Elizabeth “Biddy” Jenkins arrived at the Junior League of Wilmington’s secret white glove evaluation tea covered in mud after breaking up a dogfight. Despite her untidy appearance, the league still invited her to join.
“They wanted to get things done,” she says, “so they wanted people who were activists.”
More than 50 years following this encounter, and after 100 years of existence, the Junior League of Wilmington continues its mission of improving the community through the action and leadership of women. Designed to guide volunteers to be a catalyst for positive change, the 400-member organization focuses on health, education and welfare issues.
In fact, JLW has played a critical role in establishing many of the most well-known service organizations in the Wilmington region—a Well Baby Clinic at the Italian Settlement House (now West End Neighborhood House), the Wilmington Senior Center, the Delaware Adolescent Program Inc., the Delaware School for Deaf Children and the Delaware Children’s Theatre.
JLW mirrors others throughout the nation with a history of identifying problems within the community and both finding and funding solutions.
The first Junior League, founded in New York in 1901, was created with the intention of improving the lives of local immigrants. In 1918, socialite Eloise Bond Bergland was inspired to bring the Junior League to Wilmington with a similar mission.
In its initial decades, JLW projects like the Well Baby Clinic and Health Center focused on serving the immigrant population. In the 1950s, the women realized senior citizens didn’t have access to necessary resources, which led to the founding of the Wilmington Senior Center (currently located next to the league’s headquarters in Old Brandywine Village).
It was the late ’50s—the days of secret admissions—when Jenkins was invited to a white glove tea at a friend’s mother’s home, not knowing she was being evaluated to join the Junior League. On her way in, Jenkins ended up breaking up a dogfight on the lawn and got mud all over her dress. But despite appearances, JLW welcomed her spirit and spunk. In fact, from 1968 to 1969, Biddy Jenkins served as president.
In the year of Jenkins’ presidency, the league founded the Delaware Adolescent Program Inc. (DAPI), a high school and prenatal care program for pregnant and parenting teenagers. DAPI, which still receives support from the league, went on to thrive through independent funding as the only statewide and comprehensive school-based program serving pregnant and parenting teens and their families.
“It used to be that if you were pregnant, you automatically got kicked out of high school, but we wanted to make sure that pregnant girls would be allowed to stay in school,” Jenkins says. “Many of our husbands were lawyers, so we worked with them to change the law to allow pregnant girls to stay in school.”
Jenkins says that because so many women are busy working professionals, league membership numbers have diminished somewhat. However, she sees that the membership is much more diverse and even more efficient, filled with professionals who know how to get things done right away.
While she had a college degree in chemistry, Jenkins, like most league members at that time, did not work outside the home. But she says her work with the league gave her a broader view of the diversity of Wilmington and the world.
“I discovered I wasn’t as happy to stay home with my four children, so I went back to the University of Delaware to get a master’s degree in nursing,” she says.
Jenkins’ work as a nurse took her around the world, visiting hospitals in Africa and Asia and working in Jewish and Arab hospitals in Israel. Throughout her journey, she remained active in a wide variety of services in the Wilmington community.
“The Junior League gave me courage and a broader view of how women can work and be powerful,” she says.
The league’s most recent accomplishment tackled social issues through political advocacy, as the group spearheaded the passage of a child protection law. The idea to advocate for Erin’s Law in Delaware—which requires publicly funded schools to implement age-appropriate, prevention-oriented sexual abuse education—originated within the league, which then contacted sustaining member state Sen. Margaret Rose Henry. The league’s task force worked with Henry to have the bill introduced and championed for its statewide bipartisan passage in 2016.
But that wasn’t JLW’s first foray into political action. In the 1970s, the league lobbied for the Foster Care Review Act, which would help ensure safe and timely permanency for children in the state foster care system. The law passed in the 1980s after league members provided testimony in Washington in support of similar federal legislation and were then asked to staff a guardian ad litem program for the Family Court and volunteer as advocates for child victims.
Franny Maguire Haney was a stay-at-home mom when she was invited to join the league in 1978—the same year the league stopped its practice of “secret admissions” in favor of a more open membership policy.
Haney chose social services as her focus and joined with other league members in researching the children in foster care in Delaware. That research led to the drafting of legislation creating the Foster Care Review Act (1979), which the Delaware General Assembly passed into law.
Seeing the need for a judicial oversight board for the children in foster care, they joined forces with the National Council of Jewish Women to develop a model guardian ad litem program for Delaware’s Family Court in 1981. The program is now called the Court Appointed Special Advocate program (CASA) and still exists in Family Court.
Haney says the legislation creating the Foster Care Review Act gave her the skills needed to continue in Legislative Hall in Dover—this time as a representative of the courts where she served for more than 29 years.
“The league had a tremendous impact on my life,” Haney says. “It gave me the tools to serve on community and national boards, to research and develop many innovative projects for the courts, and to testify before a congressional committee in Washington.”
Haney sees a change in membership reflecting today’s young women who, for the most part, work full time, raise their children and want to give back to their community.
A former producer for CNBC, Angela Gustavsen is the current president of JLW. She’s now a stay-at-home mom, which she says isn’t typical of the current membership who mostly work outside the home.
When Gustavsen moved from New York to Delaware, she wanted to put down roots and make a difference in the community. She found herself living directly across the street from the Junior League headquarters, and her husband’s cousin urged her to consider joining.
“I thought it would be all ‘girls with pearls,’ but that couldn’t have been further from the truth,” she says. “It really gave me the opportunity to develop myself beyond this new identity of ‘just a mom.’”
Gustavsen says membership is open, inclusive and accepting, and that membership is not denied to any woman who values the league’s mission. With annual dues of $125 as the only required spending, membership seems more financially accessible than one might expect.
“The great opportunity we have here in Delaware is that it’s such a small community and allows us to network really well and really sink our teeth in to make a huge difference,” Gustavsen says.
Kristen McMullen was living in Greenwich, Connecticut, and hesitant to join her local Junior League.
“Although I loved volunteering, I wasn’t sure if I would fit into what I perceived as the Junior League model of high tea, pearls and designer clothes,” she says. “Boy, was I wrong.”
When a move brought her to Raleigh, North Carolina, she transferred to the Raleigh Junior League. The Junior League of Wilmington was actually her third league.
“I didn’t know anyone in Wilmington when I moved there, so the first thing I did was put in for my transfer,” she says. “Right away, the transfer chairwomen met with me at the beautiful, historic league headquarters and got me assimilated to the Wilmington league.”
As league president from 2015 to 2016, she had the opportunity to attend three leadership conferences with league leaders from around the country. McMullen says she had found an organization that helped shape the leader she is today.
“They listened to and jumped at the chance to help with my crazy ideas like starting a women’s leadership summit for all women in the greater Wilmington area,” she says, noting the fourth annual Women’s Leadership Summit is on the horizon for 2019.
McMullen has since transferred to the league in Charleston, South Carolina.
“I expected the Southern leagues to have a different feel, but the shared mission of developing the potential of women and improving the community creates leagues that are moving in the same direction,” she says.
Recent Wilmington community impact projects include renovating the West End Neighborhood House (designed for former foster care youth); a pilot series of empowerment workshops for young women with the Choir School of Delaware; and life skills, career readiness workshops and other projects with partners DAPI and Bayard House, the only licensed residential program serving homeless or transitional pregnant minors in Delaware.
The league will also hold its 35th Whale of a Sale, known as Delaware’s Largest Garage Sale. As many as 3,000 people will attend the sale, which offers gently used merchandise in all categories, including housewares, electronics, children’s clothes, equipment, antiques and more.
Gustavsen says one of the key things the league currently focuses on is advancing diversity and inclusion through recruiting efforts and training.
“We are always doing our best to stay relevant for members, and right now that means the experience is member-driven,” she says. “Members choose the skills they hope to develop and commit to what shape their league experience will take each year.”
This is a distinction from past requirements that dictated members needed to come to a certain number of general meetings and do a certain number of hours of direct service.
“Our community focus is on empowering young women, and I think over the next several years, the league will hone its service projects under that umbrella to make transformational change around a critical and unmet need in the community,” Gustavsen says.