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History of the Junior League

History of the Junior League

1901
Junior League Founded
In 1901, Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old New York City debutante, forms The Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements. Harriman mobilizes a group of 80 other young women, hence the name "Junior League,” to work to improve child health, nutrition and literacy among immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Inspired by her friend Mary, Eleanor Roosevelt joins the Junior League of the City of New York in 1903, teaching calisthenics and dancing to young girls at the College Settlement House.


1907-1920
The Movement Expands
The second Junior League is formed in Boston, Mass. in 1907 and is soon followed by the founding of the Brooklyn, NY and Portland, OR. Junior Leagues in 1910. In 1912, The Junior League of Montreal becomes the first League in Canada, while five other Junior Leagues are formed in Baltimore; Chicago; Cleveland; Philadelphia and San Francisco.

During this period, Junior Leagues shift their focus from settlement house work to social, health and educational issues that affect the community at large. The Junior League of Brooklyn successfully petitions the Board of Education to provide free lunches in city schools. In 1914, the founders of The Junior League of St. Louis march for women’s suffrage.

During World War I, Junior Leagues play an active role, selling bonds and working in Army hospitals. The San Francisco Junior League forms a motor delivery service that serves as a model for the nationwide Red Cross Motor Corps.


During the 1920s-1930s
In 1921, approximately 30 Junior Leagues create The Association of Junior Leagues of America (AJLA) to provide professional support to the Leagues. Dorothy Whitney Straight becomes the first Association President.

During the 1920s, The Junior League of Chicago pioneers children’s theater, an idea that is subsequently taken up by more than 100 Leagues across the country.

In politics, Ruth Sears Baker Pratt, of the Junior League of the City of New York, becomes the first woman elected to Congress from New York in 1929. Later in 1933, Isabella Selmes Greenway, friend of the Eleanor Roosevelt and former New York City Junior League member, becomes the first woman elected to represent Arizona in the U.S. Congress.

Junior Leagues respond to the Depression by opening nutrition centers and milk stations. They operate baby clinics, day nurseries for working mothers, birth control clinics and training schools for nurses. Junior Leagues also establish volunteer bureaus to recruit, train and place much-needed volunteers in the community. Many Leagues create State Public Affairs Committees (SPACs) to influence public welfare policy.

Junior League of Hartford member, Katherine Hepburn, wins her first of four Academy Awards in 1933 for Morning Glory. With the 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz, Junior League of Cleveland member, Margaret Hamilton, creates one of cinema’s most memorable characters with her portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West.

The Junior League of Mexico City joins The Association in 1930, further expanding the international nature of the organization. By 1939, there are 144 Junior Leagues in existence.


1940s
During World War II, Junior League members play a major role in the war effort by chairing hundreds of war-related organizations in virtually every city where Junior Leagues operate. Canadian and U.S. League members serve overseas. Junior League of Nashville member, Cornelia Fort, becomes the first female pilot in American history to die on active duty while on a training mission with the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Oveta Culp Hobby, a Houston League member, leads the Women’s Army Corps.

In 1940, the first Junior League cookbook, a compilation of recipes by The Junior League of Augusta entitled Recipes from Southern Kitchens, appears and begins a tradition of fundraising through cookbook publishing.


1950s
By the 1950s, nearly 150 Junior Leagues are involved in remedial reading centers, diagnostic testing programs and programs for gifted and challenged children. Leagues collaborate in the development of educational television and are in the forefront of promoting quality programming for children. In 1952, the Mexico City League establishes the Comité Internacional Pro Ciegos, a comprehensive, international center for the blind.

By the end of the decade, Junior Leagues support over 300 arts projects and multiple partnerships in many cities to establish children’s museums. The 1950s also marks the growth of regional Junior League cookbooks as a key fundraising tool, spearheaded by the Charleston League, which aggressively and successfully markets its Charleston Receipts cookbook to food editors and critics around the U.S.

In 1950, two-time U.S. Tennis Champion and New York City Junior League Member, Sarah Palfrey Cooke Danzig, lobbies the United State Tennis Association to open the sport to all athletes by removing the color bar.


1960s
In this period of great turbulence and social change, Junior Leagues rise to meet many challenges. As the decade progresses, nearly half the Leagues have health and welfare projects, including alcohol programs, adoption services, clinics, convalescent care and hospital services, and many Junior Leagues begin to add environmental issues to their agendas. The Junior League of Toledo produces the educational film, Fate of a River, a report on the devastating effects of water pollution. Leagues also establish programs addressing the education, housing, social services and employment needs of urban residents.

Meanwhile, in Canada, Maragret McTavish Konantz of the Junior League of Winnipeg becomes the first woman from Manitoba to serve in the Canadian House of Commons from Manitoba. In 1967, fellow Junior League of Winnipeg member and later Canadian Parliament member, Florence Bird chairs the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission is convened to examine the status of women in Canada and develop recommendations for the government to take to ensure equal opportunities for women in all aspects of society.

By now, more than 200 Leagues are part of the Association, which dedicates itself anew to building leadership skills and increasing membership diversity.


1970s
In 1971, the Association changes its name to The Association of Junior Leagues Inc. (AJL). Throughout the 1970s, Leagues expand their participation in public affairs issues, especially in the areas of child health and juvenile justice. In 1973, almost 200 Leagues work with the National Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the U.S. Justice Department on a four-year program seeking to improve the criminal justice system. In Canada, the Canadian Federation is formed to promote public issues among the Canadian Leagues.

During this decade, Junior League woman continue to impact the world of politics with the election of Florence Bird to Canada’s Parliament; Pat Evans as the first woman mayor of Plano, TX and Carole Keeton Strayhorn as the first woman mayor of Austin, TX. Former child actress and Junior League of Palo Alto - Mid-Peninsula member, Shirley Temple Black, is appointed by then President Nixon as the US Representative to the United Nations.

In 1973, Eudora Welty, of the Junior League of Jackson, wins the Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist’s Daughter.


1980s
During the 1980s, Junior Leagues in the U.S. gain recognition for advocacy efforts to improve the child welfare system. U.S. Leagues also help gain passage of the first federal legislation to address domestic violence. More than 100 Leagues develop the “Woman to Woman” campaign that actively and comprehensively tackles the impact of alcohol abuse on women. Junior League of Los Angeles Sustainer, and then First Lady, Nancy Reagan, launches the "Just Say No" campaign to address the growing issue of drug abuse.

The Canadian Federation holds its first national conference focusing on violence against women and the negative impact of pornography. The number of Leagues grows to 211.

In 1981, Junior League of Phoenix member, Sandra Day O’Connor, becomes the first woman to be appointed a Supreme Court Justice of the United States.

In 1985, the first Junior League outside North America, The Junior League of London, becomes a member of the Association.

In 1988, the Association officially becomes The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. (AJLI), better reflecting the international scope of member Leagues.

In 1989, then First Lady and Junior League of Houston Sustainer, Barbara Bush, establishes the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy building upon a legacy of promoting literacy. Also in this year, AJLI is presented with the prestigious U.S. President's Volunteer Action Award.


1990s
In the early 1990s, 230 Leagues participate in a public awareness campaign to encourage early childhood immunization called "Don't Wait to Vaccinate." In 1998, Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker becomes the first Hispanic President of The Association.

Junior League members, Glenda Hood and Willie Mount become the first women mayors of their hometowns, Orlando, FL and Lake Charles, LA respectively.

The Junior Leagues renew their dedication to The Junior League Mission. The Association's Board adopts Goals to guide and position the Association for its second century. The Goals stress the importance of the Association in helping Junior Leagues develop women for community leadership, achieve a shared, positive identity and function as strong, viable and healthy organizations, consistent with The Junior League Mission.


2001 - Present - The Junior League's Second Century
In 2001, Deborah Brittain, AJLI's first African-American President, presides over The Junior League's centennial celebration. Maya Angelou, Nane Annan, and Gloria Steinem, among others, address the members at the Association's Annual Conference in New York City, site of the first Junior League.

AJLI co-chairs the U.S. Steering Committee for the United Nations' International Year of the Volunteer (IYV) with the Points of Light Foundation. As part of IYV activities, President Vicente Fox recognizes The Junior League of Mexico City's members for their "high level of social leadership and human quality."

In 2002, AJLI launches The Junior League PR/Marketing Campaign, with the first brand logo and tagline, “Women Building Better Communities.” The Association's Board of Directors also launches its "Healthy League Initiative," a formal self-evaluation process designed to ensure that each League continues to achieve its full potential in its community by assessing its strengths and weaknesses.

Continuing a tradition of “firsts” in politics, Pat Evans of the Junior League of Plano becomes the first woman mayor of her city, going on to be reelected another two terms.

In 2006, over 600 volunteers from Leagues across the Association join The Junior League of New Orleans for the "Rebuilding a Better New Orleans" initiative.

In 2006, 228 League members of AJLI participate in the launch of Junior Leagues' Kids in the Kitchen, an initiative to address the problems associated with childhood obesity and poor nutrition.

In 2008, the Junior Leagues' Kids in the Kitchen initiative completes its third year and moves into planning for year four. To date, the program has achieved more than 650 million media impressions and reached thousands of children with hands-on activities that help empower them to adopt healthy habits.

In 2008, The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. wins a Summit Award in the 2008 Associations Advance America Awards competition, a national contest sponsored by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) & The Center for Leadership, Washington, D.C. for its Kids in the Kitchen program.

In 2009, New York City Junior League member, Carolyn Maloney, introduces legislation to establish a National Women's History Museum in Washington, DC. Also in this year, a Steering Committee is appointed to lead the Association through a comprehensive strategic planning process designed to chart the future of The Junior League. Dubbed the Strategic Roadmap, the plan outlines the five strategic questions AJLI must answer to differentiate The Junior League in an increasingly crowded marketplace and better position the organization for future success.

Photo of Mary Harriman
Mary Harriman
Founder of the Junior Leagues







Photo of Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt
New York League Member








Photo of Marching Women
St. Louis League members march for suffrage






Photo of Dorothy Whitney Straight
Dorothy Whitney Straight
First AJLI President







Photo of Oveta Culp Hobby
Oveta Culp Hobby
Women's Army Corps Leader







Photo of The Junior League of Mexico City
The Junior League of Mexico City
Comite Internacional Pro Ciegos







Photo of old women
League members work in the community







Photo of women testifying
Leagues are involved in public policy initiatives







Photo of Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor
Phoenix League member







Photo of Maya Angelou
Poet Maya Angelou speaks at Centennial Conference


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