
Inexplicably, she overlooked the girlish figures and stylish clothes and appearance which have been the most distinctive external sign of the Junior League’s pride ever since it was founded in 1901.
But one husband who called to pick up his wife from a Junior League conference in Coronado, California, a few years ago, underscored the phenomenon when he said wonderingly to a reporter: “There are four hundred women in that hotel and not one of them is overweight or dressed in last year’s suit.”
The precise proportions of pedigree, schooling, affluence and comeliness that go into the compounding of a modern candidate for membership is one of the darkest secrets kept at League headquarters. There was a time, however, when bloodlines and bank balances frankly dominated the blend and produced the sort of Junior Leagues that got—and sometimes deserved — the body politic’s calumny and scorn.
Junior Leagues were founded in 1901 by the late Mrs. Charles Carey Rumsey, debutante daughter of E. H. Harriman, a New York railroad financier, and sister of Averell Harriman, a recent Democratic nominee for the U. S. presidency. After her coming-out party Mary Harriman was moved to tears by the thought that all the roses with which she’d been presented would soon die. With a group of friends she whipped around the city in a four-in-hand and distributed her flowers to hospitals. The impulse became a practice and soon the blithe young Gibson girls formed themselves into a Junior League and extended their efforts to volunteer work in New York settlement houses. The idea spread to the young socialites of Boston in 1907 and after that Junior Leagues began to spring up all over the U. S. The Montreal League, the first in Canada, originated in 1912.
Who is it?
This side of heaven is where he claims to get his best results. Turn to page 55 to sec who this boy grew up to be.
Until 1921 they functioned independently and then were banded together as the Association of the Junior Leagues of America. But exactly what they did in the name of charity remained a puzzle to social scientists for years. Until 1948, when new ideas prompted them to abandon it, the New York Junior Leaguers were distinguished for a million-dollar clubhouse with fifty offices and bedrooms, a swimming pool, two squash courts, a hairdressing salon, a ballroom, a snack bar, a cocktail bar, two dining rooms, a library, a theatre-ticket agency and a baby shelter in which there were rarely any babies.
All through the Twenties and Thirties the Junior Leaguers thickened the dense trivia of newspaper society pages as they raised funds for the great unwashed largely by riding hunters at charity horse shows, nibbling canapés at charity cocktail parties, modeling gowns at charity fashion parades, raffling sables at bazaars and Hashing their legs in charity Follies. Occasions like these did little to dim the suspicion that the Junior League was a façade of altruism behind which the pampered daughters and wives of the rich had themselves a whale of a time. In 1940 a bombshell exploded.
The explosion was detonated by a Baltimore social worker named Sydney Hollander who, though paid to address the Junior League’s convention in Seattle, used most of his speech to deplore the League's activities. He attacked the League for its propensity for "playing around the fringes of social work,” its tendency to “shy away from political questions,” its determination "to avoid such potent topics as birth control,” and its "exclusion of Negroes” from its ranks. Hollander accused the Junior League of spending more at one Seattle party than the average family lived on for a year. He concluded with the curious reproach: “I never see any of you except at Florida beaches and dog shows.”
As soon as Hollander had finished he was surrounded by delegates who treated him to what a Seattle paper described as "hot looks and frigid glances.” Some women even darted forward and hissed in Hollander’s face: “Communist!” But a few delegates, moved as if by a revelation, began to dance about and cry “Bravo!” In various parts of the convention hall shrill arguments broke out.
The task of restoring order fell to Mrs. George V. Ferguson, whose husband is now editor of the Montreal Star, and who is the only Canadian woman ever elected president of the international organization. She declared the meeting closed after saying to Hollander: “Thank you. You have given us much to think about.” Since then the members have gone through a period of soul-searching and have cultivated a spirit of candid and ironical self-examination that is implicit in a second verse from last April’s issue of the Junior League Magazine:
The Scriptures say the wealthy should Preserve their souls by doing good, And so my pious soul is pledged To serve the underprivileged.
An upsurge of effort in the Junior League has coincided, commendably enough, with changes in taxation that have almost extinguished that race of butlers, governesses, children’s nurses, parlormaids and cooks which encouraged the old Junior Leaguers to identify themselves as “the leisured class.” In the Thirties candidates for the Junior League once were asked to write an essay on “What Would You Do If Your Unmarried Maid Suddenly Told You She Was Pregnant?” To most modern Junior Leaguers the question, though fascinating, would be purely hypothetical. At a meeting in New York last September, of one hundred Junior League officials from all over the continent, more than seventy had had to engage baby sitters during their absence from home.
And not all can afford baby sitters. At a recent meeting of American and Canadian midwest Junior Leagues two Winnipeg delegates received from their husbands the following telegram: “Kids and dishes, baths and beds, hurry home to hold our heads. Husbands are a sorry lot. we are really on the spot. Parties, boards and committee meetings—husbands send you lukewarm greetings. At any cost avoid fatigue, bless you all at the Junior League.”
Defining the new look in Junior Leaguers at the annual conference in Quebec City last spring Mrs. Robert L. Foote, the outgoing American president of the AJI.A. said: "She is young, attractive, intelligent and aware. She is somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five though she seems a bit younger each year. She has an understanding husband, an expert with a can opener, and between two and a half and three and a half children. We once had a conference delegate with nine and a half. She’s lucky if she has part-time domestic help. She is usually the graduate of a college. She is typically wife, mother and volunteer worker in that order. Her free time is very limited. But she has a curiosity and a conscience about her community. She recognizes her stake in it and obligation to serve it thoughtfully.”
Today every Junior Leaguer in Canada gives a minimum of three hours a week to some chore in the interests of civic culture, health, welfare or recreation. They put up easels and fill paint pots for children's Saturday morning art classes; hang touring art exhibits on school walls; make costumes and scenery for children’s plays; teach youngsters how to work puppets; and serve as guides or information-desk clerks in museums. They do regular stints in hospitals as canteen waitresses, doctors’ stenographers, attendants in the children’s playrooms, and assistants to physiotherapists.
At baby clinics they weigh and measure infants and keep progress charts up to date. At blood banks they send out reminder cards to donors or telephone them in emergencies. Hundreds of Junior Leaguers go out one night a week and read to the blind. Others spend one afternoon a week helping professional teachers of retarded children, looking after orphans that nobody will adopt, or listening to the outpourings of delinquent girls’ hearts. Some drive handicapped women to work in the mornings, some take indigent old men for afternoon drives, and others drive the children of broken homes to a movie or swimming pool.
They put Greek on the stage
In addition to this help in the work of other volunteer agencies each Junior League scours its city in search of tin unmet need that will provide it with a project. It starts up the project, demonstrates its worth and hopes that it will eventually be taken over by a specialized agency, leaving Junior Leaguers free to look for another venture.
The one hundred and seventy members of Halifax Junior League, for example, discovered in 1953 that there was no clinic in the city for people with speech impediments. The League started one and paid for it out of its own earnings. Soon the clinic was taken over by the Dalhousie University Public Health Clinic and supported by government and private funds. Last year out of sixty patients referred to the clinic forty-one were discharged with normal speech.
The Montreal branch, the oldest in Canada and the second largest—with five hundred and eleven members—boasts the most enduring project. For thirty-six years at a camp in the Laurentians it has given nearly four hundred underprivileged girls a three-week vacation. The camp costs Montreal Junior League nearly fourteen thousand dollars a year. On the cultural side Montreal found out recently that Greek mythology had almost disappeared from school curriculums. So now its members write, produce, enact and sponsor a regular series of radio plays entitled Turning Pages.
The Montreal League pioneered in at least one other major field: it was the first to ban knitting at meetings.
Hamilton’s two hundred and sixteen members are proudest of the fact that they were, in 1947, the first to start a Senior Club, since copied by dozens of other Junior Leagues. It’s a meeting place where lonely old folks gather to play cards, watch television, embark on picnics and hold dances. Even romance has enriched twilight days at the Hamilton Senior Club. In the past year half a dozen widows and widowers, all over sixty, have found new spouses there.
Last year Hamilton Leaguers wondered if anybody ever went to the library to borrow a book for a shut-in. They found very few did. Now members visit shut-ins every two weeks, taking with them library books of the patients’ choice.
During World War Two Winnipeg’s Junior Leaguers hit on a triumphant new idea. They decided that there were thousands of men and women willing to spare an hour or so each week in some kind of voluntary war work, but didn’t know where to find it. They planned and established the Central Volunteer Bureau which would guide anybody to any kind of worthwhile wartime job. The American Association for Adult Education published a report on the bureau entitled The Winnipeg Plan. The National Film Board made a movie of its activities. Soon Winnipeg’s bureau was famous among social workers across the continent. Within two years almost every city in the United States and Canada had a Central Volunteer Bureau based on the Winnipeg prototype.
Winnipeg is equally prominent in the arts. It gave the first financial grant to the Manitoba Arts Council. It founded the Children’s Theatre of Greater Winnipeg. After a fire destroyed the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's costumes and scenery two years ago Winnipeg Junior Leaguers bought new ones.
Like most other Junior Leagues, Winnipeg raises part of its funds with an annual Follies, a full-length revue in which a surprising number of husbands from the world of finance, industry, commerce and law emerge as banjoists, soft-shoe dancers, jugglers, red-nosed comedians and even acrobats.
In 1952 one of the side attractions at the Winnipeg Follies was a limerick competition with a new car as prize. It drew seven thousand paid entries and produced a local cause célèbre. The law took the view that it was impossible to judge so many limericks on merit and charges under the Lotteries Act were laid against Mrs. Inez Trueman, Junior League president; Mrs. Jean Plaxton, first vice-president; Mrs. Lilian Evans, second vicepresident; and Mrs. Mary L. Benham, chairman of the limerick-contest committee.
On the day of the trial the court was packed. Reporters noted sympathetically that the four Junior Leaguers had to take their place on hard wooden scats among vagrants, bootleggers, gamblers and drunks. The gallery was packed with furcoated Junior Leaguers, some knitting complacently.
After hearing witnesses describe the manner in which the limericks had been judged. Magistrate M. H. Garton dismissed the charges on the grounds that the element of chance had been almost negligible. Whereupon the Leaguers departed from the court with expressions of virtue triumphant, and the winner of the car hurried off to the city pound where she collected her prize from an extremely sheepish policeman.
Calgary’s two hundred and twenty-nine Junior Leaguers, who concentrate heavily on serving as volunteers in the city s community-planning agencies, have also experienced the risks connected with running an annual Follies. When the floor show was at its height last year men in the audience leapt to dining tables to get a better glimpse of the chorus line. Half a dozen tables gave way, leaving a chaos of guests standing ankle deep in western delicacies which included, of course, huge overturned vats of baked beans.
IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE?
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Calgary’s big project—symphony music for children—was opposed at the outset by pessimists. The organizer, Mrs. W. H. Hohag. wife of an oil-company manager, was told by members of the Calgary Symphony Orchestra Board that an earlier effort in this line had resulted in an audience of twelve small boys who, stirred by the martial splendor of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, spent the entire performance bombarding the instrumentalists with spitballs. But Mrs. Hohag refused to be discouraged. She appointed fellow Junior Leaguers to sit among the boys and discourage any spitball artillery units with the backs of their hands. Twelve hundred children turned up at the first performance. Not a spitball was projected. Today, assured by the knowledge of what a combination of good music and stern control can accomplish, the Calgary Junior League provides schook children with regular symphony concerts.
Vancouver’s four hundred members specialize in artistic causes. In 1945 the Vancouver Junior League paid for a survey of the city's population trends, ethnic groups, labor, civic and fraternal organizations. and clubs devoted to the arts, crafts, music and literature. From the results the League was able to pinpoint the cultural assets and deficiencies of the whole community. They formed the famed Community Arts Council, which is supported by some of the city's wealthiest men and advised by the city’s finest talent. In 1948 the Community Arts Council ran a Festival of Music; in 1950 a four-day Symposium of Canadian Music; in 1951 a Design for Living exhibition; and this year a Crafts Fair and Conference. A few weeks ago the CAC promoted competitive auditions for singers who felt they were good enough for opera. The winner, Vancouver’s Murray Kcnig. is already singing with the San Francisco Opera.
Like all Junior Leagues Vancouver’s depends heavily for funds on a secondhand clothing store. The biggest of these stores, the Opportunity Shop, is run by Canada’s biggest Junior League—that of Toronto, whose membership is now more than six hundred. The store is in a two-story brick building.
Every garment downstairs is nearly new. Women’s coats, suits and dresses often worn only once or twice by the original owner, and discarded because of a poor fit or a sudden distaste for the color, are sold on a commission basis. Leaguers and customers bring such garments to the shop where Maggie Stockman. the professional manager, values them. If the owner accepts Mrs. Stockman’s price she receives, when the garment is sold, sixty percent of that price. The remaining forty percent is profit for the shop. At writing there is an excellent mink jacket going for six hundred dollars.
Upstairs are the older clothes, given outright by Junior League members. They consist mostly of children’s garments cast off because the first wearers have outgrown them. They are eagerly bought by women with burgeoning families.
Every Toronto Junior Leaguer, even though she may work in the shop, has to give the store a minimum of twentyfive dollars worth of secondhand clothes each year. If she fails to meet her quota she makes up the difference by cheque. Last year two Toronto Junior Leaguers each gave more than six hundred dollars worth of used clothes.
The Opportunity Shop does a brisk business in men’s evening-dress suits, which are bought by waiters, and currently it is trying to whip up an interest among barbers in its large stock of men’s white flannels.
Maggie Stockman receives gladly dresses of the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian eras which Leaguers sometimes find in attics. These are sold as costumes for theatrical productions. Last spring the Opportunity Shop was asked by the Crest Theatre, a professional repertory company that performs next-door-but-one, if it could supply a bulletproof vest. Maggie Stockman hadn’t one in stock but she canvassed Leaguers and got one from the wife of an army veteran.
Recently an elderly woman visited the shop and bought a Victorian gown. She explained quite calmly that she expected to die within a few months and had decided to be “laid out” in the kind of garment she wore as a girl. Last year the Opportunity Shop made a profit of close to twenty thousand dollars.
No job for reindeer herders
The money helps to support the International Institute of Metropolitan Toronto, which helps new Canadians adapt themselves to Canada and specializes in finding jobs for them. Immigrants who can’t speak English arrive at the Institute with newspapers and ask League volunteers to read advertisements in the paper for jobs they would like. Volunteers question the immigrant about his qualifications and references. If he seems suitable volunteers telephone the company offering the job. “I have a Latvian man here,” they say, “who has documents which suggest he’s a good bricklayer. He can’t speak any English but he’s worth a try. Will you see him?” This kind of assistance helps foreign-speaking immigrants over their biggest problem when job hunting —the problem of communication. One of the few men for whom the Leaguers ever failed to find a job was a reindeer herder from Lapland.
Another Toronto Junior League project that benefits from the Opportunity Shop is the Toronto Cerebral Palsy Clinic, recently taken over by thé Ontario Society for Crippled Children. The clinic was the outcome of a Junior League search for a project in 1949. Mrs. R. Fred Porter, president of the Toronto Junior League, says; “We regard the clinic, the first of its kind in Toronto, as a perfect project. We found a gap in the city health service. We filled it. We demonstrated its worth to the satisfaction of a specialist agency. The agency took it off our hands and left us free to tackle something else.”
Mrs. Porter brings to mind a third verse that was published in last April’s issue of the Junior League Magazine:
A willing horse, my back is sore,
I do one job and get ten more.
I try to stop but on I go;
I’m just a gal who can’t say No.
Most Junior Leaguers regard her as a typical president. She’s the daughter of the late Frederick A. Gaby who was for twenty-two years chief engineer of the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission. Educated at Bishop Strachan School. Toronto, she curtseyed before the lieutenant-governor on her “coming out.” As a debutante she rated as "a rave,” and today, as a matron in her middle thirties, she would make the most confirmed misogynist glance twice. She married Fred Forter, a shipping-company president, in 1940, followed him to Halifax and Newfoundland when he did war construction work with the RCN, and bore him three children, today between the ages of fourteen and eight. She has a fine home in Toronto’s Rosedale but she runs it without help.
Mrs. Porter attained her present rank by slogging it out in every kind of job the League found for her, from scrubbing out the rat-infested building in which the first Opportunity Shop was opened to helping care for handicapped infants.
As president her job is to maintain liaison with all the welfare agencies in the city who require Junior League volunteers. On an ordinary day a few weeks ago she prepared her family's breakfast, lunch and dinner and did all her housework. In between she delivered a speech on voluntary service at a local girls’ school. attended a downtown meeting of the Canadian Cancer Society, visited a Jay nursery to sec how two new volunteers were faring, and popped into the offices of the Red Cross and the Toronto Welfare Council. The same evening, in Hier home, she held a meeting of the Projicts Committee. Junior League business keeps her so much on the move that she has to have a telephone answering service.
Mrs. Porter keeps in close touch with Mrs. A. Duff Waddell, an animated and tweedy graduate ot the University of Manitoba who is actually the top director of all Junior Leaguers in Canada. Mrs. Waddell, wife of a mail-order business executive stationed in Halifax, and mother of two children fourteen and ten, sits on the New York board of the AJLA as association representative in Canada. She represents all Canadian Junior Leagues at the annual conferences of a dozen national organizations that use the League’s volunteers. She travels far from home at least once a month on League business.
Mrs. Waddell is just as anxious as other high-ranking Junior League officials to help dispel the old charge of snobbishness. “Because it is the members of each League who propose new members,” she says, “it follows that these young women will be friends of one another. Each League values the congeniality of its membership and we feel this has contributed importantly to the success of our program. We have not attempted to become a mass-membership organization because our educational and volunteer programs operate most successfully with relatively small groups.”
Mrs. Waddell works long hours in Halifax, with the aid of a part-time secretary, on matters of high policy affecting Junior League affairs in Canada. But this does not absolve her from her more mundane duties to her own Halifax League. On returning home after a week’s absence at a convention recently she was taking off her coat when the phone rang. She received orders to go down to the Halifax Bargain Box that evening to sort and price a consignment of old clothing.
to Who is it? on page 50
Guy Lombardo, Canadian band leader and creator of “the sweetest music this side of heaven.”
When she reaches forty it will be a sad day for Mrs. Waddell. If she remains in the Junior League as a Sustaining Member she’ll get plenty of work to do but she'll have no office and no voice in League affairs. When approaching forty members become full of bravado in public but sometimes weep in private. “At conferences,” says one retired Leaguer, “you can see the older ones glancing around to see who else is approaching the crisis.”
Sustaining Members rarely exceed more than a quarter of any Junior League’s total membership. The emphasis of the League is on training in a variety of voluntary work. At forty a woman is supposed to know what she’s best at and to aspire to some high office in a major charity or service organization that will keep her fully occupied. The frame of mind she could develop without recrimination is outlined in this fourth verse from last April’s issue of the Junior League Magazine:
To family casework once I clung.
I left my job to rear my young. But now they're reared they’re such a bore
I long to run the world once more.
The exclusive nature of the League does encourage a few Sustaining Members to stay on for many years after they are forty because they find that they can continue to run the world vicariously. As one Sustaining Member in her late forties put it the other day: "Why do 1 remain in the League? Well, why do you think? To help daughters of my friends get in. of course.” ★