A League of Their Own

Like today's final Flower Mart, the Women's Civic League of Baltimore approaches the end of an era. Its myriad good work are undeniable, yet its aging members tire of the fight.

May 12, 1999|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN STAFF

On an enchanting spring morning, members of Baltimore's Women's Civic League float into a banquet room at the Towson Golf & Country Club for their annual luncheon. They are pretty in pink, yellow and white. They wear extravagant straw hats festooned with flowers and glittery lapel brooches in the shapes of dragonflies, black-eyed Susans and other natural wonders. The women greet one another with hugs and kisses. Some, accompanied by laconically gallant husbands, sip a pre-meal cocktail.

It is a bittersweet occasion for the women, who have announced that today's Flower Mart, the 82nd, will be their last. They've said this before, but this year's theme -- "Celebrating the End of an Era" -- suggests they won't change their minds again.

Their hardly unanimous but vocal determination to end Flower Mart is offset by city boosters agitating for its continuation. The annual paean to spring, lemon sticks and white-glove propriety represents the epitome of Baltimore civility and charm, they cry. After lunch, William Donald Schaefer, state comptroller, former governor and mayor, and "friend and adviser to the Civic League," will pronounce the Flower Mart vital to Western civilization:

It's really important that you not stop the Flower Mart, he tells them. It's important to start the millennium with you having it right where it is in Mount Vernon. "Don't give it up," he urges. "Have it here in 2000, the best one you ever had."

The women applaud and reward him with a cookbook with a recipe for "Schaefer's Wafers." But undoubtedly, his vote of confidence makes them all the more uneasy, torn as they are between the desires to rest and to please, a timeless dilemma for females everywhere.

Cryptically, Schaefer also alludes to a snub by a group the Civic League had approached to take over sponsorship of the Flower Mart. A group well suited to the task, it seems. The women are too discreet to name said group. But the question hangs in the air: If they won't do it, who will?

When they first gathered in a Mount Vernon mansion in 1911, Civic League members formed the vanguard of community activism in Baltimore. They were stay-at-home moms (before there was such a distinction) from all walks of life who fought contagion, tax zoning and urban blight. Over the years, they wrote letters, donated money, made speeches, conducted television interviews, attended weekly City Council meetings, lobbied state legislators. League members were delighted when once accused of "using the tactics of a plague of locusts."

Their efforts yielded ordinance after ordinance assuring pasteurized and dated milk, anti-pollution measures, trash collection and other civic triumphs.

In 1913, a separate group called the Women's Cooperative Civic League was formed in Baltimore. As the league's black counterpart, it was "an agent of public health activism and advocacy for Afro-Baltimoreans in the early' 20th century," says Samuel K. Roberts Jr., a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University.

The two leagues worked in concert to combat tuberculosis and typhoid, enormous health hazards in both black and white communities. Despite common concerns, "racial provincialism" drove the two leagues' relationship, Roberts notes. In old reports, the patronizing tone of white Civic League members toward their black peers is hard to miss. But by the 1960s, when segregation was no longer a given in Baltimore, the leagues merged. At this year's luncheon, a smattering of black women are in attendance.

Over the decades, as the city and local improvement associations have assumed a greater role in addressing urban ills, the "little old lady in tennis shoes" image has overshadowed the Civic League's integral role in improving the quality of Baltimore life for its residents.

"We have done more for this city than anybody else, including all the politicians," says Phyllis Eckels, a league member for 50 years. And yet today, the league is largely identified with the quaint Flower Mart, not past achievements.

To be sure, the group's goals are more modest today. The Civic League provides scholarships to college-bound students, presents annual awards to exemplary sanitation workers, conducts City Hall tours and maintains headquarters at 9 Front St., a historic house leased from the city for $1 a year. As always, the Flower Mart is the league's primary money maker.

Eckels, a spirited woman with snow-white hair, doesn't understand why the league can't attract new members from among today's many savvy at-home moms. "We're trying to reach those women,'' she says. "We're older, they don't want to come with us. We would love to have them, we want new members."

But, she adds, "I don't know how to approach them, or what they're interested in.

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