And The Ladies Who Lunch Shall Lead Them

Back in 1996, a young woman named Tracie Jerd moved to Mount Laurel, New Jersey, with her husband and landed a job as a project manager at Cigna. She didn't have kids, didn't know anybody outside of the office, and she was at loose ends. Looking for a way to connect, she dialed up information and asked for the number of the Junior League of Philadelphia. Then she called the league to ask if she could join.

Talk about chutzpah. Everybody knows you have to be old money to get into the Junior League, have to own a fur coat and have the leisure to plan charity balls. You have to be invited to become a member-and it helps if your great-grandmother belonged. Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush are all Junior Leaguers. So is Sandra Day O'Connor. What was Jerd thinking? “Well, the Junior League is very big in the South,” the Oklahoma native explains. “I wasn't even sure there was a league here.”

No doubt the ladies of the league laughed themselves silly when Jerd called up out of the blue and asked to become a member? “Actually,” she says, “they told me, 'Come on down!'”

Ah. But she's a Southerner, a refugee from the land of cotillions and gardenia corsages. She must be just the sort the Junior League of Philadelphia, or jlp, which is celebrating its 90th birthday this year, is desperate to snag. After all, the main event marking the jlp's anniversary was a black-tie gala at the Franklin Institute, catered by Frog Commissary, with gorgeous flowers and votive candles, filet mignon hors d'oeuvres, and a silent auction, with such biddables as a Hamptons getaway, that raised more than $10,000.

Tracie Jerd lets out a sigh. “I remember once being asked to list my affiliations on a questionnaire at work,” she says, “and my boss saw 'Junior League' on there, and he said, 'You've got to be kidding.' We have an image problem.”

The ladies of the league know all about it.

“Pumps and pearls,” says Schuyler Nunn.

“A white-glove, tea-drinking organization,” says Gretchen Cooney.

“Cute Main Line ladies from old Philadelphia families who sip tea, clutch pearls, and do nice things, then celebrate the nice things they do with balls,” offers Alexia Hudson.

This is what they say about themselves. And in fact, the Junior League was the brainchild of a woman who was less than politically correct by contemporary standards-18-year-old debutante Mary Harriman, who decided in 1901 that she and her fellow eligibles should do more in life than marry well. Recent immigrants to America, Harriman had somehow managed to notice, were suffering, cheek to jowl, in tenements, lacking educational opportunities and medical care. She convinced her co-debs-including Eleanor Roosevelt, who signed on in 1903-to roll up their sleeves and create settlement houses to improve life for nouveau Americans. Her organization prospered and spread. The Philadelphia chapter, the ninth in the nation, was established in 1912. Today, more than 200,000 women in 296 cities, in four nations, belong to the Junior League.

For many years, the Philadelphia chapter, like its sisters throughout the country, was a bastion of Wasp gentility, a happy haven for do-gooder stay-at-home wives. The jlp used to host debutante balls and put on designer home showcases. (Lots of chapters in other cities still do.) It's only been a couple of decades since the first Jewish and black members were invited to join the league here.

But the Junior League of Philadelphia is in the midst of a sea change. While its purpose hasn't altered a bit since the chapter was founded-it exists to do good, and has done plenty-the zeitgeist has been turned on its head. As women have moved into the workplace, as families have become more mobile, as the bon ton has widened its circle (or had it forcibly widened), the league has had to adapt. For the most part, it has done so with goodwill and grace, and even humor.

Yet the image lingers, and there are reasons for that, too. “You close as many doors as you open,” says Susan Myers, a member for half a century, “when you say you're from the Junior League.”

A brief Junior League lexicon:

“Provisionals” are members in their first year, undergoing training. The jlp, which includes members from eight counties in the region, had 74 provisionals in 2001-2002. In the provisional year, one learns about the league and its history, attends regular meetings, undergoes volunteer training, and enjoys social events. “We have our initial meeting with the provisionals in September,” Tracie Jerd explains. “We try to impress on them that it's a big commitment.”

“Actives” are members who've moved past their provisional year. The lifeblood of the organization, the jlp's 307 actives staff 22 different committees-everything from “Educational Resources” to “Advocacy” to “Multiculturalism and Diversity.” It used to be that members got kicked out of “active” status and became “sustainers” when they turned 40. But nowadays, as part of its inclusivity push, the jlp accepts provisionals of any age. It has 622 sustainers, who participate to varying degrees.

Gretchen Cooney, who says she turned to the league “after going through a period when I'd had a number of less than desirable short-term relationships with men,” spells out what it takes to be a member: “There are dues of $140 a year for actives-less for provisionals and sustainers. Actives have to serve on a committee. You have to attend three general membership meetings-we have one every month. We might have a guest speaker at the meeting, or discuss a particular project.” This year's themes have included “safety tips,” at which members learned ways to protect themselves and their families, and “New Year, New You,” in which they discussed women's health issues. “And you need to fulfill your Ways and Means credits,” Cooney adds. “Actives are required to fulfill six, and provisionals and sustainers have to fulfill three.”

There are various ways to do this, and they veer from flibbertigibbet to seriously socially conscious. One way to collect a Ways and Means credit is to buy a “Shopping Day” ticket for a specified date on which Bloomingdale's donates a percentage of its take to the league. Another is to put in time at the jlp's current “signature project”-“Working Wonders Off Welfare,” in which members help former welfare moms find employment and learn life skills.

Four years ago, the City Paper ran a front-page story on the Junior League. The ladies of the league still steam when they mention it-and they all mention it. The piece began with a description of league volunteers doing an art project with some underprivileged kids in West Philly. “It's fairly obvious which women are with the Junior League,” the story sniped. “They're the ones with the big, sparkly diamond rings.”

The City Paper writer accused the league of being classist, elitist and racist, and sneered at its “upscale concerns.” In person, jlp members are neither bejeweled nor uppity. If any trait unites them, it's their zeal for the league and its work. They're cognizant of the gap between their lives and those of the women at Interim House West, one of three halfway houses in West Philly on which their efforts have focused for the past four years. “We talk about being white women from the suburbs going down to the halfway house on Parkside Avenue,” says Nancy Scarlato. “We discuss what it's going to be like when you get out of the car-whatever car you're getting out of when you get there. We make sure people don't go in alone; we suggest they come with somebody on the committee, bring a friend, bring the kids.”

Once the leaguers arrive, they focus on practical stuff. “These women don't know a lot of the basics-how to balance a checkbook, or that what you wear out on Saturday night might not be the thing to wear to a job interview,” says Scarlato. “We work on that. And they don't have extra money to, say, buy holiday decorations. So we'll have a program where we make wreaths-Christmas wreaths, Kwanzaa wreaths, whatever-for the doors of their apartments. And they're so grateful someone thought of that.”

The City Paper article ticked the league ladies off, but it didn't deter them from their West Philly mission. They're too energetic, too determined-and, now and again, too ingenuous. Annamarie Geppert Hellebusch describes one of her trips to the halfway house: “We went in on a Saturday morning and talked about coupon-clipping and nutrition-we used the food pyramid, you know? Then we got on a bus with the women and went to the grocery store. We had set up a contest to find who could buy the least expensive meal with the most nutrition. And it was eye-opening for me. The septa bus doesn't drop you off right at the door to the store-you have to walk there from the bus stop. You had to pay a quarter to use a cart!” she marvels. “And the whole time you were shopping, you had to think about what you could carry back with you on the bus.”

Shopping is a recurrent theme in Junior League life. As another of the core requirements for membership, every provisional and active lady of the league has to put in a three-hour shift at the Junior League Thrift Shop in Bryn Mawr each year, and also donate $100 worth of merchandise annually. This requirement, a marriage of “playing store” and lady-of-the-manor largesse, perfectly encapsulates the schizoid aspects of today's league.

“Basically, you clean out your closet,” Gretchen Cooney says.

Tracie Jerd finds the experience more transcendental. “When I go to the thrift shop with my donations,” she explains, “I come away thinking, 'Other people will value this. I may not need it anymore, but other people will value it.'”

“That thrift shop-people should go clothe themselves there,” says one former Junior Leaguer who has left the organization. “Members are in a panic to hit their quota. I donated my grandmothers' fur coats.”

“The office is back this way,” Jean Bahnsen tells me, leading the way between crammed rows of clothes inside the Junior League Thrift Shop, which occupies a big, somewhat faded building at 111 West Lancaster Avenue. Though the layout is classic ragtag used-goods store-minuscule aisles, bursting shelves, haphazard piles of belts and handbags-the goods are something else again. Bahnsen brushes past a bulging circular rack of Diesel and Gap and Tommy Hilfiger and J. Crew jeans to an office in the back.

“When you think of a thrift shop,” says store manager Patty Franks, “you usually think of something like Goodwill. Here, we're working with a different demographic of shoppers. We're targeting the fashion-conscious and the budget-conscious.”

“Patty targets labels,” says Sage Bronzino, the jlp's operations director.

Franks nods. “I don't have room to put everything on the floor. I put out the cream of the crop. So it's a boutique for cost-conscious people. And I like to say that the money we get is used to help the person who needs a coat, rather than the person buying that coat.” In other words, though shoppers here in Bryn Mawr aren't likely to be needy, the money they spend supports league programs in more straitened neighborhoods, like the one at Interim House West.

“We're attracting the savvy customer,” Bronzino explains, “someone who's looking for the same merchandise she might find at the mall, new or 'gently used,' as we like to say. We have St. John Knits, Chanel, Nicole Miller-only you pay $100 for a suit instead of $1,200.”

“Our philosophy has emerged from what we've received,” Franks notes, and points to a rolled-up rug on the storeroom floor. “I can put a $1,000 tag on that, and it'll sell. It's a handwoven Oriental rug.”

“The donor base is very loyal, and the customer base is very loyal,” Bronzino says. “Our figures show that only 20 to 25 percent of what's on the floor comes from our members. The rest is from the community.”

Bronzino and Franks show off the receiving area, where members deliver their quotas. “They bring it in,” Bronzino says. “They have to hang and tag their own merchandise-$100 worth each year. We have a handout sheet for people who are into tax credits.” On the sheet, an “average” ladies' suit has a suggested price of $12; a designer-label suit is listed at $30. Many of the donations are worth hundreds of times that.

West Chester University student Brooke Scott is at work in the receiving area, pricing non-league donations. She has, she says, seen “everything and the kitchen sink” in her two years at this job.

“We did have a kitchen sink, didn't we?” Franks says fondly.

“What gets me,” Scott says, “is the amount of new things that wind up here-clothing with the tags still on, toys still in the package.”

“It really shows the decadence of our society,” Bahnsen agrees. “But, you buy it at Barneys-“

“And it goes on and lives another life,” Bronzino finishes. “A lot of college students shop here. That's why we always have Hawaiian shirts. And small appliances, for dorm rooms. Customers come in for costumes for Halloween parties. We get wedding dresses.”

“Oh, that's sad,” says Bahnsen. “You recreate the story in your mind.”

“When we get book donations,” notes Scott, “we can definitely piece their lives together-whether they're into self-help books, or romance novels. … ” The thrift-shop ladies giggle knowingly.

Several times each year, league members bus the welfare moms from West Philly to the thrift shop in Bryn Mawr for a discounted shopping spree. The event was known in the past as Career Clothing Day. “We're changing it to 'Savvy Shopping,'” Gretchen Cooney reports. “The idea was that it would be an opportunity for the women to purchase business attire. But they wound up buying stuff for their kids.”

West Philly welfare moms may not be the thrift shop's usual clientele, but the staff takes special care of them, too. “We try to set aside the things we know they'll want,” says Bronzino. “They'll buy winter coats, boots, all those things that can be very costly. We prescreen, to learn the women's sizes. But there's a problem there. The bulk of our donations are sizes 2 to 8.”

“I don't know where the stuff comes from,” Bahnsen sniffs. “There aren't that many women that size around here.”

Today, the thrift shop has on offer a lavender linen Anne Taylor blazer for $12; a Liz Claiborne gray silk sleeveless top for $7, and a gunmetal Laura Ashley suit for $35. It has Gap shirts, Ralph Lauren trousers, and an Oscar de la Renta dress. It has L.L. Bean jackets, and Osh Kosh and Children's Place clothes for kids. It has like-new shoes by Nine West, Kenneth Cole and Etienne Aigner for $10 a pair. There are suits and sports clothes for men as well, along with costume jewelry, prints, and a few home furnishings.

Most league chapters run thrift shops, but Philadelphia's is one of the most profitable in the nation. Last year, it grossed $485,000-only a few thou off the magic half-million mark the staff says is its goal. The shop is, far and away, the jlp's largest funding source. And with its racks of designer goodies and cases of jewelry and scarves, it surely contributes to the league's image problem. But the ladies who work here are completely mystified by the suggestion that a shop full of wealthy people's castoffs might perpetuate an elitist ideal.

“We don't use the money to fund little lady teas,” Franks says defensively.

There are some league members who get the irony inherent in the thrift shop. “When I joined,” says Tracie Jerd, “I was surprised that the fund-raising goals [outside of the thrift shop] were so small. All I saw was the shop. I didn't want that to be the face we offered to the community. So I joined the fund-raising committee.”

In the past five years, that committee has been toiling to shift some of the burden away from Bryn Mawr. One result is the jlp's annual “Race for Independence,” a 5K walk/10K run staged in April in Center City. The first race, in 2000, was held in a freak snowstorm but still managed to raise $65,000 in cash and donations. This past April, the event attracted 500 participants.

Another recent effort is for sale at your local bookstore. “We'd done a cookbook,” says Annamarie Geppert Hellebusch. “Actually, we'd done two cookbooks. Lots of the leagues do cookbooks. But we wanted to do a children's book. After all, we're in Philadelphia. We wanted to offer an historical perspective for children. So we held a contest, open to members and anyone else who wanted to enter. And we had one member who wrote the story that won, and she illustrated it, too.”

The Spirited Philadelphia Adventure, written and illustrated by Deirdre M. Cimino, is a slim $16.95 picture book that tells the adventures of Elena, who tags along for her mom's regular Saturday volunteer stint at the Franklin Institute (they arrive via taxi) and encounters the ghost of a young Ben Franklin. The story is dreadful:

“Can't you ever go outside?” Elena asked.

“I am afraid not,” Ben replied. “You see, I promised never to set foot outside of the museum, or else I will not be able to reappear on my birthday next year. But, I'd give anything to see my beloved Philadelphia again, 'the City of Brotherly Love,'” Ben said.

The illustrations, on the other hand, have a certain naïve charm. So far, the book, published in 2000, has raised more than $10,000. “We have a push right now for members to buy them for their church libraries, school libraries, that sort of thing,” Sage Bronzino says.

It's tempting to dismiss the book as a vanity production, one of the league's more dilettantish efforts. But the women who served on the Children's Book Committee take a different view. They saw it as a learning experience. “Nobody really knew how to do it,” says Nancy Scarlato. “We had to figure out how to get it done. We had a lot of different people with different backgrounds all saying, 'This is how we should approach it.' We were trying things without a safety net. In the business world, you wouldn't do it. But here, if it doesn't get done in a Harvard mba steps-one-through-10 way, it's okay. It doesn't matter. All that matters is, it happened. Unlike the corporate world, you can never fail with the Junior League. They can't fire volunteers.”

“Working in committee” is vital to the league. “It's not a social event,” Helen Weary says sharply. “We don't tolerate people who say they're on a committee and don't come.” Not all of the Junior League's well-intentioned efforts pan out. That's okay. The process is what matters here.

And therein lies the hidden agenda of the Junior League: It is a training ground for arts, civic and philanthropic boards of directors. That's why it's the Junior League; women play here until they're ready to move on to the big time. “The Junior League creates women who understand how to work on a committee,” says Annamarie Geppert Hellebusch, “how to stay focused on the job at hand, how to come up with a plan and then execute that plan.”

“We're taking young women who have a heartfelt desire to do some good,” adds Helen Weary, “but don't know what at age 20 or 21. We give them a whole spectrum of activities, help them get connected, and then-it's like Girl Scouts. You fly up. You become a person who's helpful to an organization. You bring the skills you learned in the league to other organizations-to an alumnae group or a volunteer organization or a nonprofit board.”

Not everyone, alas, is suited to working in committee. One locally prominent young woman whose mother belongs gave the Junior League a try. “I was fine in the big group,” she recollects. “But interacting with the women on my committee drove me insane. It was more important for everyone to get her two cents in than to get the project done well and expediently.

“I guess what happens is that the legacy thing perpetuates the cycle,” she continues. “I think a lot of it is good daughters who are beaten down by their mothers.”

Rhoda mckinney-jones's mother never belonged to the Junior
League. McKinney-Jones was a journalist in Seattle when an editor for whom she worked approached her about joining. “I was aware that for many years, the Junior League hadn't allowed women of color to join,” says McKinney-Jones, who is black. “But I was impressed by its record of commitment to service.” In Seattle, the league was “sponsored”-by invitation only. At the time, McKinney-Jones said no thanks. But a few years later, when she and her husband moved to Philadelphia, she remembered the league, looked into it, and found that the jlp had open enrollment. She signed on.

“I've really enjoyed it,” she says. “It's a great group of women. We don't have a great number of women of color, but the work has centered on children of color. That's not saying we don't have some issues with race that we need to overcome.”

McKinney-Jones recalls a project in her provisional year: “We were at Southern Children's Services, a home for kids who've been taken out of their homes. Almost all the kids were African-American. There was one other African-American woman in my provisional class. And those kids clung to the two of us. I remember watching a group of members at that project. Did they look uncomfortable? Yes. Did they stand on the sidelines and talk to each other? Yes.”

McKinney-Jones has a realistic take on her role. “As African-Americans,” she says, “we're taught that we live in white society and in African-American society. We live in two worlds. But people who are not of color and who live at a certain level can choose not to live with us. There are women in certain areas of this city who don't socialize with women of color-whose only experience with women of color is that they [are served by] them.” Some of those women, she knows, are members of the league.

“The Junior League is never going to be 50 percent people of color,” she says. “But that doesn't mean we can't be more sensitive. When I was a provisional, I went to a meeting of the Multiculturalism Committee, and they were talking about the kinds of things they were doing to get more diverse women to join. I got a little irritated. It was like there was this 3,000-pound elephant sitting in the room. Everybody was thinking it, but nobody was saying it: 'For the longest time, they weren't allowed to be in this organization!' So I got up and said it. Once you acknowledge who you really are, you can work on changing it.”

In typical Junior League fashion, McKinney-Jones went to work. She knew a “sensitivity trainer,” Kathleen Whyte, a fellow member of the Bucks County chapter of The Links Inc., a philanthropic organization for women of color that's analogous to the league. “The first year, I was only able to bring Kathleen in for the provisionals,” says McKinney-Jones. “But it wasn't the provisionals that needed the training. They'd been out in the world; they're mostly working women. It was the older women who needed it.” Whyte's presentation proved so popular that she was subsequently brought in to address the entire league.

The jlp's sensitivity trainer isn't a bit touchy-feely. Whyte approaches diversity with bottom-line objectives. “With companies,” she explains, “that bottom line is profit. With the Junior League, it's the mission statement, the commitment to promoting volunteerism. In fulfilling their mission statement, diversity can be used as a tool, just like computer technology or accounting. It's another tool to help them be successful in building bridges to better services.”

Alexia Hudson, the only other black in McKinney-Jones's provisional class, says changes at the league are more than skin-deep. “The discussion always seems to come down to race.,” she notes. “But the league is looking to bring in Hispanic women, Asian women. It's looking beyond race to the diversity of ideas. Any organization at some point is forced to deal with these issues. My company”-she's a marketing manager for Coca-Cola-“is dealing with it. Listen, my sister's husband is white. And when you're that close to somebody-well, we had to diversify in thought!”

“We did a lot of educating of our members,” says Nancy Scarlato. “There's not a whole lot of difference between us and the women in the shelters we visit. We tell the members, 'You are not where you are because you're better. Don't think, You made your choices, and now you're in this facility. I made better choices.' These women made the choices that were available to them at the time.”

The front and back doors of Stephanie Watkins's home in Overbrook are standing open. If proximity is the key to diversification, tonight should go a long way toward helping the jlp meet its goals. In Watkins's handsomely appointed dining room, waitresses are working their way through a throng of women, toting trays of satay chicken and skewered shrimp.

Rhoda McKinney-Jones smiles graciously as she greets newcomers in the foyer, but she admits she's nervous. This event is her baby, and it's an audacious one. The reception is in honor of Deborah Brittain, outgoing president of the Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc., who happens to be black. Invitees include not only members of the jlp, but also women who belong to the local chapters of three other national organizations: The Links Inc.; African-American family organization Jack & Jill of America, Inc.; and Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation's oldest black sorority.

“This opportunity to honor Deborah and her accomplishments-I really see it as historic,” says McKinney-Jones. “The past three league presidents-Annamarie Hellebusch, Margie Patches, Anne Samek Hopkins-have all been open to change. 'What do we do?' they'd ask. “What's the best way to get everybody together?' The Multiculturalism Committee talked about what we could do. I don't want to use the word 'excuse.' But I thought that honoring Deborah would be the perfect opportunity for us to come together.”

The members of the Multiculturalism Committee are diverse, by jlp standards. Celebrating with them are president Susan Van Allen and a host of other officers. Sage Bronzino is here, wearing an outfit from the thrift shop: “Brand-new Ferragamo shoes for $12!” she boasts.

After an hour in which the hundred or so guests mill, sip soft drinks and nibble hors d'oeuvres, McKinney-Jones summons them into a room where Brittain, a slim woman in elegant white pants and a gray Nehru jacket, is waiting. McKinney-Jones, who is wearing pearls, gives a glowing introduction, as do Alexia Hudson and Hellebusch. Then Brittain speaks.

“I will be disappointed if after tonight there wouldn't be a collaboration between the Junior League and a few of the organizations that are here,” she says in measured tones. “Because the history of the league is a history of collaboration. The power of women working together is what is needed to make changes in our communities.” She runs down a long list of stellar league accomplishments. “All it takes is tenacity-staying with it,” she tells the crowd. “All it takes is somebody to say, 'I will.'”

There are times when it seems easy to sneer at the Junior League, but this isn't one of them. The members gathered in this room are dead serious about the good works they do, and about moving past the image of wealth and privilege their name evokes. Unless you've been putting in volunteer hours at a shelter for ex-welfare moms lately, shut up about the pearls. “You know,” Rhoda McKinney-Jones mentions, “Links, Jack & Jill and Alpha Kappa Alpha are all sponsored organizations. You have to be invited to join. It's ironic, don't you think?”

Not surprisingly, some of the ladies who lunch have been complaining lately that the league isn't what it used to be. “Nowadays, we have e-mail and voicemail,” says Helen Weary. “We hold shorter meetings, night meetings. We don't meet for lunch and have it go on through the afternoon. Older members fear the league is losing social opportunities-that there's less face-to-face time. But the reality is that the organization changes to fit the needs of the people involved. The members today have had more education. They're bringing a lot more to the volunteer table. But we still have women coming together, finding a common interest, having an idea, doing a service, and then going on to something else.”

“It has not been difficult to be a member of this organization,” McKinney-Jones insists. “There is an honesty about them. At the 90th anniversary celebration, an older lady came up to me and said, 'Are you a member of the league?' When I told her I was, she said, 'Oh, that's wonderful! We need more … '” She pauses for a good three seconds, then finishes: “'Young people!'” And she laughs and laughs.