Flag Above All : Old Values Intact, DAR Marches Firmly Forward

Eve Belson is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

You could forgive the staff at the Red Lion Inn in Costa Mesa for thinking they would be serving tea and dainty cakes to silver-haired matriarchs in moth-eaten minks and long white gloves.

After all, the hotel is currently hosting the state conference of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, the staunchly conservative patriotic women's organization whose name is often used as a metaphor for bluestocking decorum.

Today's DAR members--900 strong in Orange County--politely dismiss that old caricature and paint themselves as active, energetic, involved and, above all, always up for a laugh.

"We got the image of being old rich ladies because the DAR needed such women in the beginning in order to establish credibility," says Jane Hemphill, the society's national director for public relations. "They may be little old ladies in tennis shoes, but today those tennis shoes are Reeboks and they move pretty fast."

With more than 204,000 members, the DAR, which celebrates its centennial this year, is the largest women's organization in the country. As in the past, they espouse passionate support of "God, Home and Country" in their rigid membership requirements. A would-be daughter of the revolution must be able to prove just that, that she is a direct descendant of a patriot of the Revolutionary War.

Sentiments haven't changed much within the organization that blasted UNICEF Christmas cards as a communist plot in 1959.

Glasnost is now considered a "clever public relations campaign," and the influx of Latin American aliens is filling the country with "terrorists and subversives," according to DAR printed statements.

Through its National Defense Committee, the DAR makes known its members' sentiments on flag burning and any other issue of the day, from AIDS testing to the government's policies on South Africa.

Although primarily geared to advocating a strong military defense ("to ensure the survival of our national sovereignty"), the committee also keeps members aware of the many non-defense resolutions passed by the DAR, such as child care (they are for it) and the Equal Rights Amendment (they are against it).

Because the DAR's charter prohibits it from political activity, these resolutions are worded carefully to avoid jeopardizing the society's nonprofit status yet are clear enough to get their message across when the resolutions are inscribed in the Congressional Record.

Although the nation's 3,300 chapters are required to address a national defense issue at each monthly meeting, luncheon chatter at the local level is more likely to run to the latest genealogical workshop than the latest political brouhaha in Washington.

Most women join the DAR not out of any firmly held political beliefs but simply to honor their country and the patriots who created it. Orange County's 11 chapters count from 70 to 120 members each, and like their sister chapters around the country, each has its own character and agenda.

The Mission Viejo chapter is devoted to veterans' causes. Says member Janet Franks, who lost a son in Vietnam: "We sponsored the first-ever Memorial day service at the El Toro Cemetery in 1985. They have over 400 veterans buried there, including one Civil War veteran."

For 20 years, the Tustin chapter has collected canned foods at Thanksgiving and children's toys at Christmas to distribute to Orange County's American Indians through the Southern California Indian Center in Garden Grove. The Tustin chapter is officially named Katuktu, a Shoshone word for red hill.

While most East Coast DAR members are signed up by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers, Orange County's members have often come to the DAR through their passion for genealogy. Many of the local members were directed to the society by the Orange County Genealogical Society.

Dorthie Kirkpatrick, Orange County's district director, calls chasing down long-lost ancestors an incurable disease. Kirkpatrick, 76, a retired trust officer with the Bank of America, wears six "ancestor bars," small gold badges that signify her documented descent from six different revolutionary patriots, not all of whom necessarily "fought" in the war. "I discovered one of my ancestors gave the patriots 7,000 pounds of hay," she says. "That was a lot of hay in those days."

Kirkpatrick is president of the Daughters of the War of 1812, and belongs to half a dozen other groups, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dames of the Magna Carta, which was signed in 1215. Each ancestor must be verified by the National Membership Committee, often a yearlong process of painstaking documentation.

"I have at least 15 proven patriotic ancestors that I can tie into, but I'm having too much fun to get 15 applications in," says Maureen Rischard, a Katuktu regent.

Olive Fitzgerald, the chapter's registrar, has 13 proven revolutionary ancestors. "It makes history alive for me to find out what my family did at the time, so it's a challenge to try to find an ancestor in each particular hereditary organization," she says. "I traced one back to the Magna Carta. Right now I'm looking for a Mayflower."

Fitzgerald also admits that she is eligible for membership in the Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain (membership: 260) but says, "I haven't done anything about that one yet."

The DAR and organizations like it have been criticized for making bloodlines a criterion for membership.

"I don't feel superior to anyone because I happen to have ancestors who fought in a particular war," says Fitzgerald. "But I can be proud of those ancestors and show it by joining a particular organization."

"You can clothe a lot of things in the rhetoric of the Revolution," counters Robert Ritchie, professor of history at UC San Diego. "At the time of the American Revolution, over 80% of all the people in America were descended from English forebears." The DAR have always represented the white Anglo-American, he says, and have often taken positions that would preserve the country as such.

Many who view the society as a relic of East Coast blue-blood elitism are surprised to find a strong DAR presence in Orange County where resumes, not pedigrees, wield the most social clout. "If you think about it, though, Orange County is known to be quite conservative," notes one member.

Orange County's first DAR chapter was founded in Santa Ana in 1916. This year is the first in which Orange County's chapters have been hosts to the state conference, which begins today.

The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution was founded in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 1890, by four women who had been refused membership four months earlier in the newly created Sons of the American Revolution. Caroline Scott Harrison, wife of then president Benjamin Harrison, was invited to be the society's first president general.

Both societies were formed to help perpetuate the memories of the country's revolutionary ancestors during a period marked by a fervent revival in patriotism. Today, DAR members take impish delight in pointing out that the SAR's membership, at about 25,000, is barely one-eighth that of the DAR's.

They also like to point out that their headquarters in Washington is the world's largest group of buildings owned and maintained exclusively by women. The gracious three-building complex stretches a full city block between the Washington Monument and the White House. Their number on D Street is, appropriately, 1776.

At one end of the complex sits Memorial Continental Hall, which houses one of the largest and most complete genealogical libraries in the United States. It was here that Alex Haley did much of the research for "Roots," his 1976 bestseller that triggered a national passion for tracing family trees.

The complex is dominated by the DAR's 3,800-seat Constitution Hall.

Built in 1929 for the society's annual Continental Congress, the hall quickly became Washington's cultural center and remained its principle venue for the performing arts until the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971. The auditorium is so acoustically perfect that the National Symphony continues to record there nearly 30 years after moving to the Kennedy Center.

Because the hall sits on their private property, the Daughters of the American Revolution have always had final say on who does and does not perform there. During the height of the Vietnam War, Joan Baez was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall because of her opposition to the presence of U.S. forces in Vietnam. The DAR defended its action as freedom of speech which, they pointed out, should not be limited only to those who disagree with the government but "should be granted to those who seek to preserve our country" as well.

More notorious was the barring of black singer Marion Anderson from performing in the hall in 1939, an incident that prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to resign in protest and which continues to haunt the DAR 50 years later, much to the dismay of the new generation of Daughters who have inherited the flak.

"People need to put the incident in its historical perspective," public relations director Hemphill says. "Washington was a segregated city at the time. There were segregated baseball diamonds within three blocks of the White House." Marion Anderson has since performed in Constitution Hall on eight occasions, including the first concert of her farewell tour.

DAR membership eligibility still carries one caveat: the applicant must be personally acceptable to the chapter she wishes to join. Until the late '70s, many chapters used this clause to exclude blacks from the society, even though the DAR officially denounced racism.

In 1984, a bylaw was proposed to require applicants to prove their ancestors were born legitimately--a thinly veiled attempt to keep blacks (who long ago were restricted from getting marriage certificates) out of the DAR. The proposal was withdrawn after it caused an uproar among the members--many of whom were happy to welcome blacks into their chapters--and the IRS threatened to investigate the DAR to see if their racial policies were in conflict with their tax-exempt status.

Hemphill says the society is glad to put the issue behind it. "We have published five books on black patriots since then," she says, adding that there are now black DARs.

Most Daughters would like nothing more than to let the mistakes of the past slip quietly into oblivion. "We are unable to change what has happened," noted the DAR's President General Marie Yochim. "The best we can offer is that we understand."

The Daughters also feel that their programs of good works and patriotic endeavors are all too often overlooked because of such controversies.

They like to point out that they have published and distributed more than 10 million copies of their manual for good citizenship. They have rescued and restored hundreds of early American buildings, and saved the historic Yorktown battlefield from a housing developer's bulldozer. And they have planted thousands of trees and shrubs on public lands.

The Daughters can also be found in every veterans' hospital in the country, bringing the men gifts, playing cards with them, and jollying them with patriotic songs.

They encourage love of country by sponsoring historical essay contests in schools, and giving good citizenship awards and scholarships to outstanding students. They also give over $500,000 a year to support six schools for American Indians and poor Appalachians. In 1986 the DAR donated more than $500,000 toward the restoration of the Statue of Liberty.

All this, they add, is financed by their annual dues and the endless bake sales and teas that the chapters devote themselves to.

The first and only resolution of the first DAR continental congress in 1892 was to honor and respect the country's flag. The delegates also recommended that schoolchildren be taught the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner" 40 years before Congress designated it the National Anthem. Since then, the Daughters' patriotism has been marked by a special veneration of the flag.

For 98 years, the DAR has devoted itself to making the nation flag-conscious. They give thousands of flags to schools and Boy Scout troops. They present them to new citizens at their naturalization ceremonies. They occasionally replace the flags in the Senate and the House of Representatives. They even sew hundreds of textured Braille flags each year for the blind.

Today, the membership issue of greatest concern to the DAR is simply getting new members to join. "We should have a larger membership with the doubling of each generation, I suppose," says Hemphill. Membership has remained stable for the last 10 years.

The biggest problem is attracting young members, especially in an organization where anyone under the age of 35 is called a junior. "Younger women who are eligible sometimes aren't yet ready for the kind of work we do," Hemphill says, adding, "Then there are some older chapters who don't care whether any young person comes in."

The Orange County chapters actively seek out younger members. Some, like Katuktu, have switched their monthly luncheon meetings to Saturdays to accommodate the schedules of working women. Others, like the Newport Beach chapter, have found that their working members prefer to leave their weekends free for their families.

The DAR established its Honor Roll as a stimulus to chapters to accomplish certain specified membership goals. At a recent meeting of the Tustin chapter, regent Rischard announced that two of their members had to be removed from the membership lists because of non-payment of dues. When she pointed out that had cost the chapter its position on the Honor Roll, an "Oh" of disappointment broke from the audience.

"They should have sent a letter to let us know they were resigning," Rischard chided gently. "Any ladylike person would want to do that."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World