On a humid Saturday evening in June of 1897, William McKinley enjoyed a quiet dinner at the White House. Three months earlier, he had declared in his inaugural address that, “…equality of rights must prevail.” A few blocks away on Rhode Island Avenue were seventeen women to whom those words rang hollow. It was not the vote, however, that occupied these ladies, but problems peculiar to “the writer’s craft:” libel and copyright laws, plagiarism and the inequality with which professionals of “the fair sex” were treated by their male counterparts.
This first meeting of The League of American Pen Women was organized by Marian Longfellow O’Donoghue (yes, Henry’s niece), who wrote for newspapers in Washington D.C. and Boston. She invited fellow journalists Margaret Sullivan Burke and Anna Sanborn Hamilton to join her in establishing a “progressive press union” for the female writers of Washington. “The Dauntless Three“ brought together seventeen women: writers, novelists, newspaper women, a teacher, a poet and an artist.They hoped that these “active pen women” would find in the group, “mutual aid, advice, and future development” for each other and their careers (quotes from The League Minutes, 26 June 1897).
Professional credentials were required for membership and the ladies determined that Pen Women should always be paid for their work. Artists and composers were welcomed by their literary sisters. By September of 1898, the League boasted over fifty members “from Maine to Texas, from New York to California.”
The association became The National League of American Pen Women in 1921 with thirty-five local branches in various states. Membership increased through the 20s and 30s. First ladies have traditionally been awarded honorary membership and on occasion have actively participated in League functions. Eleanor Roosevelt, a prolific writer, was an enthusiastic Pen Woman during her tenure in the White House and beyond.
Social events hosted by the League and attended by the Washington elite became highlights of the Season and raised funds for League properties and projects. National conventions began in the early 1920s and have continued as biennials alternating between Washington D.C. and other cities around the nation.
The Pen Woman magazine debuted in 1920 and continued until 1923 when The Official Bulletin was substituted for the periodical. In 1940, The Pen Woman reemerged as the organization’s journal and vehicle for members’ creative works and League communications.
In the ensuing years, writing competitions, art exhibitions, and special events showcased the works not only of League members, but aspiring artists, writers and musicians. Scholarships for students and mature women honing their craft have been hallmarks of League efforts.
The League’s headquarters are located in the historic Pen Arts Building in the DuPont Circle area of Washington.
The U.S. population has more than tripled since the birth of the League. More than a decade into its second century, 55,000 writers, artists and musicians have been proud to call themselves Pen Women. Many of the battles fought by the founders have largely been won, but other challenges remain. For professional women, parity with men in the workplace is still a goal to be achieved.
Pen Women of this millennium are stewards of the legacy envisioned by those seventeen progressive pioneers. Their vision has carried the organization into a future “The Dauntless Three” could hardly have imagined.
There is much yet to be done as we turn our attention to an expanded mission. Mentoring, encouraging and promoting emerging professional women in the arts is incumbent upon current members. And in a time when arts in the classroom are being curtailed or even eliminated, Pen Women see an opportunity to give of their time and talents with outreach programs that provide students with a chance to discover and explore their own artistic gifts.