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

 Sandra L. Zelno, Consultant to the Pennsylvania PTA

 
Chapter 2. Shopping Around the Dream

 

Shopping.  Shopping.  Shopping... 

Now that we may have gained the undivided attention of seasoned shoppers, reflecting on shopping in 1895 might be interesting.  With the Industrial Revolution responsible for many goods now manufactured in large quantities, retail chain stores popped up across the United States in the 1800’s.  Earliest stores included Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Montgomery Ward, and Target.  Street cars allowed urban areas to develop and promote a favorite past time for many.  While many women today dream of shopping, Alice Birney’s dream was slightly different.  She envisioned a national organization for mothers which would be dedicated to improvements in the life of children.  Her dream would be complete in a world where the child would be supreme.  With three children at home (a 14 year old teenager, a toddler less than two years old, and a baby less than 6 months old),  Alice Birney packed her bags and put the education and welfare of all of America’s children front and center.  She had serious shopping on her agenda.  She was promoting her dream and ideas, all driven by the three children at home who had inspired her to seek more for all children. 

In the summer of 1895, Alice Birney left her home in Washington, D. C. and headed to Chautauqua in upper state New York.  Thousands were gathering at the “Chautauqua Movement,” an adult summer education experience that featured artists, speakers, preachers, and   experts of the day.  We can close our eyes and imagine what a prominent refuge on the banks of Lake Chautauqua might offer, complete with affluent and influential woman in long dresses seated in Adirondack chairs engaged in stimulating conversation on world affairs.  With thousands of intellectuals eager to engage in education and social reform, Chautauqua was the place where Alice Birney knew she would have an audience.  Here she would launch the greatest campaign in her life.  She would ignite a movement that has left every PTA volunteer in America proud of our roots.

Two of the most prominent advocates of the kindergarten movement - Mary Louisa Butler and Frances E. Newton - had invited Alice Birney to promote her idea at Chautauqua.  Proudly accepting the invitation, her lecture earned a positive response from both women and men.  Many of the pastors in attendance invited Alice to speak at their churches, which she did throughout 1895 and 1896 - with the full encouragement and support of her husband and family.  She would continue to work with numerous women’s groups that had formed over the decade.  As an example, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs held a national convention in Alice’s home state of Georgia in 1896 and issued a resolution for a National Congress of Mothers.  She needed everyone. No stone would be left unturned.  We should keep in mind the historical perspective on the incredible   advocacy work taking place for children at a time when women didn’t have the right to vote yet, and even many progressive thinkers frowned upon that idea.  Alice Birney would prove to be an extraordinary woman who would pursue her dream - no doubt running on fear and fumes many days. 

Alice Birney was also introduced to Phoebe Apperson Hearst in 1895 in Washington, D. C.  Phoebe was born in Missouri in 1842 and, like Alice, was exposed to the love of books and became a teacher at the age of 16.  At the age of 19, Phoebe married George Hearst who was twenty one years her senior and was enormously successful as the head of the nation’s largest producer of gold.  George had amassed a monumental fortune with gold mines in California, Utah, Montana, and South Dakota.  He later became a United States Senator from California.  Together they had one child - William Randolph Hearst - who would establish a journalism empire which thrives today.  Throughout their married life, Phoebe was devoted to philanthropic pursuits.  In addition to endowing scholarship programs at universities for women students, she financed a school for the training of kindergarten teachers.  In 1887, she founded the first free kindergarten in the United States and would go on to give time and money to establish six more free schools.  After George Hearst’s death in 1891 due to cancer, Phoebe inherited his massive fortune.  She maintained several homes and traveled extensively throughout the world.  Her residence in Washington, D. C. gave her many opportunities to work with Alice Birney over the next few years.

Driven by several strong bonds, Phoebe and Alice instantly connected and would become a dynamic duo. This meeting was no accident.   Not only had they both been widowed (Alice from her first marriage), they shared a love for learning, a belief in the power of education, and the passion for improving the lives of children.   Alice’s relentless drive and passion was matched by Phoebe’s generous financial backing and ability to open doors in powerful places.  Phoebe Hearst became the “godmother” of the PTA movement.  It was almost too good to be true.  Alice now had the incredible philanthropic support of a magnificent woman who was the widow of a gold tycoon, the mother of a newspaper  mogul, and the pinnacle of American influence.   She was an extraordinary partner and the primary financial backer, but she was not a silent partner by today’s standards.   America’s children were important to Mrs. Hearst.  Together, they worked for the next two years in tireless preparation for the first national meeting, driven by a dream that had been taken on the road by a fearless woman.

Shopping today may have some similarities.  Yes, large department stores are part of the fabric of American life, but technology has enabled the world to shop with computers, phones, tablets, television, and numerous personal electronic devices.  Shopping is easier and more convenient than ever.  From time to time we all experience the thrill of the hunt and the bargains that end up under the bed. But what about shopping around a dream?  Shopping the dream still requires commitment, energy, passion, and good advocacy skills. 

Does your PTA have a dream?   Are we PTA volunteers willing to shop around our dream?  That is the question.  Are we willing to reach beyond our comfort zone?  Or are some PTA’s content to just tackle annual project after project with no innovation?    No one expects volunteers today to leave their family and go on the road for two years, but what kind of extra commitment are we willing to make?   Did we attend PTA summer training or a Region training event?  Can we resemble the Chautauqua experience and gather with other progressive thinkers to move a great idea forward?   Is our “Chautauqua Experience” the local arts group, a local service organization, or a local community college?   Can we move beyond our own clearly defined organizations and reach into the community to “sell our dream” like never before?  Are we afraid to approach influential people like Phoebe Hearst in our communities who might be able to make connections or fund our dream?   Major dreams need both human capital and monetary backing.

We shouldn’t be afraid to ask.  Our kids deserve no less. If it were easy, anyone could have done it.  But Alice didn’t let that happen. As a former New York advertising woman, she knew marketing techniques well and believed in not only her cause but herself.   She knew how to customize her message.  As we document her advocacy steps, we know that she reached out to not only large, influential groups of people but to individual supporters.  She chased a dream, but behind that chase she put all the good components of advocacy.  If she were to convert her idea into a reality, she’d have to seek out her critics, make the benefits of her project clear, embrace risk, and focus on building momentum. She had defined her issues, done the research, and set her goals.  And she had to be guided by the wonderful family at home who continued to serve as her inspiration.

Yes, the story of the PTA Legacy goes on and each of us is an integral part of it. While this series of articles is intended to focus on the early years that contributed to the spectacular organization that we know today, it is likewise important to use the “lessons learned” to focus on today’s work.   Volunteers may have fewer hours to commit but are no less enthusiastic about the causes that united us from the very beginning.  One cannot help but have an enormous amount of respect for Alice Birney and the tremendous commitment she made to “Shopping around the Dream.”   It would have been easy for children to be lost in the scheme of social reforms happening in 1895, if not for Alice and Phoebe.   The sad reality is that it is extremely easy for children to be lost in the scheme of things today with difficult policy decisions being made in Washington, D. C., and Harrisburg, PA.  The interests of children are being lost in these decisions.   Are we ready to go shopping together?  Do we have on good shoes?  Do we have good ideas?  Are we willing to shop until we drop? 

The next issue of PTA in Pennsylvania (January - February 2014)  will address the next chapter of the formation of the National Congress of Mothers as we document the next steps Mrs. Birney and Mrs. Hearst took to plan the very first meeting in 1897. 

Stay tuned for, “Build It and They Will Come.”

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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