New York Parent Teacher – Spring 2017: About PTA Founder Alice McLellan Birney

About PTA Founder Alice McLellan Birney

By Susan Berkow, Historian

We know who the PTA founders are, right? Alice McLellan Birney, Phoebe Apperson Hearst and Selena Sloane Butler. But how much do we really know about these esteemed ladies?

Thanks to the scholarship of Christine A. Woyshner (from her Ph.D. thesis), I can share a little insight into the life and beliefs of Alice Birney, whose ideas and dedication lit the spark that became PTA. Some of it may surprise you, some of it reflects current times, and some reflects the era in which Alice lived and worked.

Alice McLellan was born in Georgia in 1858; she grew up during the Civil War, when the “myth of the Southern Lady had saturated popular and scholarly thought.” She was very much the product of her Southern upbringing in the Victorian era, although the war resulted in a variety of experiences for Southern women, as they realized what was for them a new condition – “life without a man around to make decisions”.

After the war, women’s associations were accepted, and women filled “public roles through charity and volunteer work,” but the view of the role of women changed from farm helpmate to homemaker and subordinate. The importance of education for girls and women was developing in the South; but while this was largely to support and maintain women’s role in Southern society, Georgia had virtually no public schools.

Birney married and was widowed twice, at a young age, and largely supported herself and her daughters in various careers. Birney worked for a time for an apparel company that “promoted less restrictive clothing for women, on the premise that popular styles of dress were dangerous to a woman’s health. She brought the notion of abandoning the waist-cinching corset (especially for pregnant women) to the South, and towns around the US.” She wrote articles about motherhood, dress reform, housekeeping and infant feeding.

 

When she met a group of women who supported the kindergarten movement in 1895 at Chautauqua, NY, she presented her ideas for a Congress of Mothers, and quickly gained support. She sought “enlightened parenthood”, including fathers, as “the child is the hope of the future.” She encouraged child study, character training and moral education.

She was not a suffragette, remaining conservative in her views on the role of women. She believed that motherhood was women’s function and purpose and maintained that “The National Congress of Mothers, irrespective of creed, color or condition, stood for all parent-hood, childhood, homehood. Its platform was the universe, its organizations the human race.” A variety of platforms were urged on the group in 1897, but Birney led the organization along the lines she felt were most worthwhile – organizing mothers into groups to engage in child study, to support local welfare bodies, and to work for greater parent-teacher cooperation.

“The first Congress focused on the education of children during a time of social unrest and heightened awareness of otherness, and addressed difference, diversity, and immigration. The concern for educational standards in schools was then and is still a concern of parents, educators and community members.”

Forward thinking? Yes. But this founder was a modest and somewhat shy woman who carved out a meaningful life (and organization), despite the confines of societal roles which she herself embraced.

(All quotes from Christine A. Woyshner’s Ph.D. thesis, “To Reach the Rising Generation Through the Raising Generation”: The Origins of the National Parent-Teacher Association, Harvard University Graduate School of Education,1999.)