What makes 160,000 women in 4 countries join a women’s volunteer organization dedicated to fostering civic leadership?

The enduring legacy of Junior League founder, Mary Harriman.

But who was Mary Harriman?

She was born to great wealth as the daughter of E.H. Harriman, the 19th Century railroad magnate.  And she was emotionally moved by the appalling living conditions of recently arrived immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Rather than just look away, Mary did something about it.  At 19, the debutante daughter of one of the richest men in the U.S. formed the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements.

And she didn’t just write a check.  Mary mobilized a group of 80 other young women (hence the name “Junior” League) to actively work to improve child health, nutrition and literacy among what we would now call “at risk” populations.  Among those friends was the young Eleanor Roosevelt, long before her time as First Lady, who joined the Junior League of The City of New York in 1903, teaching calisthenics and dancing to young girls at the College Settlement House.

Realizing the value of the knowledgeable and skilled volunteer to producing lasting impact, it was Mary who decided that training should be central to the mission of The Junior League.  Armed with their newfound skills, Junior League volunteers found themselves confident in their ability to develop solutions to the problems in their communities.  At a time when women faced barriers to affecting and leading change, training allowed early Junior League volunteers to gain the necessary tools to mobilize around issues such as women’s suffrage, advocating for improved child welfare policies and even going so far as to join the ranks of political leadership.

There were many other young women who became famous later in public life—including at least three First Ladies (Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush), the first female Supreme Court Justice (Sandra Day O’Connor), the first female United States Senator (Margaret Chase Smith)—who received their early training in civic leadership at a Junior League.

And there have been many more young women who never became “famous” but who work for positive action in their communities, both as League members and leaders and as members and leaders of other organizations committed to addressing many of our country’s most pressing social problems.

So the next time someone asks you, “Why is the Junior League important today,” you can say, “Because of Mary Harriman.”