In 1901, Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old New York City debutante with a social conscience, forms the first Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements. Harriman mobilizes a group of 80 other young women – hence the name “Junior” League – to work to improve child health, nutrition and literacy among immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Inspired by her friend Mary, Eleanor Roosevelt joins The Junior League of the City of New York in 1903, teaching calisthenics and dancing to young girls at the College Settlement House.
The second Junior League is formed in Boston, MA in 1907 and is soon followed by the founding of the Brooklyn, NY and, Portland, OR Junior Leagues in 1910. In 1912, The Junior League of Montreal becomes the first League in Canada, while five other Junior Leagues are formed, in Baltimore, MD; Chicago, IL; Cleveland, OH; Philadelphia, PA; and San Francisco, CA.During this period, Junior Leagues shift their focus from settlement house work to social, health and educational issues that affect the community at large. The Junior League of Brooklyn successfully petitions the Board of Education to provide free lunches in city schools. In 1914, the founders of The Junior League of St. Louis march for women’s suffrage.
During World War I, Junior Leagues play an active role, selling bonds and working in Army hospitals. The San Francisco Junior League forms a motor delivery service that serves as a model for the nationwide Red Cross Motor Corps.
In 1921, approximately thirty Junior Leagues create the Association of Junior Leagues of America (AJLA) to provide professional support to the Leagues. Dorothy Whitney Straight becomes the first Association President.
During the 1920s, The Junior League of Chicago pioneers children’s theater, an idea that is subsequently taken up by more than 100 Leagues across the country.
Junior Leagues respond to the Depression by opening nutrition centers and milk stations. They operate baby clinics, day nurseries for working mothers, birth control clinics and training schools for nurses. Junior Leagues also establish volunteer bureaus to recruit, train and place much-needed volunteers in the community. Many Leagues create State Public Affairs Committees (SPACS) to influence public welfare policy.
The Junior League of Mexico City joins the Association in 1930, further expanding the international nature of the organization. By this time there are more than 100 Junior Leagues in existence.
During World War II, Junior League members play a major role in the war effort by chairing hundreds of war-related organizations in virtually every city where Junior Leagues operate. Canadian and U.S. League members serve overseas. Oveta Culp Hobby, a Houston League
member, leads the Women’s Army Corps.
In 1943, the first Junior League cookbook, a compilation of handwritten recipes by The Junior League of Minneapolis, appears and raises over $3,000 for the organization.
In the 1950’s, nearly 150 Junior Leagues are involved in remedial reading centers, diagnostic testing programs and programs for gifted and challenged children. Leagues collaborate in the development of educational television and are in the forefront of promoting quality programming for children. In 1952, the Mexico City League establishes the Comite Internacional Pro Ciegos, a comprehensive, internationally recognized center for the blind.
By the end of the decade, Junior Leagues are involved in over 300 arts projects and multiple partnerships in many cities to establish children’s museums. The 1950s also marks the growth of regional Junior League cookbooks as a key fundraising tool, spearheaded by the Charleston League who aggressively and successfully markets its “Charleston Receipts” cookbook to food editors and critics around the United States.
In this period of great turbulence and social change, Junior Leagues rise to meet the many challenges. As the decade progresses, nearly half the Leagues have health and welfare projects, including alcohol programs, adoption services, clinics, convalescent care and hospital services, and many Junior Leagues begin to add environmental issues to their agendas. The Junior League of Toledo produces the educational film, Fate of a River, a report on the devastating effects of water pollution. Leagues also establish programs addressing the education, housing, social services and employment needs of urban residents.
By now, more than 200 Leagues are part of the Association, which dedicates itself anew to building leadership skills and increasing membership diversity.
In 1971, the Association changes its name to the Association of Junior Leagues, Inc. (AJL). Throughout the 1970’s, Leagues expand their participation in public affairs issues, especially in the areas of child health and juvenile justice. In 1973, almost 200 Leagues work with the National Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the U.S. Justice Department on a four year program seeking to improve the criminal justice system. In Canada, the Canadian Federation is formed to promote public issues among the Canadian Leagues.
During the 1980’s, Junior Leagues in the U.S. gain recognition for advocacy efforts to improve the child welfare system. Leagues also help gain passage of the first federal legislation to address domestic violence. More than 100 Leagues develop the “Woman to Woman” campaign that actively and comprehensively tackles the impact of alcohol abuse
on women. The Canadian Federation holds its first national conference focusing on violence against women and the negative impact of pornography.
In 1981, Junior League of Phoenix member, Sandra Day O’Connor, becomes the first woman to be appointed a Supreme Court Justice of the United States.
In 1985, the first Junior League outside North America, the Junior League of London, became a member of the Association.
In 1988, the Association officially becomes the Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. (AJLI).
In 1989, the Association is presented with the prestigious U. S. President’s Volunteer Action Award.
In the early 1990’s, 230 Leagues participate in a public awareness campaign to encourage early childhood immunization called Don’t Wait to Vaccinate. In 1998, Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker becomes the first Hispanic President of the Association.
The Junior Leagues renew their dedication to the Junior League Mission. The Association’s Board adopts Goals to guide and position the Association for its second century. The Goals stress the importance of the Association in helping Junior Leagues develop women for community leadership, achieve a shared, positive identity, and function as strong, viable and healthy organizations, consistent with the Junior League Mission.
In 2001, Deborah Brittain, the Association’s first African-American President, presides over the Junior League’s centennial celebration. Maya Angelou, Nane Annan, and Gloria Steinem, among others, address the members at the Association’s Annual Conference in New York City, site of the first Junior League.
AJLI co-chairs the U.S. Steering Committee for the United Nations’ International Year of the Volunteer (IYV) with the Points of Light Foundation. As part of IYV activities, President Vicente Fox recognizes the Junior League of Mexico City’s members for their “high level of social leadership and human quality.”
In 2002, the Association launches the Junior League PR/Marketing Campaign, which includes a new brand logo and tagline. The Association’s Board of Directors also launches its “Healthy League Initiative”, a formal self-evaluation process designed to ensure that each League continues to achieve its full potential in its community by assessing its strengths and weaknesses.
At Annual Conference 2004 in Chicago, Il, Junior League of Oklahoma City Member, Pam Newby, becomes the 43rd President of the Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc.