Junior Leagues International, Association of

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JUNIOR LEAGUES INTERNATIONAL, ASSOCIATION OF. Nineteen-year-old Mary Harriman, daughter of the railroad financier Edward Henry Harriman, founded the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements in 1901. She conceived a plan whereby the debutante class of 1901 would organize and put on a benefit for the New York College Settlement on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Eighty debutantes joined the Junior League.

In 1902, members volunteered in settlement houses themselves. They worked in the Rivington Street settlement as well as Greenwich House and Hartley House. Eleanor Roosevelt became a volunteer at Rivington Street in 1903. She later brought her future husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to see the poverty and desperation of the immigrants living on the Lower East Side.

The Junior League of New York had 700 members by 1911, when it built a residential hotel for working-women, Junior League House, that housed 338 women. Dorothy Payne Whitney raised $250,000 for this ambitious project.

As the debutantes married and moved from New York City, they established Junior Leagues in Boston, Chicago, Portland, Oregon, and Montreal. In 1921, thirty Junior Leagues formed the Association of Junior Leagues International. During the 1920s, Barnard College provided the New York Junior League with the first training course for volunteers. From that time forward, the Junior Leagues were noted for their emphasis on training and leadership. By 1930, there were over one hundred Leagues.

During the Great Depression, Junior Leagues addressed problems of widespread hunger by providing nutrition centers and milk stations. Franklin Roosevelt appointed founder Mary Harriman Rumsey to posts within the New Deal. During World War II, many Junior Leaguers were active in the Red Cross. Member Oveta Culp Hobby was appointed head of the Women's Army Corps.

The baby boom of the 1950s turned the attentions of the Junior Leagues to projects such as improving the public schools and creating quality television programming for children. In the decades that followed, many Leagues worked on urban issues and social problems. The organization also sought to diversify its membership. By the 1980s, the empowerment of women had become a major goal. Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman justice on the Supreme Court, had been a member.

The diversity that had been nourished in the 1970s bore fruit in the 1990s, when the first Hispanic president of the Junior Leagues, Clotilde Pérez-Bode Dedecker, took office. In 2000, Deborah Brittain, the first African American president, saw the Leagues into a new century. In 2001, the Leagues celebrated their first one hundred years of service.

The organization was 96 percent white in 2000. But although it had once been strictly Protestant, 22 percent of its members at the end of the century were Roman Catholic—very different from the group that had denied Rose Kennedy entrance because of her religion. One percent was Jewish. While the Junior Leagues were more diverse than ever before, it was still an elite organization comprised of middle-and upper-class women. At the start of the twenty-first century, a majority of members worked outside the home and the program has been modified to meet their needs. As the new century began, the Junior Leagues addressed problems such as child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS.


Jackson, Nancy Beth. The Junior League: 100 Years of Volunteer Service. Nashville, Tenn.: Favorite Recipe Press, 200l.

Yeomans, Jeannine. "Junior League Remakes Itself for the 21st Century." Women's News, 28 November 2000.

Bonnie L.Ford

See alsoGirl Scouts of the United States of America .