Which is quite a few, when you consider that there have only been 20 First Ladies since Mary Harriman founded The Junior League in 1901.
Eleanor Roosevelt had her introduction to public service as one of the first members of the Junior League of the City of New York, the first Junior League and still one of the largest. Along with other Junior League volunteers, Eleanor worked with immigrant children in the settlement houses of New York’s Lower East Side, then an environment of intense poverty. Years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would credit her and The Junior League with showing him a side of New York he had never seen before. Eleanor’s career in public service didn’t end in 1945 after Franklin’s three terms as President. She was a delegate to the newly formed United Nations and served as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, where she oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Betty Ford (or Elizabeth Ann Bloomer, as she was known then) became a member of the Junior League of Grand Rapids as a young woman. (She even performed in the League’s 1936 musical production of “Merry Go Round.”) As First Lady, Betty was active in social policy, sometimes, it is said, to the embarrassment of her husband, Gerald Ford. Her legacy includes raising awareness of breast cancer following her 1974 mastectomy, and she was a passionate supporter of, and activist for, the Equal Rights Amendment. Pro-choice on abortion and a leader in the Women’s Movement, she gained fame as one of the most candid first ladies in history, commenting on every hot-button issue of the time, including feminism, equal pay, the ERA, sex, drugs, abortion and gun control. She also raised awareness of addiction when she announced her own long-running battle with alcoholism in the 1970s. Betty maintained her connection with JLGR throughout her life and helped celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1975; she remained an honorary sustaining member until her death in 2011, at the age of 93.
Before her eight years in the White House, where she carried out her iconic “Just Say No” campaign against drugs, Nancy Reagan was a glamorous movie star in 1950s Hollywood as well as a member of the Junior League of Los Angeles. But Nancy’s life after leaving the White House in 1989 says a lot about her character and determination. She devoted herself to the care of her ailing husband, Ronald Reagan, until his death from Alzheimer’s disease in 2004, but remained active in public life, both in support of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and in advocating for embryonic stem cell research. While Nancy rarely speaks in public these days, her voice can still be powerful and influential—during the 2012 Presidential election, for example, her endorsement was actively sought by a new generation of Republican politicians, earning her the new title, “First Lady of the GOP.”
Long before her many years in Washington, Barbara Bush was a young wife in Midland, TX who, like many other newcomers to strange cities, joined the local Junior League to try to become part of the community. It worked. Barbara’s work at the Junior League of Midland (including helping to set up and run its thrift shop) also fits nicely with her lifelong embrace of voluntarism. A tireless advocate of literacy programs, she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy (which has awarded $60 million in grants).
And then there was Laura Bush. No one can seriously say that Laura’s dedication to children’s literacy and education is not deeply felt, and not just because of her professional training as a librarian and as a teacher. Early into the first administration of her husband, George W. Bush, Laura partnered with the Library of Congress to launch the annual National Book Festival and testified before the Senate Committee on Education, asking for higher teachers’ salaries and better training for Head Start programs. She is also credited with creating a national initiative called “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn.” After leaving the White House in 2009, she returned to her Junior League roots as a Junior League of Dallas sustaining member; in addition to her work with her own League, she has used her high profile to help other Leagues promote their literacy initiatives.
*This article was originally published in connected, an official publication of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc., and has been reprinted with permission.