Founded in 1901 by Mary Harriman, a socially conscious nineteen-year-old New York City debutante, the Junior League has gone from being a white-glove ladies’ philanthropy group to a dynamic, international civic organization. Case in point is the ninety-year-old Junior League of Stamford-Norwalk (JLSN), now 400 volunteers strong and actively addressing social issues such as childhood literacy and the educational achievement gap here in Fairfield County. “Our members are strong and powerful women who are always willing to raise their hands for public service,” says Sarah Neumann of Darien, the chapter’s outgoing president. “And as we look back, it’s amazing to see where history has put us in the past ninety years. We’re really a reflection of the changing role of women in society and public service.” As JLSN prepares to celebrate its anniversary during a May 11 gala at New Canaan’s Waveny House, here’s a then-and-now snapshot of the thoroughly modern local chapter and its parent organization.
Eleven women become the JLSN’s charter members (five are shown at top right). By year’s end the group is forty strong. One of its earliest campaigns is the development of Braille courses in collaboration with the Stamford Red Cross.
1930s & ’40s
As Junior League of New York member and social activist, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt leads by example during the Great Depression, JLSN is commended for its Unemployed Relief Campaign. Members keep pitching in by founding Stamford Hospital’s Gift Shop and Hostess Desk, the Child Guidance Center of Stamford and a children’s theater program.
As its service commitments grow, the JLSN hosts its first debutante cotillion in 1958 to support its efforts. (Years later, the group will stop sponsoring cotillions in favor of more inclusive fundraisers.) Meanwhile, JLSN members from Greenwich form their own Junior League chapter, which is still vibrant today.
1960s & ’70s
With its pulse on urban issues that defined the era, JLSN takes a lead supporting inner-city youth initiatives, including a summer- jobs program in Stamford. JLSN also founds a thrift shop and launches the Winterfair Market that continues today.
Junior League of Phoenix member Sandra Day O’Connor joins the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, while league members Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush serve as consecutive First Ladies. Closer to home, a modern JLSN ends its longstanding practice of requiring new members to be sponsored by existing ones, thereby opening its doors to a broader cross-section of women.
The Junior League inducts Deborah Brittain as its first African-American president and marks its centennial year in 2001 with poet Maya Angelou and feminist Gloria Steinem speaking at its national convention.
JLSN begins its five-year Diaper Co-op, distributing more than 300,000 diapers and investing more than $100,000 to ensure parents in need have access to clean nappies. The project continues as a legacy campaign in cooperation with Norwalk’s Malta House and the Diaper Bank of New Haven.
In a true sign of the times, JLSN’s 400 active members (165 hail from New Canaan, Darien and Rowayton) balance their volunteerism with commitments to work and family. Some 60 percent work full- or part-time at companies including UBS, RBS and Deloitte. Several JLSN presidents have gone on to careers as leaders of local nonprofits.
The Bottom Line $2.5 Million
That’s the amount of money JLSN has contributed to the community in its ninety years of service.