Mary D. Janney, co-founder of women’s career service, dies at 91

October 13, 2012

Mary D. Janney, a former history teacher who was a founder of Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington-based career placement service that has helped thousands of women find work, died Oct. 7 at George Washington University Hospital. She was 91 and had complications from a hip fracture, her son Peter Janney said.

After settling in Washington in 1949, Mrs. Janney taught history at the private Potomac School in McLean for a dozen years while raising two sons.

As feminist ideals began to permeate society, she left her teaching job in 1964 to find ways to improve the plight of women in the workplace. She would spend more than 40 years working with organizations dedicated to occupational and educational opportunity.

Mrs. Janney was guided, in part, by the example of her mother.

“She had a very strong mother,” Peter Janney said, “who was on her own as a single mother and was a pioneer in the New York birth-control movement.”


Mary D. Janney, a teacher and activist for education and women’s empowerment, has died. (Family Photo)

With Jane Fleming, a homemaker and writer, Mrs. Janney wrote a book for women seeking employment. In 1966, the two women launched Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), which has trained more than 10,000 women for jobs. Mrs. Janney served as the organization’s president for 12 years.

Originally geared toward professional women seeking second careers, part-time work or volunteer opportunities, WOW evolved to include training programs and placement services for women of all income levels.

“Regardless of education and money,” Mrs. Janney told the New York Times in 1971, “all women need the same supportive situation in order to find jobs and stay in them.”

The Women’s Workforce Network, a nationwide group of women’s employment programs, grew out of WOW, as well as the Women’s College of Assistance Project, which provided funding for education to low-income women.

As more women began to move into fields previously dominated by men, WOW expanded its programs to include training for a wide range of technical work, including electronic technicians, heavy equipment operators, meat cutters and sewage plant operators.

“The thinking has been that if the job is something technical or complicated, women can’t do it,” Mrs. Janney told The Washington Post in 1975. “We’re trying to change that.”

Mary Draper was born May 28, 1921, in Brooklyn. She was a 1938 graduate of the Madeira School, a private girls’ school in McLean, and graduated in 1942 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

During World War II, she helped organize a community coordinating council in Iowa, which led to an invitation to the White House from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Janney later directed a civil defense organization in New York City.

In 1948, Mrs. Janney received a master’s degree in sociology from Yale University.

During the 1970s, she chaired Vassar’s board or trustees and helped direct a nationwide search, which led to the hiring of lawyer and economist Virginia B. Smith as the college’s president.

During the late 1980s, she was executive director of the Washington chapter of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which matches low-income students with philanthropists who help provide financial support for college education.

In her 80s, Mrs. Janney was director of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities, a tuition-free education program for low-income students in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

Mrs. Janney was executive director of the metropolitan Washington chapter of Planned Parenthood from 1979 to 1983 and was a national board member of Common Cause. She was also on the boards of the Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington and the Hattie M. Strong Foundation, a District-based organization that administers scholarship programs for future teachers.

Mrs. Janney also served on the D.C. Commission for Women and a D.C. task force studying teen pregnancy. She ran unsuccessfully for the D.C. Council in 1986 and for the D.C. school board in 1992.

Her husband, Wistar Janney, a CIA officer, died in 1979 after 34 years of marriage. Survivors include two sons, Peter Janney of Beverly, Mass., and Christopher Janney of Lexington, Mass.; and two grandchildren.

Mrs. Janney spent summers in Woods Hole, Mass., and enjoyed tennis and sailing. At age 88, she took part in a sailing voyage across the Atlantic.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.