Since its inception in 1901, there have been many misconceptions about the Junior League. And okay, some of them have been true at points in the organization’s history, but almost all of them are silly at this date and time. So let’s chat about what the Junior League actually does and why you might consider joining or supporting it.
What Is The Junior League, Anyway?
Full disclosure: the Junior League is a subject about which I am highly biased. I have been a member of the Junior League of Washington since 2001 and served as its president from 2015-2016.
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What You May Think The Junior League Is
If you live in the south, you have probably heard of the Junior League. (yep, that it’s a southern thing is also one of the stereotypes – despite the organization having been founded in New York)
Growing up, one of my oldest friend’s mother was president of our hometown League before being elected to Congress. I’ve always been a joiner – clubs, sorority, church groups, charities. You name it, I’ve been involved. And since high school, I’ve always done something outside of school or work to give back to the community. So without even really knowing what the Junior League was, I figured I would probably be a member someday.
I get various responses when I mention my involvement in the Junior League. Sometimes it is, “They make cookbooks, right?” Well, yes, that is a thing that some Junior Leagues in various cities still do. You may have seen their cookbooks around. Perhaps in your mom’s kitchen or in a bookstore. Each cookbook reflects the local flavors in its respective city and I think the recipes are some of the best out there. In my kitchen alone are cookbooks from the Charleston, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Washington, DC Leagues, as well as the Association of Junior Leagues International Centennial Cookbook. And I use them often.
Once, when I mentioned the Junior League to a colleague, he asked if it was a women’s voting rights organization. I held my tongue while I reminded him that we had been able to vote for about a hundred years now. And then told him about what the Junior League actually does.
Other times when I talk about the Junior League, the response is something along the lines of, “so that’s like an adult sorority, right?” There still seems to be a misperception that Junior League members must have a sponsor and fit some amorphous criteria. Or be subject to some sort of “mean girls” blackball process where the wrong word might mean they are rejected.
Junior League of Washington volunteers in a meeting during the National Book Festival.
And that the members are all white (maybe even all blond) and must all wear dresses and pearls to every function with their hair perfectly coiffed and nails always done (which is also a misperception about sororities, but we’ll save that for another piece). Yes, we do have members who fit that perfectly put together bill. And I always marvel at how they manage to always be so put together.
There was quite the stir throughout the Junior League back in 2010 when the book The Devil In The Junior League came out. Although a work of fiction, it reinforced all the worst stereotypes about the organization. That it was exclusive and members were pretentious, homogeneous, and had to come from the “right” families, have the “right” money, and the “right” clothes.
Sure, there are members who fit every stereotype. But most don’t.
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What The Junior League Actually Is
At its core, the Junior League is an organization that trains women to improve their communities. This is done through direct community service, through fundraising, and by working on each League’s operations and training programs.
Members of the Junior League of Jackson working on a Habitat for Humanity house. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Seals
Some still want to slap the “pearls and gloves” label on Junior League members. But we also have members like me, who, as often as I’ve arrived at a meeting in a near state of put together, have just as often rushed in straight from work, makeup totally dissolved and hair unbrushed since the morning.
Or who might be screeching in with gym-flushed cheeks. Or members whose babysitting fell through, so they have their baby in tow, praying the little angel will sleep through mommy’s meeting.
The Junior League may have been founded by some high-society New York women, but their motivation was to find a way to put their fortunate circumstances to use and to give something back. And almost as soon as it was formed, the women of the Junior League began to roll up their sleeves and transform communities.
Some compare joining the Junior League to the college sorority experience of pledging and then moving up through the group until you “graduate.” It’s true that there are a few similarities.
Like a sorority, you do go to events before you join. In Washington, DC, we host “open houses” where prospective members come to the headquarters and learn about the organization. It’s not so the Junior League can vet or “rush” them. Junior Leagues are open to all women who are interested in its mission. It’s so that prospective members can learn more about the Junior League and see if it’s a good fit for what they’re looking for.
As part of its Bike Rodeo, the Junior League of Mobile assembled and gave away 435 bicycles during its 85th Anniversary year. Photo courtesy of Angie Gulledge.
Also like a sorority, members pay dues. And their first year is spent as a “provisional” member learning about the league and its work.
Once you move into the “active” level of membership, you sign on for one or more “placements.” These are year-long commitments to serving the community in various ways, meaning hands-on, through fundraising, or through operational and training support.
The Junior League structure is not set up so that you can prove your worth or pass a test to become a full member.
It’s to give you the time and space to get some training and to learn about the Junior League’s rich history and its offerings before you start making these year-long placement commitments.
The Junior League of Washington has dozens of ways that its members can volunteer their time. The provisional year provides a chance to try out some of these opportunities before you sign up for a full year.
Brief History Of The Junior League
The Junior League has a long and impressive history. Founded in 1901 by Mary Harriman in New York City, it now boasts 140,000 members in 291 Leagues in four countries. And in many of the cities where there they are present, Junior Leagues and their members have led the way for social change and community improvement.
In Washington, DC, where the Junior League has had a presence since 1912, Junior League women were the first to step in with a grant for emergency relief after the 1968 riots. They have worked to improve literacy in the city and even founded a developmental daycare for children experiencing homelessness that continues to serve hundreds of children per year.
Members range from women working in the private sector to stay-at-home moms share placements with military servicewomen and department-level executives.
In Brooklyn, one of the League’s signature projects resulted in the first in the nation introduction of free lunches in New York City schools. And that went on to serve as a model for the passage of the National School Lunch Program in 1946.
John Kennedy, first as Senator and then as President, included the Junior League in a number of important meetings, such as the President’s Committee for the Employment of the Handicapped, the President’s Council on Fitness of Youth, a meeting to form the National Service Corps, and a meeting of influential women to discuss civil rights.
Okay, so the Junior League has an impressive history. Why you might ask, should you pay a couple of hundred dollars to join a volunteer organization? Can’t you just look for volunteer opportunities on your own? And for free? I’ll get to that below.
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Notable Junior League Members
Because the Junior League trains women, it should be no surprise that there have been a large number of notable women over the years who have been members. Both individually and collectively, the Junior League has a long history of impressive women and Leagues improving their cities. For example:
- Five first ladies have been members of the Junior League. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was actually a member of one of the earliest Junior League volunteer classes.
- First Lady Laura Bush, a member of the Dallas League, partnered with the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival. [The Junior League of Washington has supported the festival for sixteen years with hundreds of volunteers annually. Over the years, more than 6,000 Junior League of Washington volunteers have provided over 40,000 volunteer hours to the festival. That adds up to $1,274,000 in in-kind support!]
- Author Eudora Welty wrote for the Junior League of Jackson’s volunteer news magazine. She went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- Sandra Day O’Connor, a member of the Junior League of Phoenix, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She served for 25 years.
- Katherine Hepburn. Nancy Reagan. Shirley Temple. Julia Child. All were Junior League members.
- Margaret Chase Smith, Junior League volunteer from Bangor, Maine, was the first woman elected to both houses of Congress and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was also the first woman to be placed in nomination for the presidency at a major party’s convention.
Why You Should Join
1. Become Part Of A Movement.
The women of the Junior League do amazing things. I mentioned above many of the household names who have been Junior League members in its century-plus of storied history. But today there are more impressive members around the country than ever before.
Gay Gaddis, a member of the Junior League of Austin, wrote a fantastic book called Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business and Life. Oh, and her day job is just as the founder and head of one of the largest woman-owned independent advertising agencies in the country, T3. NBD, as they say.
Mireya Villarreal, who was a Junior League of San Antonio member, is a national correspondent for CBS News whose award-winning reporting has been featured across CBS News broadcasts, including “CBS This Morning,” the “CBS Evening News.
Martha Rivers Ingram, a Junior League of Nashville member, has authored several books and is chairman and CEO of Ingram Industries, one of America’s largest privately-held companies.
We have a member right here in DC, Kristen Soltis Anderson, who is a nationally known pollster and published a book called The Selfie Vote about how millennials are changing the voting landscape. As if that isn’t impressive enough, Time magazine named her one of the 30 People Under 30 who are changing the world and Elle magazine named her as one of the ten women in Washington to watch in 2016.
Indeed, five of the women in the current Congress are Junior League members: Susan Brooks (R-IN; JL of Indianapolis); Anna Eshoo (D-CA; JL of Palo Alto); Doris Matsui (D-CA; JL of Sacramento); Carolyn Maloney (D-NY; JL of the City of New York); Carol Miller (R-WV; JL of Huntington)
These are just a few. Every single Junior League chapter has dynamic, trailblazing women who are doing groundbreaking things around the country. And we are all part of that legacy.
2. Do Volunteer Work.
Okay, we’ve covered that you can do volunteer work on your own. BUT. The Junior League’s mission is to train volunteers to improve their communities.
This means that non-profit organizations who partner with Junior Leagues know they are getting volunteers who can come in and hit the ground running. I can’t tell you how many non-profits in Washington, DC have told me they love Junior League volunteers because they know the women will get the job done and get it done well.
And Junior League members know that they’ll be well prepared for any work they may be doing. Whether tutoring kids, delivering meals to shut-ins, or planning a 5k charity race.
3. Transform Your Community.
If junior leaguers ever wore gloves, they came off long ago. Junior League women roll up their sleeves to better their communities in every city where they have a presence.
And in this divided time, Junior Leagues around the country are taking on many of the difficult issues to help bring communities together. They are leading conversations about race, human trafficking, juvenile justice, literacy, cybercrimes, among many others. These efforts are important. Susan Danish, the Executive Director of Association of Junior Leagues International, wrote about the many community discussions going on in Leagues around the country. Conversations that are important to not just strengthening the fabric of our country, but ensuring it does not fray or tear.
4. Meet Diverse People.
When I moved to the Washington, DC area in 2000 knowing virtually no one, joining the Junior League was a way to meet other women who might be likeminded in their desire to improve their community. At that time, even in Washington, DC, most of the women in the Junior League looked like me (blonde). Diversity comes in many forms: racial, sexual, socioeconomic, age, religion, among others. Back then, I would have said the League had a little bit of diversity in some of those areas, but I probably would not have named diversity as a top characteristic of any Junior League.
But Junior Leagues have made aggressive progress on recruiting and serving a diverse membership that reflects the communities around them. I can comfortably say that when I attend Junior League meetings now, our membership is much more reflective of the Washington, DC community, which is one of the most diverse in the country. There is still progress to be made, but I’m proud of how far our league has come.
5. Make Lifelong Friends.
Maybe this one isn’t what you’re looking for, but some of my best friends are from the Junior League. I’ve met women I never would have come into contact with otherwise. Women who have fascinating views and backgrounds and whom I love to spend time with.
And when I was President of my League, I made what have become lifelong friendships with impressive women across the country. I have stayed in touch with a number of the women I met attending the Association of Junior Leagues International conferences. We try to coordinate our busy schedules for visits once or twice a year and a ten of them even flew in for my wedding.
6. Develop New Skills.
The Junior League is a safe space to try out new things. If you are a CPA but have always wanted to try out fundraising, or planning events, the Junior League has an opportunity for you. You could solicit donors for your League’s annual fundraiser or help plan one of the events around it.
If you’re a nurse but always wanted to learn to budget, you can learn that, too. You could serve as treasurer of a committee and learn more than you ever wanted to know about managing money.
The best part is that you’re trying these new things in a safe environment where you have people who can help you if you stumble. To me, it always seemed less scary to try something in Junior League first rather than at work.
You name it, the Junior League has an opportunity for you to learn a different skill set without fear.
7. Become A Leader.
Part of the valuable training that appealed to me came with taking on leadership roles. If you decide you want to go down that path, there is a lot of experience to be had. That being said, every single member’s contributions help to fulfill the mission.
But what I learned as a leader in the League were things like planning a meeting agenda and how to lead a team. I also learned how to operate within a team and under what conditions I operate best. And worst. I learned how to better advocate for myself and others. These are all skills that come in handy at work and in any number of other scenarios.
8. Build Your Resume.
I have always included my Junior League experience on my resume. I have worked in politics for almost 20 years, but because of the Junior League, I have acquired skills I would not have learned otherwise.
The Junior League taught me how to plan and conduct meetings, how to fundraise, how to understand and develop an organizational budget, how to manage people, as well as a historic multi-million dollar property, and how to develop a strategic plan. It also taught me diplomacy in dealing with complicated people. These are skills (especially that last one) that directly translate into any workplace.
So – has any of this convinced you? Even if you aren’t able or ready to join, I encourage you to look for your local League and support them by attending an event or making a donation. The work they’re doing really does make the world a better place.