Reflecting on the PTA Legacy: A Challenge for 21st Century Leaders
Sandra L. Zelno, Consultant to the Pennsylvania PTA
Chapter 3. Build It and They Will Come
Many new products and initiatives were developed by entrepreneurs in the 1890’s. It was full speed ahead - a time filled with great prospects for innovation. Many seized the opportunity to market ideas, but the concept of, “Build It and They Will Come,” only worked when ideas were perceived to fill a critical need and were marketed properly. Inventions included such practical items as the rotary dial, the bottle cap, and the zipper. Baseball games, volleyball games (originally known as mintonette), and cycling clubs became popular leisure activities, but were they really difficult to market? Was cycling into the country on a Sunday morning a “hard sell” compared to implementing national policy for children being exploited and ignored? While many entrepreneurs filled certain needs for the country, others like Alice Birney and Phoebe Hearst stole their passion and their hearts. They were building a national organization dedicated solely to children.
The first meeting didn’t happen overnight. It was careful planning,outreach, and smart public relations that made it a success. About a dozen organizers worked relentlessly for two years to meticulously market their idea and build a meeting addressing critical needs. It would take place at the Arlington Hotel on February 17, 1897. The foundation was laid in Mrs. Hearst’s Washington, D.C. home. Consistent with her ongoing financial support, she provided envelopes, stationery, and the use of her personal secretary. Her financial backing for noted lecturers made for an exciting agenda. The May/June 1996 issue of Our Children estimates her generous financial contributions exceeded $32,000 just for sponsoring the first Congress. Imagine what that amount of money would equal by today’s standards!
Mrs. Hearst’s personal friendship with the First Lady led to a White House reception for the delegates hosted by Mrs. Grover (Frances) Cleveland during the three day event. Handwritten minutes from an organizing meeting held eight (8) days prior to the event shows discussion on how “cards of admission” to the White House would be distributed to delegates. Given the high level security measures in place today, just imagine an organization now deciding how they would admit delegates to the White House.
Using Mrs. Birney’s previous advertising experience to market the historic event, Mrs. Hearst tapped into her son’s influence in journalism. William Randolph Hearst’s early years as a media mogul plummeted the planned meeting to unprecedented levels. One unidentified newspaper clipping stated that women who wanted to attend were “anxious to become leaders.” They made the front page of the New York Times and numerous papers around the United States. Children were finally making news!
Organizers wrote solicitation letters to prominent citizens around the country. Thousands of circulars were sent to all leading women’s clubs and societies including the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Among the many agenda items being discussed would be day care centers for working mothers in urban areas, kindergarten for all children, sex education, and juvenile justice. Much to their surprise, they expected a few hundred delegates and over 2,000 appeared. Their meetings spilled over from the Arlington Hotel into the First Baptist Church and the Washington Armory. It was standing room only! The first convocation was a success, the mission had been adopted, parents had been trained, officers had been elected, and an organization was born that would finally put the needs of children in the national forefront. The National Congress of Mothers had been founded.
Officers who would drive the agenda of the new organization included: Alice Birney, President; Phoebe Hearst, 1st Vice-President; and Mrs. Adlai (Letitia) Stevenson, 2nd Vice-President (wife of the Vice-President of U.S.). Also listed among officers assuming leadership roles were: Mrs. John R. Lewis, Vice-President; Mrs. Mary E. Mumford, Vice-President; Miss Mary Louisa Butler, Corresponding Secretary; and Miss Emma Morton, Treasurer. After Mrs. Birney was elected, two curly-haired children appeared and ran onto the stage to greet their mother. Mrs. Birney left the stage to spend a few moments with her children whom she had not seen in some days, once again publicly reaffirming that children would always lead the way with Mrs. Birney at the helm. A few months after she assumed office, her husband passed away, leaving her widowed for the second time. Mrs. Birney raised her three children as a widow and continued to serve as President until 1902 when she resigned for health reasons.
They were up and running. As documented in the February, 1973 issue of PTA Today, the first National Office was one room rented in Washington, D.C. in April 1897. Furniture and office supplies cost $83.30. A report on expenditures shows that $1.65 was spent for an oak screen, $1.75 for a dozen towels, 75 cents for an oak water table, 95 cents for a clock, and “two bits for a cuspidor.” Obviously, men were also going to be recruited! The city would also be the site for the next few conventions. The second was held in 1898 and the business included the historical adoption of a Constitution and Bylaws. A third convention was almost cancelled in 1899 when a snowstorm blanked the eastern coast, but instead only delayed the meeting one day. Building the organization from the ground floor was the beginning. But who would provide the national leadership to sustain it for years to come?
The primary lesson to be learned from this is that success only comes from a tremendous commitment to the cause, careful planning, collaboration, and the ability to reach out to those who have the power to make change. The founders were clear on their principles and made sure the media articulated them to the world. Are we as today’s leaders telling the “PTA Story” to make gains for the children placed in our care? As “custodians” of this organization, are we reaching out far enough to those who have the power and influence to make positive change for kids? Those are the questions that should guide us daily as we provide leadership for the PTA. Just because it was built doesn’t mean it will always be here. Sustaining and strengthening what was built is the challenge that has been given to each of us.
The March/April 2014 issue of PTA in Pennsylvania will address the next chapter on the progress of the National Congress of Mothers as we examine how Pennsylvania would contribute visionary leadership to this incredible story. Stay tuned for Chapter 4.“Pennsylvania: A True Keystone for Kids.”