Deborah Brittain, President, AJLI

(WOMENSENEWS)–For decades, the Junior League has been typecast as an elite enclave of wealthy white women who wear white gloves.

But the gloves came off a long time ago, and as the league prepares for its centennial in 2001, Junior Leaguers are led by women of many colors, from many professions and with one strength in common: Their sleeves are rolled up to work for the less fortunate.

“We are nearly 200,000 women of all types who have a common goal to improve the communities we live in,” says Michelle Ferebee, an African-American researcher for NASA who last June was elected president of the Junior League of Hampton Roads, Va.

Ferebee is among an estimated two dozen African-American, Latina and Asian women who have risen to the rank of president among the 285 Junior Leagues in the United States.

This year, Deborah Brittain of New Jersey is the first black president of the Association of Junior Leagues International, based in New York.

Ever so subtly, the diversity of membership has expanded the vision underlying the programs the league supports.

Traditional Charity Now Works in Domestic Violence, Drug Abuse, HIV/AIDS

Historically, the Junior League was known for its work well within the narrow confines of upper-class do-goodism: helping the destitute, needy children and the elderly.

Those programs continue today, with the addition of others aimed at the prevention and treatment of domestic violence as well as support for affordable day care, pregnancy prevention, substance abuse prevention, literacy, HIV/AIDS education and awareness of diversity and multi-cultural issues.

“These are powerful women, and when they exercise that power they can create miracles in their communities,” said President Brittain. She cited recent projects including the groundbreaking of a $6 million shelter for homeless families in Miami, a playground for children with special needs in Montana, a major recycling project in Mexico City (there are 11 Junior Leagues in Mexico, Canada and Great Britain) and the preservation of three historic theaters by the Junior League in Cleveland, Ohio.

In Austin, Texas, the Junior League’s Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program encourages Hispanic girls to stay in school and seek higher education. In San Jose, Calif., the league sponsors a program to help domestic violence victims negotiate the legal system. The Junior League of Schenectady, N.Y., provides telephone voice mail to help homeless people find housing and employment.

The origins of the league lie in the 1900s New York society vividly detailed by the writer Edith Wharton. New York debutante Mary Harriman started the first Junior League at the age of 19 and mobilized other debutantes to volunteer at a settlement house for impoverished immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where they worked to improve child health, nutrition and literacy.

Over the years, the league was credited with many good works, but it was criticized as well for not moving beyond its upper-class membership and its de facto segregation.

From All-White Enclave, League Stresses Diversity

Junior League leaders acknowledge that in the past, some leagues may have had by-laws banning non-whites from becoming members, although according to Anne Dalton, an executive who serves as historian for the Association of Junior Leagues International, “There are none that I am aware of.”

Nevertheless, in 1978, diversifying the membership became a priority for the Junior Leagues, with the adoption–despite protest from some groups in the South–of a statement by the association that they “reach out to women of all races, religions and national origins.”

“We are no longer the debutantes. We are intelligent, professional, hard-working women,” said association Executive Director Jane Silverman of New York. She noted that her own Jewish heritage would have kept her from membership in the not-so-distant past.

“People who still think the Junior League is for women in pearls who drink tea all day just have not had any involvement with the league lately,” added Alice Sharpe, owner of her own event planning business, who serves as league president of Durham and Orange counties in North Carolina.

“I am a black woman with a short Afro,” said Sharpe, “and one person recently told me I wasn’t what they envisioned as the Junior League.

“But what I say to any woman of any religion, race, creed or color is that I wholeheartedly endorse what the league is doing to improve our community. I invite women to take a look at their league. Don’t sit and wait to be asked. Call them yourself and you’ll find out that they are doing some very, very good work in your community.”

Some Joined League, ‘So It Wouldn’t Be So Vanilla’

Sharpe and other current African-American, Latina and Asian-American league leaders acknowledge that until the late 1970s, they would not have been able to join. Yet, their heritage has not served as a barrier for them to joining an organization that needs them, suits them and benefits from their background and insights.

“A lot of my friends said, ‘Why do you want to join the Junior League? It’s so vanilla,'” said Anette Harris, an African-American business woman who was elected president of the Junior League of San Francisco last July. “My reaction was to join it so it wouldn’t be vanilla anymore.”

“When I asked my mother what the Junior League was, she said, ‘Don’t worry, dear, you will never be asked to join,'” said Jane Nellams, an African-American journalist and public relations executive who is president of the Junior League of Seattle. Though friends mocked her, Nellams said, she joined in 1988 and has been active ever since, saying, “I felt I was welcomed and I liked the work they were doing in the community.”

“The Junior League is not the all-American, upper-middle-class organization it was even 30 years ago,” said Harris. “The league is no longer elitist. The idea of giving back to the community is not just for a particular class.”

Nellams, Harris and other league leaders say they joined because they strongly agree with the mission statement of the Junior League: To develop the potential of women to improve their communities through the action of trained volunteers.

These women of diverse backgrounds also emphasize that they were attracted to the league because of its mandatory first year of intensive leadership training.

One Year’s Tough Leadership Training in How to Get Things Done

“They train you how to be a leader, how to listen to other points of view, how to run a meeting, how to move things forward,” said Nellams. “Women who go through the Junior League training know how to get things done in the community.”

“The training you get is as good as anything you could get in the corporate world,” said Sylvia Zamora, past president of the league in Springfield, Mass. “My friends asked me how they were going to take a Cuban-American like me into the Junior League, but it was a great opportunity for me and I never felt any discrimination.”

“I wouldn’t be a part of it if I felt any underlying discrimination of any kind,” said Pamela Daniels, an African-American who volunteers about 40 hours a week as league president in Johnson City, Tenn. She talks openly about her league’s “unwritten, cultural ban” against non-white members until the mid-1970s.

“But that’s not what it is today,” said Daniels, talking on her cell phone recently while helping organize what she called a “humongous fund-raiser” at the Freedom Hall civic arena to benefit programs for children, including victims of child abuse.

“The reality is that we are generally privileged women, because we are highly educated and we tend to be middle to upper middle class,” Silverman said. “But that is very similar to the women in other volunteer organizations who are able to make the time to volunteer in our very busy lives.”

Some Middle-Class League Execs Can’t Afford $1,000 Tickets to a Ball

In San Francisco, Harris says her favorite project was mentoring a woman with two children on welfare. Harris still is close friends with the woman, whom she guided and counseled while the woman got her high school diploma, then a job at a printing company. The San Francisco league is also well known for its annual two-day fashion show, which raises more than $500,000 for charitable and educational causes.

In Seattle, Nellams says she is in the league because she likes what it does in the community. Her favorite projects include raising $2.5 million to build Magnuson Park playground in Seattle, teaching art in public elementary schools and providing food to homeless teen-agers.

“My family is very middle class,” she adds, explaining she has a daughter, works part-time and volunteers for her league about 40 hours a week. “We haven’t missed any meals, but my husband works for a city parks department, and we don’t go to any fancy balls because we can’t afford a $1,000 ticket.”

Jeannine Yeomans is an Emmy Award-winning free-lance journalist and television producer based in San Francisco.