• Reflecting on the PTA Legacy: A Challenge for 21st Century Leaders

     Sandra L. Zelno, Consultant to the Pennsylvania PTA

    Chapter 1. An Idea and a Dream


    The year was 1895.  Grover Cleveland was President of the United States.  Only three percent (3%) of all Americans attended  college.  The average annual income for an American family was $411.  The average annual public school teacher’s salary was $298.  The Jungle Book and the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes made the list of popular books.  Henry Ford had not even officially manufactured his first car.  Jell-O and Juicy Fruit gum were hot products.  Yet, much more was going on in America that was of critical concern to families and children.

    The Industrial Revolution had been occurring in the United States over the last few decades and marked a major turning point in  history.  There was a huge wave of immigrants to America, and factories emerged recruiting workers willing to work for pennies.  Children became employed in sweatshops, often working long hours and under dangerous conditions.  Large numbers of children were dying from childhood diseases.  Many had encounters with the law and drifted into delinquency, only to be dealt with unfairly in a judicial system with little regard for the rehabilitation of children.  A deep concern about the children living in poverty spread among upper and middle classes, but no nationwide efforts had yet been organized to address these issues. 

    With a new century on the horizon, one individual concerned about the plight of children was Alice McLellan.  Born in Marietta, Georgia in 1858, Alice was nurtured in an affluent home filled with love and books.  Her family moved to Atlanta where she was able to attend private schools and completed her high school graduation at the age of fifteen.  She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts where girls were encouraged to be missionaries, teachers, and mothers.  She left Mount Holyoke  after only a year, taught school briefly, and married a young attorney named Alonzo White.  Before their first child was born, Alonzo died and Alice was widowed in 1881 with a baby on the way at the age of twenty-two (22).  Her first daughter was born four months after the death of her husband.  While she had hoped to eventually pursue a career in medicine, she returned home to Atlanta briefly where her mother helped her with her newborn daughter.  She then moved to New York City where she resisted all tradition and supported her young daughter and herself by selling advertising.

    Her well-deserved high professional visibility in New York as Alice Birney White led to her meeting and marrying Theodore Birney in 1892 when she was thirty-three (33) years old. After marrying a lawyer and grandson of a famous abolitionist, they moved to Washington, D. C. where he practiced law with his brother who was serving in the U. S. District Attorney’s Office. 

    By 1895, they had two more daughters who became the catalyst for Alice’s mission to work on behalf of all children in the nation.  She had deep-seeded feelings about parents needing literature to guide them in their child-rearing efforts.  While many women’s  organizations were forming at this time to address the poverty and help children, Alice wanted to take it far beyond looking at children living in poor homes.  She was a perpetual scholar and learned about the advantages and philosophies of Kindergarten education and the strong links between the education of the child and the education of the parent.  With the world rapidly changing, she felt children attending school only until the fifth grade was unacceptable.

    She looked at her surroundings in Washington, D.C. and realized the powerful force the United States Congress was. Congress was tackling policy centering on industry, transportation, and a host of other initiatives - but no one was taking the leadership role in making policy for children a priority.  If the United States Congress could be so powerful, what about another kind of Congress?   She dreamed about a  National Congress for Mothers, solely dedicated to improvements in the life of the child and devoted  herself to her new idea and goal. Alice’s marriage and social status allowed her family to live very comfortably.  It would have been easy for her to let someone else pursue the cause for children and simply enjoy her own family.  Yet, she was relentless in marketing her dream with all the passion and expertise needed to draw national attention to the cause for children and educating mothers.

    We all know how this story ends, but documenting the journey that brought us to today’s PTA will be valuable.  Let’s flash forward to 2013. Yes, things have changed dramatically in the United States since 1895.  PTA Founders surely would not recognize the world in which we raise children today.  The automobile, mass transit, television, the computer, and a host of other inventions have brought our world a little closer and given us so many advantages.  Numerous accomplishments have been made for children, yet the stakes for children have never been higher.  Public education, health, safety, juvenile justice, and child welfare in general remain on our radar screen as areas where advocacy will always be needed.  Each decade brings unexpected challenges and demands.  The beginning of each school year reminds us that today’s leaders need to continue to dream and figure out new ideas for sustaining the PTA in the 21st Century.

    Yes, the PTA legacy given to us is an extraordinary gift.  As the new school year begins, let’s keep new ideas and dreams for children at the heart of the local PTA.  Alice McLellan White Birney had a great start in life but was a woman who also knew adversity.  She was widowed at twenty-two (22) and gave birth to a child four months later.  Against all odds in the early 1880’s, she ventured to New York City with her infant daughter and became a very successful single-parent working in the advertising field.  Remarrying the next decade and with two more toddlers, she decided to be the one to find a national voice for children and their mothers.  Perhaps sometimes working on only fumes and fears, there is no doubt she became a woman who changed the world for children. Her passion guided her in chasing her dream for children, even in an era when her own children would have advantages and when women she was recruiting to help her did not have the right to vote.  Think about that.   Each of us should be willing to search for our “Inner Alice” - that part of us unafraid to take risks for children even when opposition to doing so exists. 

    The November/December 2013 issue of PTA in Pennsylvania will address the next chapter in the formation of the National PTA as we document the action Mrs. Birney took to market her ideas, practicing good advocacy every step of the way.  Stay tuned for Chapter 2. Shopping Around the Dream.