Women’s History Museum chronicles Assistance League story

In the 1890s, Anne Banning and Ada Laughlin were high-society friends in Los Angeles. Banning was married to Hancock Banning, son of Los Angeles businessman Phineas Banning, known as The Father of the Port of Los Angeles. Laughlin met and married Homer Laughlin Jr. at Stanford University. He was the son of the founder of the Homer Laughlin China Company, which later created America’s favorite dinnerware, FIESTA.

The two women could have settled for lives of leisure, enjoying tea parties and galas. Instead they formed the Assistance League to help those in need, including many affected by the San Francisco Fire and Earthquake of 1906 and later, World War I. During the 1920s, the group pioneered charitable services for their community, including childcare, clothing exchanges, girl’s club and theater.

Soon, other communities wanted to follow their example, so Banning and Laughlin formed the National Assistance League in 1935. By the time they retired in 1948, there were nine other chapters throughout Los Angeles and Southern California. Today, as the organization celebrates its 80th anniversary, there are 120 across the United States.

This remarkable story is the subject of a new exhibit at the Women’s Museum of California — “From Victorian Parlor to 21st Century Boardroom: The Story of Assistance League in America.”

In addition to telling the story of the Assistance League, the exhibit also illustrates how women have moved forward in the last 150 years. “At the turn of the last century, women were still restricted, but they still wanted to do something worthwhile,” explained Ashley Gardner, executive director of the museum. The story of the Assistance League, she added, parallels the evolution of American women’s journeys.

The group’s national historian Anne Salenger agrees. “After the Civil War, women came out of traditional roles as keepers of the home and into the world, into the women’s club movement and new movements. They threw off their corsets, rode bicycles, went to college, transferred from home to community. Combined with progressivism and the women’s movement, they moved us along. They used their college degrees and intelligence to run organizations and corporations without their darling husbands.”

Salenger, who lives in Malibu and was the exhibit’s guest curator, said she has enjoyed using her education (master’s degree in library science) to benefit the Assistance League. Today, many men are also working in the group’s chapters, each a separate nonprofit corporation. Added Salenger, “we even have one male chapter president, in Tucson.”

Younger women are also participating, said Maggie Brasch, immediate past president of the San Diego Chapter. “Daughters and granddaughters are joining us,” she said. “They are working and then volunteering after retirement, getting back into management and using their skills.”

The exhibit, she said, shows how a group of people can affect change directly in their local community. “It’s also a wonderful place to learn about women’s history today; before it was under-exposed and appreciated. Traditionally, many upper middle class and upper class women have not worked. But this shows the arc of them stepping out of the home and up to the plate, using their education and leaving a fabulous legacy.”

The Assistance League was the first nonprofit, nonpolitical, nonsectarian organization founded in the West to help the less fortunate. Today, about 26,000 members participate in a variety of programs, including running thrift shops, providing clothing to school children and offering scholarships. The San Diego chapter, which turns 50 this year, helped more than 3,200 children and awarded $24,000 in scholarships last year, past president Brasch reports.

The site of the exhibit — The Women’s Museum — also emerged from an inspired woman’s home. Mother of five businesswoman and feminist Mary Maschal began assembling an extensive collection of artifacts and documents about women’s history in her Golden Hill home in 1983. In 1997, she moved the collection to the Art Union Building at Broadway and 23rd Street. Before her death in 1998, she asked that the project be carried on.

Director Gardner joined the museum board in 2002. A former television host (one of the first women in the industry) and owner of a video production company, she said she soon realized that the museum needed marketing and a better location.

In 2007, she resigned from the board and stepped into the director position. Under her leadership, the mailing list grew from 400 to 10,000 and in 2012, the museum relocated to Liberty Station. In addition to offices with four employees and a large volunteer staff, the museum includes several exhibits, archives, a library and a store with women-made items.

It also offers study programs and internships for high school and college students and meeting space for the National Organization for Women and various book readings.

The current exhibit is in keeping with the museum’s mission statement, Gardner said, which is “to educate and inspire present and future generations about the experiences and contributions of women.”

If you go: ‘From Victorian Parlor to 21st Century Boardroom: The Story of Assistance League in America’ exhibit, open noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, until 8 p.m. Sept. 17 only, exhibit closes Sept. 27 at Women’s Museum of California, NTC Liberty Station, Barracks 16, 2730 Historic Decatur Road, Suite 103, San Diego. Admission: Free (Suggested donation $3-$5). Contacts: (619) 233-7963. womensmuseumca.org

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