Junior League grows up

Evolution: The snob factor of the women's organization ebbed as its community service mission came to the fore.

February 04, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

As a dozen women gather for a workshop on how to find jobs, the energetic leader of the evening -- a pregnant 30-year-old in denim overalls -- asks whether anybody has heard of the Junior League.

No hands go up.

But a truer moment comes hours later, after several members of Baltimore's league, which sponsors the program, have begun a discussion with their new clients about job dreams and interviewing skills.

Robin Whitaker, a 45-year-old presser at a dry cleaning firm who would like to be anything but, admits quietly that she has heard of the league after all.

FOR THE RECORD - A Feb. 4 article in The Sun incorrectly described the origins of the Flower Mart. The Women's Civic League of Baltimore began these springtime festivals in 1911. The Sun regrets the error.

"To tell the truth," she whispers, "I thought they were high society."

She thinks so no more.

"You see that they are out here, and that they're trying," Whitaker said. "I intend to take full advantage of it."

Junior Leaguers -- in Baltimore and across the nation -- would have been plenty happy to hear that. They feel they've come a long way from the days when only debutantes of a certain race, religion and social standing were welcome in the league.

That upper-crust image has proved indelible, even as the league's ranks include doctors, lawyers, teachers and accountants who delve into modern service projects such as job counseling, lobbying legislators, running after-school programs and ministering to the elderly.

"It might have started out with women who were debutantes, but it hasn't stayed that way," said Mary Ann Masur, the Baltimore league's 37-year-old president, a leasing manager at American Trading and Production Corp.

Today there are 295 leagues across four countries, including chapters in Baltimore and Annapolis. The Association of Junior Leagues International reports that 80 percent of its members are working women and point to famous examples such as Supreme

Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Locally and nationally, the organization now bills itself as a training ground for members to excel in business and volunteerism. Baltimore civic activist Sally Michel, who went on to start a reading camp for hundreds of city children, got her start in the Junior League.

In a concession to the busy lives of working mothers, the league now offers such committees as "Done in a Day," which offer quick-hit projects.

The Baltimore league's oldest member, Peggy Waxter, says the change has been phenomenal.

"Usually I have fun by telling them how stupid we were, and how social and anti-social we were," said Waxter, 95, a former league president. "Nobody but debutantes or people who were of a certain class. It was very snobbish and silly, but part of that world, and that was the way that was.

"That other world is disappearing."

Now the Baltimore league includes women like Redonda Miller, 33, a physician and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who sometimes starts work at 6 a.m. so she can be free in the evenings to do work for the league.

"This is really a nice outlet, not to be around people in your profession," Miller said. "It is nice to get away from all the silly things I worry about all day."

Then there's Julie Sheppard, 30, who came to town from Cincinnati to work for Procter & Gamble several years ago. "When I moved to Baltimore, I was like, I am not joining the Junior League," she said.

But Sheppard changed her mind after finding that Baltimore was a tough place to meet women her age. After attending a few league meetings, she discovered a bond with many of the young women there. Now Sheppard is one of the leaders of the Women's Independence Network (WIN), the project to help women get jobs.

The Baltimore league, the fifth-oldest in the country, was founded when a local woman named Mary Goodwillie gathered a group together in 1912. One of their first projects: starting Baltimore's Flower Mart.

The purpose of the organization, according to its original constitution, was to give "girls who are in a position to be factors for good in their community" knowledge of the world around them. Members were to "consist of the debutantes of the years 1910, 1911, 1912," with debutantes in subsequent years chosen by a membership committee.

Karen Blair, chairwoman of the history department at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, said the league as a whole provided a breakthrough as one of the first organized opportunities for very wealthy women to get directly involved in service projects.

"The founders were really very elite women, but quite rebellious," Blair said. "It's easy to forget that now. It was noticed among their peers, and I think from the start it was significant."

Through the years, the social requirements of membership in the league fell away, said Blair. The biggest changes in the organization came with the civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s, she said.

Any woman between the ages of 21 and 47 now can join the Baltimore organization; those who are older can stay active as "sustaining" members.

Masur says that has brought more cultural diversity, though she could not provide statistics on the organization's 550 members. She acknowledged that the league has more work to do to attract African-American women, and said it plans partnerships with other nonprofit organizations to broaden its recruiting.

The WIN workshops, for example, are run in partnership with other agencies, such as the Women's Housing Coalition and the House of Ruth.

"When people want to accomplish certain things," Masur said, "barriers disappear."

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