Celebrating National PTA Founders’ Day

Women of Naional PTA

I love the National PTA Founders’ Day story! Two thousand women converging in the District of Columbia in the middle of February in 1897 and sharing a vision to create a better world for their children and all kids across the nation.

This story always astounds me—How did they get word out? Who came? What was the convention like?

I wanted to learn more about these amazing women and the first convention. So, I went on the Library of Congress website to read the newspapers from Washington and different cities. At that time, there were numerous newspapers throughout the country serving cities, small towns and county seats.

Reading eyewitness accounts of the first gathering of the National Congress of Mothers was inspiring.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Motherhood was the one of the most important contributions to society for a woman during that time period. The conference was planned to bring in experts on motherhood and childhood. Our founders were interested in doing humanitarian work by raising upstanding citizens that the nation would be proud to send out into the world.
  • Alice McClellan Birney, an educator, first pitched this notion to a group of moms in New York in August 1895 and was able to publicize her proposal nationwide. Her idea won the support of other educators and civic leaders. Birney shared her idea with a friend, who connected her with Phoebe Apperson Hearst, wife of U.S. Senator George Hearst.
  • Mrs. Hearst’s generosity helped set the wheels in motion as did her networking of notable contacts—the vice president’s wife, Adlai Stevenson, the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, U.S. Postal inspector, educators, editors and superintendents. They worked tirelessly to build relationships and to spread the word of this new venture.
  • The organization identified officers who lived in different cities—Washington DC, Philadelphia and Chicago. The president and vice presidents lived in DC while the secretary and treasurer lived elsewhere. Their goal for the first event was to bring in the best and brightest experts to speak to the movers and shakers across the country.
  • At the first convocation of the National Congress of Mothers on Feb. 17, 1897, two thousand attendees—which included men and women, African American and white, educators, editors, Sunday school teachers and delegates from sister associations—came to Washington, DC from as far west as California, as far south as Tennessee and as far north as Massachusetts.
  • The attendees were eager to learn the most up-to-date information on educating children and how to be the best raise their children. They crammed into the meeting halls to hear presentations on current science and educational practices, reading to children and the analogy of motherhood and an artist.
  • During their time in DC, attendees met with the First Lady, Mrs. Frances Folsom Cleveland at the White House.
  • Our founding mothers practiced their values. During the event, one of Alice McClellan Birney’s young children came onto stage, seeking her mother’s attention. Mrs. Birney excused herself from the stage and took the time to be with her young daughters, who hadn’t seen their mother since she had been away.
  •  An exhibit hall was created and it wasn’t filled with vendors and sponsors. Instead, they established an area of the hotel and set up a nursery complete with necessary paraphernalia. This was to show the attendees the newest and latest equipment to enhance the life of the child.

As I read through the accounts, I am even more in awe of these interesting women and have a renewed sense of what is expected of today’s PTA—to further the missing of making every child’s potential a reality through family-school partnerships, community outreach and advocacy.

For more info about National PTA and our history, visit PTA.org/History.

Happy Founders’ Day!

Mary Jo Neil is a national service representative at National PTA.

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