AJLI History

The Junior League Movement:  A History of Growth and Community Service

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In 1901, Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old New York City debutante with a social conscience, founded the first Junior League. Moved by the suffering she saw around her, Harriman mobilized a group of 80 other young women - hence the name "Junior" League - to work to improve the squalid conditions in which immigrants lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Mary Harriman's vision for improving communities by using the energy and commitment of trained volunteers caught on. The second Junior League was started in Boston, MA in 1907 and was soon followed by the founding of the Brookyn, NY Junior League in 1910. The rest is history...

During the 1910s, Junior Leagues shifted their focus from settlement house work to social, health and educational issues that affected the community at large. The Junior League of Brooklyn successfully petitioned the Board of Education to provide free lunches in city schools. During World War I, the San Francisco Junior League formed a motor delivery service that served as a model for the Red Cross Motor Corps.

In 1921, The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. was formed to provide professional support to the Leagues. During the 1920s, the Junior League of Chicago pioneered children's theatre and the idea was taken up by more than 100 Leagues across the country.

Junior Leagues responded to the Depression in the 1930s by opening nutrition centers and milk stations. They operated baby clinics, day nurseries for working mothers, birth control clinics and training schools for nurses. Junior Leagues also established volunteer bureaus to recruit, train and place much needed volunteers in the community.

During World War II, Junior League members played a major role in the war effort by chairing hundreds of war-related organizations in virtually every city where Junior Leagues operated.

In the 1950s, nearly 150 Junior Leagues were involved in remedial reading centers, diagnostic testing programs and programs for gifted and challenged children. Leagues collaborated in the development of educational television and were among the first to promote quality programming for children. In 1952, the Mexico City League created a comprehensive, internationally recognized center for the blind. By the end of the decade, Junior Leagues were involved in over 300 arts projects and partnerships to establish children's museums in many cities. 

During the 1960s, many Junior Leagues added environmental issues to their agendas. The Junior League of Toledo produced the educational film, Fate of a River, a report on the devastating effects of water pollution. Leagues also established programs addressing the education, housing, social services and employment needs of urban residents.

Throughout the 1970s, the Association expanded its participation in public affairs issues, especially in the areas of child health and juvenile justice. In 1973, almost 200 Leagues worked with the National Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the U.S. Justice Department on a four-year program that sought to improve the criminal justice system.

During the 1980s, Junior Leagues gained recognition for national advocacy efforts to improve the nation's child welfare system. Leagues helped gain passage of the first federal legislation to address domestic violence. Leagues also developed a campaign that actively and comprehensively tackles the impact of alcohol abuse on women. The campaign, called Woman to Woman, involved over 100 League communities.

In 1989, the Association was presented with the prestigious U.S. President's Volunteer Action Award.

In the early 1990s, 230 Leagues participated in the public awareness campaign to encourage early childhood immunization called Don't Wait to Vaccinate. At the end of the decade, the Leagues prepared to launch a public awareness campaign on domestic violence.

In 2000, with nearly 200,000 members in Canada, Great Britain, Mexico and the U.S., the 296 Junior Leagues of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. began to plan for their 2001 Centennial celebration of the Junior League movement.

In 2001, AJLI was named the co-chair of the U.S. Steering Committee for the International Year of the Volunteer, along with the Points of Light Foundation. The International Year of the Volunteer coincided with the Centennial Founding of the Junior Leagues.

To honor this anniversary, the Association launched its Centennial Celebrations at a major Annual Conference in New York City where the first Junior League was founded. Throughout the year, Junior Leagues in communities throughout Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Great Britain commemorated the Centennial with exhibits, events and community programs. The Centennial year closed at an Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas, where the Association introduced a new branding campaign to create a positive, shared identity for all 293 Junior Leagues in four countries as they enter their second century of service. By 2004, more than 80% of the Leagues had adopted the "Women Building Better Communities" tagline.

In 2006, over 225 Junior Leagues participated in the lauch of the Junior League's Kids in the Kitchen, an initiative to address the problems associated with childhood obesity and poor nutrition. The initiative was taken on long-term in 2007, with over 255 Junior Leagues actively participating across four countries.

In 2008, The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. won the Award of Excellence in the 2008 Associations Advance America Awards program, a national competition sponsored by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and The Center for Leadership, Washington, D.C. for its Kids in the Kitchen program.

In 2009, New York City Junior League member, Carolyn Maloney, introduces legislation to establish a National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C. At Annual Conference 2009 The Association adopts a new Vision Statement to better reflect our aspirations for our future:  The Junior League: Women Around the World as Catalysts for Lasting Community Change.  Also in this year, a Steering Committee is appointed to lead the Association through a comprehensive strategic planning process designed to chart the future of The Junior League.  Dubbed the Strategic Roadmap, the plan outlines the five strategic questions AJLI must answer to differentiate The Junior League in an increasingly crowded marketplace and better position the organization for success in the second century.