Women Who Changed the World - Alice McLellan Birney, Co-Founder of National PTA

Alice Josephine McLellan White Birney, 1858 - 1907

Alice Josephine McLellan White Birney, October 19, 1858 - December 20, 1907 Co-Founder and First President of The National Mothers Congress, Changed the world of mothers and children across the United States.
Alice Josephine McLellan White Birney, October 19, 1858 - December 20, 1907 Co-Founder and First President of The National Mothers Congress, Changed the world of mothers and children across the United States. | Source

Early Life

Alice Josephine McClellan was born on a small cotton plantation, just outside of Atlanta, in Marietta, Georgia, on the nineteenth of October in eighteen fifty-eight. The oldest of four children, she was followed on December first, eighteen hundred and fifty-nine, by a brother, Henry Lee McLellan, and two sisters; Lillian May McLellan, who was born on the fifth of March, in eighteen sixty-two, and the youngest of the four, Grace Lee McLellan, who was born on May the sixteenth, eighteen hundred and sixty-two.

Her father, a native of North Carolina, was Leander Calvin McLellan, a small cotton planter and broker, who was of Scotch Presbyterian descent, and who was born on February twentieth, eighteen hundred and twenty-six, in Concord which is located in Cabarrus County.

Her mother, Harriet Ann Tatum, of French and English descent, was raised and educated in New York, and was the daughter of Joseph John and Margaret (Potter) Tatum, who had emigrated from England to St. Croix in the West Indies, and had brought their family to the United States in 1843.

The couple were wed on the twenty-second of May in eighteen fifty-six, and subsequently made their home in the rural Georgia community of Marietta, where Harriet McLellan was the founder of the Home for the Friendless , and was known and admired in the community for her various charitable interests.

Other than the tragic death of her little brother Henry, which occurred when Alice was just three months shy of her third birthday, on July seventeenth, eighteen sixty-one. life for the young Alice McLellan, was by her own account, a normal and happy one, in which she grew up in a close knit family and a secure home life.

After the end of the Civil War, the family moved from Marietta, back to Atlanta, where Alice attended a private girls school. Encouraged by her parents, but especially by her mother, she was a well read and studious girl, with a curious nature that was drawn to academia. She attended high school at the Marietta Female Academy, and completed her high school requirements early, graduating at the age of fifteen.

After finishing high school, she taught for a while in a small two room school in Marietta, before the desire to pursue higher education, led her north to Massachusetts, in eighteen seventy-five, at the age of seventeen, she began attending Mount Holyoke Seminary. If the stability, love, and encouragement she received as a young child is to be attributed to her interest in the welfare of children nationwide, than surely too is her time at Mt. Holyoke, were the young women students of the time were encouraged to use their abilities and knowledge in service to others as missionaries, teachers, and mothers.

The Daughter of Alice and Alonzo White Jr.

Alonsita Eliza White in 1884.  Born four months after the death of her father, Alonsita Eliza White was the first of the three daughters of Alice McLellan Birney, and the only child of Alice McLellan and her first husband, Alonzo J. White Jr.
Alonsita Eliza White in 1884. Born four months after the death of her father, Alonsita Eliza White was the first of the three daughters of Alice McLellan Birney, and the only child of Alice McLellan and her first husband, Alonzo J. White Jr. | Source

Mrs. Alonzo J. White Jr.

Alice McLellan left Mount Holyoke after only one year, presumably to marry a young attorney from Charleston, South Carolina, by the name of Alonzo White Jr., whom she married on the twenty-sixth of February, eighteen hundred and seventy-nine. Alice returned with her bridegroom to his hometown of Charleston, where Alonzo was also the city sheriff, and the couple settled into married life.

It was by all accounts a happy union, and the couple was soon expecting the arrival of their first child. Their happiness though, was short-lived; as on November the eighth, eighteen hundred and eighty, Alonzo White Jr. died unexpectedly of pleuropneumonia. Their daughter, whom Alice would name Alonsita Birney Walker, in honor of the father that she would never meet, was born four months later on the twenty-eighth of March, eighteen hundred and eighty-one.

Newly widowed at only twenty-two, and with a brand new baby daughter to support, Alice McLellan White, who had hoped to pursue a career in medicine, returned home to Atlanta for a brief time before moving to New York City, where she entered the world of advertising, at some time in the early 1880's she supported herself and her daughter by selling advertising.

A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Leander Calvin McLellan, passed away on the twenty-eighth of May, in eighteen hundred and thirty-three, and that summer, Alice returned home to Georgia to live with her now widowed mother.

It can be said of Alice, that she was a forward thinking woman, a woman who was born ahead of her time, and being home with her mother, did not limit the young widow, who among her other accomplishments is said to have had a beautiful voice, played the piano well, and was both a competent tennis player and a horsewoman; but more than that, she is said to have been widely versed in many subjects, and was known during her travels around Georgia and the south, to advocate dress reform, and was especially known for discussing the dangers of the corsets and bustles that were so in vogue during that era.

The Daughters of Alice McLellan and Theodore Birney

 Catherine Weld Birney as a child.  Born on 11 Oct 1893, Catherine Weld Birney was the second of Alice McLellan Birney's three daughters, and the oldest of the two daughters born to Alice and Theodore Birney.
Catherine Weld Birney as a child. Born on 11 Oct 1893, Catherine Weld Birney was the second of Alice McLellan Birney's three daughters, and the oldest of the two daughters born to Alice and Theodore Birney. | Source
Lillian Harriet Birney as a child.  Born on 10 Jan 1895, Lillian Harriet Birney was the youngest of Alice McLellan Birney's three daughters, and the youngest of the two daughters of Alice and Theodore Birney.
Lillian Harriet Birney as a child. Born on 10 Jan 1895, Lillian Harriet Birney was the youngest of Alice McLellan Birney's three daughters, and the youngest of the two daughters of Alice and Theodore Birney. | Source

Mrs. Theodore Weld Birney

Theodore Weld Birney was born on the eighth of May in eighteen hundred and sixty-four in Washington D.C. He attended Lehigh University before attending Law School at Georgetown, where he won the essay prize for each year that he studied there. Upon graduating from Georgetown, he moved south to Atlanta, where he set up his law practice, and where he met a widow by the name of Alice White Jr.

The couple were married on the sixth of December in eighteen hundred and ninty-two, and had their first daughter, Catherine Weld Birney, on the eleventh of October, eighteen hundred and ninty-three. When Theodore Birney's brother was appointed to the United States District Attorney's office for the District of Columbia, the couple returned to his hometown of Washington D.C. so that they young attorney could practice law as his brother's associate.

The couple's second daughter, Lillian Harriet Birney, was born on the tenth of January in eighteen hundred and ninety-five, and the family of five, settled into life in the Washington suburb known as Chevy Chase. Alice, who still possessed her keen love of knowledge became disenchanted with the availability of literature on the topic of child-rearing, and began to wonder about how many children's lives were being warped by paternal ignorance.

Alice McLellan Birney with her two younger daughters,   Catherine and Lillian Birney.  Alice Birney believed that mothers needed their own organization,and so she founded the National Mothers Congress, which later became the National PTA.
Alice McLellan Birney with her two younger daughters, Catherine and Lillian Birney. Alice Birney believed that mothers needed their own organization,and so she founded the National Mothers Congress, which later became the National PTA. | Source
The First  Executive Commitee of the first National Mothers Congress 1897.  Alice Birney is front and center.  The National Mother's Congress was formed with the intention of bettering the lives of children through the education of the mother.
The First Executive Committee of the first National Mothers Congress 1897. Alice Birney is front and center. The National Mother's Congress was formed with the intention of bettering the lives of children through the education of the mother. | Source

The Seed is Planted

Ireland's Great Potato Famine had combined with the Industrial Revolution to bring an unprecedented wave of immigants to American shores, and as factories and sweatshops popped up across the country, child labor was becoming an increasingly popular method of cost control. Children, who were considered to be no more than the property of the parent, were the new slave labor, being farmed out to work grueling hours in dangerous conditions, for a pittance, in order to help support their families.

As the beginning of a new century loomed just over the horizon wide spread unemployment, poverty, and the threat of civil unrest, had spread across the nation in the wake of an economic depression. Although unfelt by the majority of them, a sense of unease and worry about civil unrest, and a deep concern for the children of the United States was spreading among the women of the upper and middle classes. These women began to form clubs and social organizations whose core purpose was to help those less fortunate children escape the destiny of growing up poor, ignorant, and without proper regard for the American ways.

As a child Alice Birney's thirst for knowledge had been nurtured by her parents and therefore it thrived and led her to pursue higher education as an adolescent and a young adult; not something that was entirely common during her time. It was this same desire to be informed that drove the young mother to study the works of philosopher, Herbert Spencer; the kindergarten innovator, Friedrich Froebel and psychologist, G. Stanley Hall. It was also this thirst for knowledge and her concern for the well being of her daughters that sparked her frustration with the lack of accessibility of information.

As a scholar, Alice Birney was appalled by the lack of literature and the inaccessibility of sound advice and relevant information about childrearing that was available to parents. As a mother, in an era where children everywhere were being denied an education in favor being forced to work in factories, Alice Birney, who believed that it was a mother's duty, not only to her child, but to society as a whole to look after that child's welfare and education, and to protect their child from whatever might threaten the child's future, was incensed by the seemingly complete and total lack of regard for the children of this country.

"In the child and in our treatment of him rests the solution of the problems which confront the state and society today." - Alice McLellan Birney

A firm believer in the theory that the children of today are the future of tomorrow, Mrs. Birney began to consider by what means the plight of these children might be eliminated. Finding that there was a link between the education of the child and the educating of the parent, Alice Birney, recognized that the solution to this dilemna lay within the heart of a mother's love, and she began to ponder ways in which education might be brought to all mothers, and that the powers that be might be taught to recognize the supreme importance of the child.

" I was impressed… with the great number of conventions and assemblages of all kinds and for all purposes held at the national capital...I asked myself… how can the mothers be educated and the nation made to recognize the supreme importance of the child? Congress was in session at the time, and I knew how its doings were telegraphed to all parts o f the earth and how eagerly such messges were read….and then like a flash came the thought: Why not have a National Congress of Mothers?" - Alice McLellan Birney (From her personal journal)

After some consideration of the subject, Alice McLellan Birney had a thought, that in her own words, came "like a flash", Why not have a National Congress of Mothers?

The Chautauqua Movement

The Pier on the Point, Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York.  The Chautauqua Movement, was an adult summer education program, that combined a resort style vacation with spiritual and educational enlightenment in the late 1800's - 1920's
The Pier on the Point, Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York. The Chautauqua Movement, was an adult summer education program, that combined a resort style vacation with spiritual and educational enlightenment in the late 1800's - 1920's | Source
The Women's Club Building at Chautauqua Lake, circa 1895; Alice Birney presented her idea for a National Mothers Congress there during the summer of 1895. Two years later, the first conference of the NMC was held in Washington, D.C.
The Women's Club Building at Chautauqua Lake, circa 1895; Alice Birney presented her idea for a National Mothers Congress there during the summer of 1895. Two years later, the first conference of the NMC was held in Washington, D.C. | Source

The First Five Causes of The National Mother's Congress That Changed the Lives of Children

 
The FIrst Five Causes of the NMC
 
1).
The creation of Kindergarten classes
 
2).
The creation of child labor laws
 
3).
Hot Lunch programs
 
4).
Juvenile Justice Sytem
 
5).
Mandatory immunizations
 
The National Congress of Mothers was founded to meet the profound challenge of bettering the lives of children across the nation. Their call for action in 1897 brought over 2,000 responses, not just from mothers, but from fathers, teachers, laborers

First Elected Executive Committee of the National Mothers Congress

Mrs. Theodore Birney, President; Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, 1st V.P.  Mrs. John R. Lewis,V.P.  Miss Mary Louisa Butler, Corresponding  Sec. Mrs. Adlai Stevenson, V.P.; Mrs. Emma Morton, Treas.; Mrs. Mary E. Mumford, V.P.
Mrs. Theodore Birney, President; Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, 1st V.P. Mrs. John R. Lewis,V.P. Miss Mary Louisa Butler, Corresponding Sec. Mrs. Adlai Stevenson, V.P.; Mrs. Emma Morton, Treas.; Mrs. Mary E. Mumford, V.P. | Source

Alice McLellan Birney and the National Mothers Congress

Chautauqua, New York, 1895

The Chautauqua Movement was an adult summer education program that featured speakers, teachers, muscicians, entertainers, preachers, and specialists of the day. The movement began in 1894 on the banks of Lake Chautauqua, in upper state New York , becoming so popular that up until the nineteen twenties, thousands of Americans made Lake Chautauqua their vacation destination. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once said about Chautauqua, Chautauqua if the most American thing in America.

In the summer of 1895, discussions about education, children, and mothers, were routinely held in the Mothers' building at the Chautauqua resort, and one of those in attendance was Alice Birney. Also in attendance that year were Mary Louisa Butler, and Frances E. Newton, two of the days most prominent advocates of the kindergarten philosophy. Like-minded about the need for better trained mothers, they invited Alice Birney to speak at a mother's meeting to promote her idea that, just like other vocations, mothers needed an organization of their own. An invitation that she accepted.

In an era where many women's activities, such as the advocacy for women's rights, were looked upon by the majority of the male population, and even by some women, with distaste, the positive response to Alice Birney's idea for a National Mothers Congress was immediate, as both women and men warmly accepted the idea of a women's organization that would work on children's issues.

Among those ten thousand who were in attendance that summer, were several thousand pastors, many of which, asked Mrs. Birney to speak at their churches.

With the encouragement and support of her husband and family, Alice Birney spent the rest of 1895 and most of 1896, promoting her idea of a National Congress of Mothers.

Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst

In 1895, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the widow of legendary gold-mine owner and former U.S. Senator George Hearst, and mother to newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst, sponsored seven kindergartens in San Francisco, South Dakota and Washington D.C.. Mrs. Hearst, who upon inheriting her husband's massive fortune in 1891, had become engrossed in philanthropy was introduced to Mrs. Birney, and became the main source of funding for the first National Mother's Congress.

The Founders Meeting

In December of 1896, a year and a half after she spoke at Chautauqua, Alice Birney and Phoebe Hearst hosted the first official organizational meeting of the founders of the National Mothers Congress. The meeting was held at the home of Mrs. Hearst, and was chaired by Letitia Stevenson, the wife of then Vice-President, Adlai Stevenson, and was attended by the wives and relatives of some of the country's most prominent politicians, and foremost women in the country. No one can say for sure, whether is was Alice Birney's experience in the advertising business, or just a stroke of luck, but the participation of these women in the founding of the NMC drew considerable media attention.

"It is because most women have not had the knowledge and training which would enable them to evolve the beautiful possibilites of home life that they have in many instances found that sphere narrow and monotonous." - Alice Birney

The founders of the National Mothers Congress agreed that unless compelled by tragic or economic circumstances, as Alice Birney herself had been following the death of her first husband, that women, especially mothers, should remain at home to attend to the rearing of their children, and they stressed that they were women of the home.

Their aim was to change the public's perception of a woman's role as a mother to one that was viewed more as a professional occupation, and to spread its influence via municipal housekeeping . Using a template that resembled the Chautauqua programs, they planned for the first national conference; where a number of celebrated women would speak and deliver papers on child-rearing and the importance of educating the mother. Their plans were formed with the expectation that the those leaving the conference would have a fuller understanding of a mothers' duties and responibilities.

The Intention and Goals of the National Mother's Congress

The National Mother's Congress was formed with the intention of creating a better world for the children and youth of the United States, through the educating of mothers, on the raising and education of their children, and the education of the nation on child welfare and recognition of the importance of the child.

The three major goals set by the founders in December of 1896 were to organize mothers into groups who would engage in the study of the child; To support the local child-welfare agencies, and to encourage parent-teacher cooperation.

The First National Conference of the Mothers Congress, February 1897

In order for the congress to be a national congress, they would need delegates from all over the country. With the financial backing of Phoebe Hearst behind her, and the Hearst Publishig empire supporting them in the press, the founding members, or the executive committee of the NMC sent out invitations to all of the state and local leaders of all of the leading women's clubs at the time. A letter of introduction, which indicated the organization's focus would be on the education of mothers for the benefit of the child, accompanied the invitation, the letter specifically requested from the club leaders the name of one woman of position in your community with whome we may correspond concerning the organization of mothers clubs. Once again Alice Birney exhibited her knowldege of public relations, and her prowess for good marketing and advertising. The letter also stressed that, the press is literally clamoring for matter for publication bearing upon your work...will you not, therefore, endeavor to enthuse the editors with whom you have influence?

The founders had anticipated the arrival of between sixty and one hundered delegates, and the correspondence secretary and her helpers were overwhelmed, when on the first morning, three hundred delegates and their guests began arriving. By mid-morning of the first day, over one thousand people had arrived. In the end there were over two thousand attendees, many of them lured to Washington by the possibiliy of attending a reception at the White House.

The Call to Order, The Adjournment, The Reception and The Agenda

The first meeting of the National Mothers Conference was called to order at promptly eleven o'clock on the morning of February 17, 1897, and was then adjourned at eleven-thrity so that delgates could attend a reception that was hosted by First Lady, Frances Cleveland, at the White House.

If the overwhelming response was a surprise to the founding members of the NMC, imagine how shocked the First Lady was, when having been told to expect between two and three hundered people, she was faced with over two thousand!

The conference was broken into three sessions a day; a morning session, and afternoon session that began after lunch, at two-thirty in the afternoon, and then an evening session which began at eight o'clock.

Topics of discussion at the conference were among others, the subject of heredity, which was the shared concern of many women in reaction to the uneducated immigrants that were continuing to arrive on American shores; The efforts of Philadelphia public schools to instruct irresponsible mothers in the proper care of their children; The need for the education of mothers, who could then teach their children to love learning, and of course the need for public Kindergarten.

Source
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Later Years of Alice Birney and the Alice McLellan Birney Memorial

Alice Josephine McLellan White Birney, whose insatiable hunger for knowledge, and her sincere concern for the welfare of not only her children, but for all children, had led her to dream of an organization that would, through the education of the mother, improve the life of the child, had made this dream a reality through persistence, hard work, and dedication. By overwhelming majority, she was elected the first President of the National Mothers Congress during the first conference in 1897, an office that she continued to hold until 1902, when citing illness, she relinquished the title.

Although she was no longer serving as president, she continued to stay abreast of and active in the National Mothers Congress. In her spare time, she wrote a series of articles for Delineator Magazine, which were later published together in a book Childhood, by Alice Birney , for which G. Stanley Hall, wrote the introduction.

Alice McLellan Birney passed away from cancer on the twentieth of December in nineteen hundred and seven, in Chevy Chase, Montgomery County, Maryland. She was forty-nine years old. Survived by her mother, and all three of her daughters, her funeral was held two days before Christmas, on December 23, 1907, and she was buried in a private service at Oak Hill Cemetery, in Washington D.C. beside her husband, who had passed away a decade before.

Alice McLellan Birney Memorial, Marietta High School, Marietta, Georgia

On Sunday, September 27, 1942, at two-thirty in the afternoon, in a corner of the Marietta High School grounds, more than one hundered leaders of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA) gathered to honor its co-founder and first National President, Alice McLellan Birney.

The memorial, which was unveiled by Alice McLellan Birney's great-granddaughter, Alice Birney-Robert, was created in a joint project that included the people of Marietta, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, and the family of Mrs. Lawrence Wood Robert Jr. From the NCOPT came a marble sun-dial, which stands in the center of the Marietta High School's sun court. The courtyard which is paved with native stones that were contributed by each of the state congresses, is surrounded by a selection of colorful flowers and edged with Boxwood.

The ceremony featured many speakers, including Alice Birney's oldest daughter, Alonsita, The the President of the NCOP, Mrs. William Kletzer of Portland Oregon, the mayor of Marietta, the Honorable L.H. Blair, the Secretary and Founders' Day Chairman of the National Congress. Also speaking that day were the President of the Georgia Congress of Parents and Teachers, Mrs. Robert A. Long, and the Chairman of the Birney Memorial Committee of Marietta, Georgia, Judge James H. Hawkins. The Ceremony concluded with a procession of Presidents of the state congresses of the NCOPT, who were already in town for their regular September gathering.


Alice Birney's Granddaughter Unveils Memorial at Marietta High School

When Alice McLellan Birney was honored by the NCOPT and the People of Marietta, Georgia, four generations of women from her family attended, and her great-granddaughter Alice, unveiled the statue.
When Alice McLellan Birney was honored by the NCOPT and the People of Marietta, Georgia, four generations of women from her family attended, and her great-granddaughter Alice, unveiled the statue. | Source

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© 2012 Kristen Burns-Darling

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Comments 4 comments

always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

This is a very educational article. I was a member of our local PTA and enjoyed the togetherness of the members. I'm wondering if the schools today even have a PTA? Alice MC Lellan is to be remembered as a woman who realized the need for sharing ideas with parents, thus, improving the quality of education..Thank you..Your research is outstanding..


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@always exploring - Thank you for the gift of your time and for your gracious comments, they are as always, both welcomed and deeply appreciated. I served on the executive committee of my older children's elementary school, and will probably do something of the same with my younger daughter, who began kindergarten this past fall, so I can happily report that PTA is alive and well. Alice Birney is the first in what I am hoping to turn into a series of hubs about women who have changed the lives of people in remarkable ways, but who are often forgotten or overlooked by the history books. I am really happy that you enjoyed it! Thank you again,

Kristen


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

So very interesting I knew nothing about this lady before reading this and I vote up ;thank you for sharing and I look forward to many more by you.

Eddy.


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@Eiddwen - Eddy, you are so very welcome, and thank you so much for the gift of your time, your comments, and your vote, they are all very much welcomed and deeply appreciated. I am really looking forward to writing next month's Women Who Changed the World, there are so many fascinating ladies who have done so much for so many, and are realtively unknown.... Thanks Again!

Kristen

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