Moving Forward, Looking Back / Declaring peace with the DAR
By Ron Blumenfeld
The Eunice Dennie Burr Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution might be the most quietly enduring institution in Fairfield. It's been meeting regularly since 1894 -- 118 years if you do the math -- yet their presence is remarkably understated. For almost a century, it has been headquartered in the Old Fairfield Academy building, a simple block-letter sign over a side door being the only evidence that the DAR lives within. I recently met the chapter regent, Pamela Huth, who invited me for a tour of the Old Academy and a tutorial on the DAR of today.
First, a frank disclosure: In writing about the DAR, I had to wrestle down powerful childhood influences. I was raised in a first-generation immigrant household for whom the DAR was a bunch of snooty old ladies who regarded themselves as more American than anyone without the proper Revolutionary ancestry. For my parents, the DAR was a laughable yet threatening presence.
And then there was the Marion Anderson episode which, for my parents, confirmed their worst suspicions.
In 1939, the internationally-renowned contralto was barred from a performance at Constitution Hall, the DAR's national headquarters in Washington, D.C., because she was "colored." The ensuing storm of protest resulted in the resignation of many DAR members, including Eleanor Roosevelt. My parents remained unmoved even after a formal apology, the desegregation of Constitution Hall, and several subsequent appearances there by Marion Anderson herself.
So it was with this smoldering internal struggle that I accepted Huth's invitation. That being said, I can report to you that the DAR has come a long way since 1939 in making its exclusivity more, well, inclusive. The DAR website posts a forthright mea culpa on the Marion Anderson affair and makes it clear that race, religion, or ethnicity is not a barrier to membership to any woman over 18 as long as she can document Revolutionary patriot lineage.
I was interested to learn from my gracious tour guide that in the context of their times, the four women credited with founding the national DAR in 1890 were feminists: Outspoken, career-oriented women who were miffed at women being excluded from the newly-formed Sons of the American Revolution.
The DAR now has more than 3,000 chapters, including foreign chapters and more than 170,000 current members young and old (Department of Last Laughs: the Sons of the American Revolution has 500 chapters and 28,000 members).
Obviously, then, there are plenty of women out there who are motivated to document their Revolutionary lineage. Some notable members: Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Ginger Rogers, Lillian Gish, Janet Reno, Bo Derek (why not?), several first ladies, and even an astronaut, Margaret Rhea Seddon. In Connecticut, there are more than 40 chapters. Who knew?
Fairfield's local chapter, aptly named for Eunice Dennie Burr of the venerable Fairfield Burrs (she and her husband Thaddeus rebuilt Burr Mansion after the British burned it down), has about 100 members.
In keeping with its mission of historical preservation, the DAR has maintained the interior of the Old Academy. Built in 1804 as a prep school, the Federal-style clapboard schoolhouse faced demolition in 1920, but through the efforts of the DAR, it was saved and renovated, and eventually moved from the Old Post Road to a tranquil corner within the town green. The first floor serves as the DAR "clubhouse," while the second floor is a faithful re-creation of an early 19th-century schoolroom.
The DAR has also had a hand in preserving our colonial-era cemeteries, in restoring the War of 1812 Powder House behind Tomlinson Middle School, and in the placement of historical markers around town. Aside from annual town events and citizenship awards, the chapter carries out its mission of patriotism through its support of veterans. A recent example is its role in establishing the Pfc. Nicholas A. Madaras Home for Female Veterans in Bridgeport.
So, can I finally make my peace with the DAR? I think so. We humans have a strong tendency to associate according to a wide range of predetermined categories, of which lineage is but one; others are based on religion, military service, political ideology, professional training or country of origin.
Other groups permit their newly accepted members to cloak themselves in the group's characteristics and status, such as private clubs, fraternities and sororities, alumni associations, and fraternal organizations. Rounding out this category are the gaggles of half-naked, war-painted guys at football games.
If one's lineage evokes pride rather than superiority, and brings a focus to socially positive activities, it's hard to single out the DAR for criticism. The DAR has staked out missions of historic preservation, education, and patriotism while remaining, in their own words, apolitical and secular.
Huth tells me that the DAR is changing and growing, and I have no reason to think otherwise. The DAR may still harbor some snooty old ladies, but we who have immigrated here more recently must give credit where credit is due. Sorry, Mom and Dad, wherever you are -- 1939 was a long time ago.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.