Readers – Next up on our schedule of serialized reading is Chapter Two of The Volunteer Powerhouse, entitled “New Roles for Debutantes.” It explores the first decade of The Junior League and brings to light several traditions and core principles that remain vital threads in the Movement’s fabric even today.
We are given an in-depth portrait of the energetic and strong-willed Mary Harriman, who was intent on not living the life of the stereotypical sheltered rich girl by doing something meaningful with her life – and convincing her peers to do likewise. While commuting to Barnard one day in her horse-drawn carriage known as a sulky — or floating in a lake on her parents’ 20,000-acre estate in Orange County, N.Y. on another (reports conflict as to the timing of her idea)–she is said to have mused exuberantly that she and her fellow debutantes would go to work in the settlements on New York’s impoverished Lower East Side, work she had heard about in a lecture by Louise Lockwood.
From the debutante class of 1900-01, she recruited 80 out of 85, eliciting the observation from Nathalie Henderson, one of the early League’s greatest supporters, that “Mary made it fun and chic to belong” – and to volunteer.
Among their first good deeds was the distribution of the abundant arrangements of flowers they received throughout the course of a year’s worth of coming-out balls to local hospitals, but that was soon deemed not substantial enough. Shortly thereafter they adopted the name The Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements and began visiting the settlement houses, an experience that showed in stark detail the impact of sudden and massive immigration on an already overcrowded city that was ill-equipped to provide basic services such as medical care and schooling to its new residents.
Making her way through the filth and squalor of the Bowery to reach the Rivington Street Settlement House where she would teach calisthenics and dancing, the young Eleanor Roosevelt and others like her became aware not only of the disparity between their own lives and those they sought to help, but also of their inadequacy, as pampered and privileged young women with servants who catered to their every need, to teach the settlement residents something useful.
This humbling epiphany was the impetus for the training courses that were offered and later mandated for volunteers interested in serving in these neighborhoods. Including a mix of lectures from municipal officials, experts from charitable organizations, and thought leaders of the time such as Jane Addams and John Dewey, as well as practical work in the field, the training courses were the genesis of civic leadership development.
Aware also of the need to raise money for their causes, including the Visiting Teachers program established by Henderson, new debutantes were dubbed “Sustainers” in the first year in The League and tasked with hosting parties for the purpose of raising funds. In 1905, two plays at the Carnegie Hall Theatre netted an astounding $4,000. Years later, the definition of Sustainer would change.
Also in 1905, The League organized itself into distinct district committees charged with reporting on the challenges—tuberculosis, drunkenness, crime, suspicion of authority as in schools and hospitals–facing their assigned neighborhoods. This was the archetype for the needs assessments Leagues carry out in their communities today. The initiatives the assessments inspired, such as teachers and nurses who visited families in their homes are among the earliest examples of mission-based community impact.
The twin processes of training volunteers and assessing societal ills ultimately led to the refinement of the volunteer assignment process known as “matching” in which volunteers were vetted for their fitness and performance in specific assignments in the community. Matching gave way to the concept of “placement,” another practice that remains a backbone of the modern-day Junior League experience.
With constant experimentation and innovation and sustained introspection and insight, it’s no surprise that by 1911, The Junior League of New York comprised 500 members and had inspired the foundation of Leagues in Boston, Brooklyn, and Portland, Oregon.