McLean, Alice (1886–1968)

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McLean, Alice (1886–1968)

Founding director of American Women's Volunteer Services during World War II . Name variations: Alice T. McLean; Alice Throckmorton McLean; Alice Tinker. Born on March 8, 1886, in New York City; died in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 25, 1968; daughter of James T. McLean and Sara (Throckmorton) McLean; married Edward Larocque Tinker (a lawyer and writer), around 1903 (divorced); children: James McLean; Edward T. McLean.

Founded American Women's Volunteer Services (1940); founded National Clothing Conservation Program to address wartime fabric shortages (1944).

During World War II, Alice McLean founded and ran a volunteer organization for American women, based on England's wartime civil-service corps, that carried out numerous activities aimed at helping military personnel and their families. Born in 1886 into a wealthy family of English-Scottish ancestry, McLean was raised in affluent surroundings in New York City, receiving her education at the exclusive Manhattan private schools Spence and Miss Chapin's, and spending time at a family estate in Delaware County, New York. Her mother Sara Throckmorton McLean was active in charity work. McLean eagerly accompanied her father James T. McLean on his business travels, including visits to mining camps in the American Southwest. The family were inveterate travelers, and as a youth McLean learned to speak four languages on her frequent travels in Europe, and even journeyed to the Middle East. She became an avid equestrian, and played polo as a teen. At age 17, she married Edward Larocque Tinker, a lawyer who later became a novelist; the couple had two sons before they divorced.

McLean, who reverted to the use of her family name after her divorce, maintained ties to her English heritage, and traveled to England every fall to take part in the traditional country hunt activities of the landed class. Through these visits, in the years just prior to World War II she became interested in the Women's Voluntary Services, an arm of the civil-defense organization that was preparing for what seemed to be a looming conflict with fascist powers on the European Continent. McLean believed that the United States would also become involved in the coming European war. Upon returning home in 1938, she engineered a poster campaign aimed at women to explain ways in which they could be prepared for war. In 1940, she officially founded the American Women's Volunteer Services (AWVS), and set up offices on East 62nd Street in New York City.

Initially, few women seemed interested, for although England and France had gone to war against Germany and Italy in September 1939, America was still determinedly isolationist and officially neutral, and it seemed hard to imagine that the war would reach American shores. Calls for women to sign on as air-raid wardens or evacuation clerks seemed almost alarmist, and military and civic authorities were of little help to McLean in her organizing efforts. Therefore, the AWVS instead offered classes in first aid, and by the time of Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war in December 1941, it boasted a membership of over 18,000.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when American men began being drafted in large numbers to the European and Pacific theaters of conflict, patriotic fervor swelled, and McLean's AWVS shifted into high gear. Membership increased dramatically, reaching 325,000 nationwide by the end of the war in 1945. McLean, whose two sons both served as military officers, once said that the business skills she learned from traveling with her father proved invaluable in running such a large and diverse organization. Her promotional talents were also legendary. She once held a barbecue for 250 people at her Delaware County farm, only to have 3,000 local residents appear as well. Her response was to send out a car with a loudspeaker to invite the entire Valley; she used the opportunity to publicize the AWVS and how the average citizen might help the war effort.

The AWVS offered an array of services spread out across its local chapters in 33 states. Childcare was one such important service, because many women were now working in factories converted over to military production while their husbands were serving in the armed forces overseas. The organization also ran canteens and transport operations, taught Braille to recently blinded veterans in San Francisco, sold war bonds and stamps (over a billion dollars' worth by war's end), took photographs of the children of military personnel and mailed them to their posts, sewed clothes, and ran a clothing conservation program. Perhaps more importantly, McLean directed an organization that was anything but elitist, and the AWVS brought together women from all walks of life. It was nondenominational and nondiscriminatory, open to all races at a time when even the U.S. military still had segregated units for African-Americans. In 1944, McLean was given an award for these efforts in promoting interracial harmony by Mary McLeod Bethune , the African-American educator who was special advisor on minority affairs to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After the war McLean continued to own and manage her stock farm and dairy in upstate New York; she died in Baltimore in 1968.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1945.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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McLean, Alice (1886–1968)

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