My Life in the DAR
The woman next to me is dressed in aqua from earrings to elbows, and her left shoulder is resplendent with a cascading ribbon of DAR medals. She has been registered as a Daughter of the American Revolution for fourteen years, she says, and she drove all day yesterday to get here from a suburb of Toledo.
We're in Constitution Hall, and more than 3,000 DAR members are settling into their specially reserved chairs as the US Army Band plays spirited Sousa marches. The air is heavy with patriotism and pomp, for this is the opening ceremony of the DAR's 93rd Continental Congress.
Because I'm taking notes, the woman next to me asks if I'm a journalist. I say I am a prospective DAR member, and that my name has just been accepted by a local DAR chapter. That's true. What I don't admit is that, yes, she guessed correctly; I am also writing an article about the DAR.
"Oh, you will love the DAR,"she exclaims. Her face is kind. She is interested. "All the nice friends you'll meet. And the genealogical research is terrific. Are you going to page?"
We happen to be surrounded by pages—women working as ticket-takers and flag-bearers&emdash;all DAR members under 35 who don't mind settling for subsidiary roles at big DAR events. Paging is one of several ritualistic ways to express DAR involvement. Pages always wear white, and tonight&emdash;in their long, white dresses&emdash;they seem conspicuously pretty and cheerful in their subservience.
"I'm undecided,"I say. "White makes my teeth look yellower."
"Oh, don't be foolish,"says my acquaintance. "You'll learn so much."
We stand with others to applaud as an enormous American flag unfurls from the ceiling and as President General Sarah King&emdash;preceded by eight pages&emdash;strides into the hall all sashes and sequins. The DAR has a way of exaggerating pageantry, sometimes to the point of absurdity, but I must confess that the flag and the music give me goosebumps.
We remain standing for the pledge of allegiance. "Put your hand over your heart,"prompts the woman beside me.
"Now get your elbow out! Stand straighter! We'll have to teach you something."
So they did.
I learned that the DAR is a more viable organization than many of us realize, but that its good works are perpetually undercut by its public image. I also learned that while the stereotypes aren't quite fair, most young, emancipated women won't find a comfortable role or place within the DAR, which is the largest women's group in the US.
"I can get plenty of fares near Constitution Hall if the DAR's in town,"said the cab driver who picked me up that night near the neoclassical hall.
"I don't know that those ladies will tip very well,"I forewarned him.
"Heh. But you can usually get four or five of them in a cab,"he said.
The organization's patrician and elitist image&emdash;which flies in the face of sacred principles, freedom and equality not the least among them&emdash;keeps potentially useful new members at bay (despite their link to the fighters of the American Revolution by ancestry) and causes the general public to lump the DAR with organizations that are blatantly racist and reactionary. The DAR spends as much time trying to combat this image problem as it does giving away its manuals on good citizenship.
But nothing seems to work. The DAR could come up with a cure for cancer, and people would still ask, "What about Marian Anderson?" In 1939, the DAR barred the famous black contralto from singing in DAR Constitution Hall; in protest, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership. Anderson sang in Constitution Hall four years later, but the damage was done.
Today the Daughters find themselves the butt of jokes. "The Daughters in this image love antiques, ideological antiques in particular,"wrote Peggy Anderson, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer, in her analysis of the DAR, The Daughters. "They care more about their ancestors than about the living poor. They are most at home in cemeteries where they hobble around their tennis shoes scrutinizing headstones and making little notes on the backs of church programs."
That may be unfair. After all, it is no sin to get old, go to church, or study genealogy. As for the poor, the DAR does not come up short on good deeds. On an annual budget of $3.3 million, the organization supports worthy schools and needy causes, assists American Indians, and runs distinguished archives and a renowned museum.
But the image lingers, and close association with the membership does not erase it. The DAR hasn't surveyed its members for seventeen years, when four out of five members were 50 or older, but&emdash;to put it mildly&emdash;there is no evidence of a youth movement. "They won't let the young ones lead,"according to a junior DAR member in the District of Columbia who ran for an office and lost. "I was told in so many words that I had plenty of time to serve and that I should let some of the older members have their crack at it."
As recently as six months ago, eligible black members were not welcomed into the society, and members under 35 were relegated to the status of handmaidens. Can the DAR change? Does it care to?
"You will like our chapter. We're very active. Not like some of the others that just play cards,"says a DAR regent whose chapter meets in the dining room of an apartment house near the Washington Cathedral. There are 39 chapters in the District of Columbia, the organization's hometown. The DAR was founded here in 1895 and maintains headquarters at 1776 D Street, Northwest. DAR membership rose to 212,000 this year despite 4,000 member deaths, the annual average. All told there are 3,150 little clubs, or chapters, worldwide dedicated to the original three-fold purpose: to perpetuate the memory and spirit of men and women who achieved American independence; to promote institution for the general diffusion of knowledge; and to cherish, maintain, and extend the institutions of American freedom.
Member participation is not impressive. Only 38 percent of DAR members find time to attend meetings. "I only come to one meeting a year,"a Daughter once told me. The, she enunciated carefully, as if this explained it: "I've got a husband."
I must confess, the Spanish-speaking waiters serving lunch at my first DAR function seemed awfully virile and swarthy next to the powdry women at my table. At first I couldn't figure out why the waiters and bus boys were winking at me. Then I realized that at 29, I was the only one to flirt with. In fact, I felt I had more in common with the kitchen help than I had with the women with whom I chatted through the dessert course. And I was trying.
This particular chapter was in its 69th year. Two charter members were present; one used a cane, the other a walker. Many of them could recall the afternoon when&emdash;for the chapter's 25th anniversary&emdash;they nearly asphyxiated themselves spraying white paper doilies silver.
"You're a working girl, I guess,"said the woman on my right. "Anabel used to work. Anabel! You used to sell real estate, was that it?"
"I didn't hear you; I was chewing,"Anabel said. "These dinner rolls are hard as hell."
" I was telling our prospective member that you were in real estate."
"Until my broker drank himself to death."
"My broker drank himself to death!"
"Ha! He must have been fun to work for!"
It went on like that. There wasn't any talk of national defense or the growing Communist threat&emdash;issues that continue to occupy the DAR&emdash;but maybe I caught the members in their clubwoman mode. Our speaker was a blind woman, a friend of one of the members, who had just returned from the Holy Land. She read a little speech about the splendors of the Middle East.
"That li'l girl is blind!"one woman at our table stage-whispered.
"She's reading that speech in Braille. I can't believe it!"said another.
Only one other woman under 35 was present; she'd left her two toddlers at home with a sitter that morning while she shopped at a big sale at Rizik's.
Generally speaking, DAR members aren't independently wealthy, nor are they socially prominent. Their engagement rings are often large, but he rest of their jewelry&emdash;the brooches and so forth&emdash;are costume. They watch their household budget. Annual membership dues went up to $22 this year, and members on fixed incomes were upset.
One could think of the DAR enlistment as a defensive gesture by women who feel they've got something to protect. Phyllis Schlafly, who writes regularly of the DAR's magazine, has been the consolidating voice for many of them. I was uncomfortable, I guess, because I was the only Daughter there who'd arrived unencumbered&emdash;without a husband, a child, or any physical ailment. All I had was an article idea.
I was told: Now, there's nothing rude or wrong about shopping for the right chapter. So, two weeks later, I found myself in the china-laden living room of another DAR member who lives on upper Connecticut Avenue near Van Ness. About fifteen of us got so sedated on pecan pie and party mints we could hardly stay awake through the reading of the minutes. Then Mrs. Simmons, regent of the Louisa Adams chapter (the chapter scheduled to accept me this November), cleared her throat to speak. He was wearing a red hat as large as a tea tray.
"You know, ladies, I was a little upset that no one chose to run for chapter regent this year, which means that I'm obliged to serve another term. And as many of you know, I'm running for a national office, which means I may have to hold two positions at once."
Her speech didn't seem to stir anyone. Many of the members just stared deeply into the palms of their hands.
" I can't believe the apathy!"said chapter registrar Gladys Keen after Mrs. Simmons hit her wooden gavel on a television table and adjourned the meeting. "It's not that much work. What's with these people?" Mrs. Keen is a solid, athletically built woman with a Gertrude Stein haircut. She can trace her family back to seven Revolutionary War officers, and she wears ancestor bars down her shoulder, one for each.
Mrs. Keen and Mrs. Simmons were happy to see me, even though I was the only woman in the room wearing trousers. "Maybe you can be my page!" Mrs. Simmons added.
I handed over my father's old application to the Children of the American Revolution (CAR), which my grandmother Cunningham had so carefully made out, and Mrs. Keen said she'd verify my papers at headquarters. She does genealogical research there on Fridays.
The following Monday, she phoned. "You're one of the Dents of Charles County, Maryland,"she said. "When I saw that I knew we really had something. It'll be a while before you can vote, of course, but you're in. You're in."
I begin to fantasize about taking over my chapter. They needed me. I could lead. I could dominate something! I'd bring in my journalist friends to speak. I'd see that issues of considerable circumstance were discussed: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Third world problems. ("Today, ladies, we'll be listening to some reggae music from Jamaica.") I'd make changes, and my chapter would love me for it.
Every DAR program or publication is padded with the names of helpful members who served in some subsidiary function: banquet chairmen, corridor hostesses, flower-fund monitors, lost-and-found vice chairmen, tellers and committee assistants by the dozens. There's something appealing to the Daughters about being identified, as though they're the main event, or at least the best part of it.
DAR meetings and social functions are times when men are notably absent. Those men who do appear wear HODAR buttons (Husband of DAR), a title that in DAR parlance does not ring with importance. Men come to speak, of course. Vice President George Bush spoke at this year's congress, as did Alex Haley, author of Roots. But it takes a strong man to stand tall before large masses of DAR members. The banquets entertainment at this year's state congress included a barbershop quartet, for instance, and one couldn't help noticing the sea of smug faces as the men on stage sang and gestured comically with their cheap straw hats. The Daughters had those boys right where they wanted them.
Why do women join? They join to please their mothers. They join to make friends. They join for diversion. They join because they want to belong. Gladys Keen joined with the encouragement of friends from the General Accounting Office, where she used to work. "I've always loved history, so the genealogical research is all I care about. You can shuck the rest,"she says.
DAR members identify with their ancestors to some extent; it's a matter of pride and no reason to fault them. These have not been proud times for "wobbly WASPs,"as Women's Wear Daily calls them. It's more stylish to be fresh from the melting pot, or "ethnic." And while older DAR members are certainly not vexed by this situation, some younger members must be. My lineage had been a source of embarrassment since adolescence because I'd always envisioned "my people"as slave beaters.
This proved not to be the case, and I have the DAR to thank for leading me to the truth. It happened in the DAR library around noon one Friday when I was sitting at one of the old tables across from Mrs. Keen, reading my Revolutionary War ancestor's last will and testament, dated 1809.
It said, "I give my daughter Ann H. Wilkinson the use of a little boy called Dennis aged five years the seventh day of June next until he arrives at the age of sixteen when it is my wish he may be found to a trade for a term of five years at the expiration of term it is my will and desire he may be free."
Free? I kept reading.
"I give to my son George Dent the use of a child called Thomas Jefferson aged two years the twenty-ninth day of January next until he arrives to the age of sixteen when it is my wish he may be bound to a trade until he arrives at the age of twenty-one years at which time it is my will and desire he may be free."
He freed them all. Three children.
"Mrs. Keen! Mrs. Keen!"I whispered. The DAR library is kept unbearably quiet.
Mrs. Keen looked up. The shadow from the table lamp's shade between us fell across her forehead.
"It says here that my ancestor free his slaves! In 1809! Was that common?"
Mrs. Keen peered into the book I'd been reading. Then she shrugged.
"Some of them did. Some of them didn't."
Surely, she could see I was exuberant. A tremendous weight had been lifted. But other people's ancestors are never as interesting as one's own.
I looked around. Nearly 30 women were sitting there, reading and researching. Genealogical research can be exasperating; progress is slow and unsteady. Yet here they all were, reading glasses low on their noses, mouths puckered tight. Were they finding themselves in their lineage? It's such an odd notion.
"I give to my son Thomas M. Dent the use of a boy called JacobŠ"
I was happy for another minute. Then it seized me: What if all those black slave children he freed were his kids?
Lena S. Ferguson is black. Her skin is the color of coffee with cream in it. She has a beguiling way of smiling when she speaks. She is not a gate-crasher. She and her nephew Maurice A. Barboza, whose skin is the same shade, didn't mean to cause trouble, but they wanted the DAR to realize two things: first, that some 5,000 blacks served in the American Revolution, and second, that our white forefathers sired a lot of little half-black kids. Ferguson's Revolutionary ancestor was white, as a matter of fact.
"I wanted to make sure that no other black or minority member would have to go through what I went through to gain membership,"Ferguson says.
"We wanted to give the DAR a remedy. We thought we could do something positive,"says Barboza, a lobbyist with the American Bar Association.
Ferguson tried to get in to a local DAR chapter for nearly three years. She went to teas and meetings&emdash;just as I did&emdash;but was consistently given the cold shoulder. Members of the Mary Washington chapter&emdash;one of the Washington area's largest&emdash;are said to have told Margaret M. Johnston (for a long time, Ferguson's only sponsor) that a black in the ranks might roil the waters.
"It was made clear to me that she was not welcome because she is black,"says Johnston, a former League of Women Voters board member.
Ferguson's plight became a controversy of Marian Anderson proportions at the society's last congress, complete with low-lying chatter of sabotage and President General Sarah King's impeachment. DC City Councilman Dave Clarke talked of denying the organization its property-tax exemption, which costs DC about three-quarters of a million dollars a year. But President General King carried the day, and Lena Ferguson became a Daughter. "They're followers,"says Ferguson when recalling how tough it was to find two sponsors. "For some of them, the chapter's like a little world. I could see how important it was to them."
But Sarah King was a little different, she says. "The first thing she asked me when I met her was 'What do you want?'"says Ferguson. "So I told her. And you know, I discovered that she has a little streak of independence in her. She's a bit of a rebel herself."
Within a few weeks, the DAR's lawyers (under Mrs. King's direction) drew up a series of anti-discriminatory bylaw amendments. In May, a letter was dispatched to all 3,150 DAR chapters: No chapter may discriminate against an applicant on the basis of race or creed. All black applicants, henceforward, will be referred to the lineage research committee. An ethics committee has been established and a consultant hired to trace and further identify black freedom fighters.
"Mrs. King embraced it. She turned the corner,"Barboza says. "We are very pleased." Says Ferguson, "I'd like to think she did it out of the kindness of her own heart."
"You certainly were in the hot seat at congress,"I said to Mrs. King upon meeting her.
"Yes, but I got off it,"she said. "When a conflagration like this rises up, one must have the strength to quell it."
Once, when I was standing in the DAR library, admiring an oil portrait of the organization's co-founder Mary Lockwood, a DAR museum docent walked up behind me and broke the silence: "There is such a remarkable amount of determination in the eyes,"she said. "Don't you think so? Just look at that face!"
Mrs. Lockwood and Miss Mary Desha founded the DAR in anger. The Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) wouldn't recognize lady patriots, nor would it accept female members. "If there were true patriotic women, why is not the patriotism of the country broad and just enough to commemorate the names of women also?"Mrs. Lockwood wrote the Washington Post in 1890. Today, ironically, the SAR seems very definitely on the decline, while the DAR flourishes.
The biggest irony, as Peggy Anderson points out in her book, is that "in a country founded as a republic, the DAR discovered fertile territory for an organization based on descent. In a nation which eschews monarchial trappings, the DAR has struck responsive chords."
Patriotic organizations were popular in the late 1890's and were seen as sound secular ways to unite the middle class. Proud, well-educated, upper-middle-class, women naturally assumed the task of indoctrinating newcomers. Their husbands were out working, exerting influence in the real world, and the wives had little else&emdash;save mothering&emdash;to do to define themselves. Susan B. Anthony was a DAR member, and the DAR had a more rebellious bent to it then, although many members might argue that standing in favor of a nuclear-arms build-up today makes a woman as much an activist as was a turn-of-the-century suffragist.
The Daughters' clout, while not exactly formidable, carried weight throughout World War I&emdash;a cause it wholeheartedly support with cash contributions. The DAR began to fall form favor in the late 1920's when someone discovered a ridiculously overdrawn list of Communist sympathizers that DAR members had been compiling. It included "the names of some well-known crusaders against communism and socialism and also a few prominent men who happened to be married to Daughters of the American RevolutionŠThe blacklists, as they came to be called, brought ridicule down upon the Daughters' heads,"Peggy Anderson wrote.
Then came the Marian Anderson episode in 1939. In 1956, when the DAR stood behind restricted immigration and against school desegregation, the society fell even further in public esteem. Since then, the DAR has urged the United States to get out of the UN, objected to formation of the Peace Corps, and opposed water fluoridation. Today, the Daughters devote much of their political energy to support for a stronger national defense.
Mrs. King is in the second years of a three-year term. Unlike a lot of previous president generals, she didn't involve herself much with the DAR until she was 40. She was too busy monitoring politics in Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, a retired Bell Telephone executive. She actually ran for a state legislative office. "Even though I lost,"she says, "I got to stand up for my beliefs.
"Freedom won't preserve itself. And we can't let our ancestors outdo us. We must continue in our heritage of service. We must raise our children to lead. If we raise our children to be doctors and lawyers, we won't have the leaders we so desperately need, and there won't be anywhere for those doctors and lawyers to practice."
Fair enough. But what of her followers, the DAR's membership? For all intents and purposes, do they seem to be living the dreams of democracy? Are they getting her message?
"Well, I told them all at the end of congress that I hope they were going home with a little bit more pride in their membership. I mean, the biggest revolution we've ever had took place last week!
"And yet, too many women don't take that challenge, that voice. They just establish their lineage, and then forget about it. If we had everyone out there working and active, there would beno stopping us. We'd be off and running, I can promise you that."
"There has got to be some life blown into the chapters,"says Ferguson's sponsor, Margaret M. Johnston. "The District of Columbia chapters are in something of a crisis. There's not enough leadership. But now that this racial thing has cleared up, we can get going. I've convinced my next-door neighbor to join."
Lena Ferguson pipes up, "And I've been approached by three other black women. We're going to get something worked out. The Elizabeth Jackson chapter in Washington is supposed to be active and good. You should come with us."
"Will you want me to page in a white uniform?" I want to know right off. "I mean, honestly, I can't do it!"
Lena Ferguson laughs. "Oh no, oh no! We won't ask you to do that!"
So I'm considering it.