High up in the balcony of DAR Constitution Hall, a woman cools herself with a lace fan. Although it is 50 degrees outside, the heat of the moment threatens to overwhelm her. The 94th Continental Congress of the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, is about to convene.
At 8:30 p.m. sharp a trumpet sounds. Crinolines rustle.
Col. John R. Bourgeois strikes up the Marine Band. MaryAnne Nixon, national chairman of pages, from Virginia Beach, steps forward holding the Stars and Stripes. This is the second year she has had the honor of carrying the flag at the head of the procession. "It is heavy," she says, "but it feels very light."
Fifty young women in long white gowns and long white gloves march through the aisles behind her, bearing the flags of the states in reverse order of their admission to the union. Then: the 21 vice presidents general, the 11 members of the executive board and the six personal pages of President General Sarah M. King, who regally advances toward the stage.
The band plays another refrain of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," louder this time, more insistent. All 2,529 delegates are on their feet, their applause rhythmic, intoxicating. "Watch for the flag," a voice says. "Watch for the flag." They know what to expect but it doesn't lessen the anticipation.
In an instant the air is filled with a profusion of red, white and blue, held aloft as if by sheer emotion. Two hundred and sixteen square feet of Old Glory. The Daughters of the American Revolution stand, united and secure, knowing they have done their part to ensure that the Stars and Stripes are indeed forever.
They have been called racist, sexist, elitist. They have seen the flag they love patching the bottoms of tattered blue jeans. They have seen the presidency assailed during Watergate and their country humiliated in Iran. They never wavered. They knew America would come to its senses.
"How can anyone think we're wrong?" says Barbara Taylor, of Potomac, national chairman of the DAR School Committee. "How can anyone think what we're doing is evil?"
"How could you not love your country, this country?" says her friend, Susan McDermott, of Carlisle, Pa.
"And how could you not love people who love their country?" Taylor says.
It began with the Tall Ships and resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan. If it wasn't already clear, the 1984 Olympics certified that flag-waving is back. Once again, all across the land, Americans are singing the national anthem and hitting the high notes. It is a good time to be a Daughter of the American Revolution.
"They feel the country's finally caught up with them," says Taylor. "And what took you so long and a funny thing happened on the way to the DAR."
They arrived Monday for the week with a gust of sweet perfume and an aura of serenity that comes from a lack of moral ambiguity. They stand for the basics. The flag. National defense. God, home and country. And no matter what, they always stand firm.
Hope Sasportas, of Windsor, Conn., remembers when the DAR caused an uproar by simply arriving on campus to present an ROTC award. Her children went to Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. "We've never been wrong," she says. "It's just taken a little time for everyone to come around full circle to see it."
"I think there is more of a sense of relief than vindication," Taylor says. "Relief that we don't have to be quite as vigilant as we were yesterday."
"We're not mad at anybody," says Pauline P. Douglas, a retired school teacher from Bogue Chitto, Miss. "We're just trying to preserve values. If you don't have respect for God, family, country, then we'll all be slaves. You've got to stand for something or else you can just be swallowed up."
There are 210,952 of them, guardians of the values they hold dear. Each has traced her ancestors back to "a man or woman, who with unfailing loyalty to the cause of American Independence" served in the Revolutionary War, as one must in order to be eligible to join.
Last Saturday Nancy Reagan became the 691,000th woman, and eighth First Lady, to be accepted into the society since its inception on Oct. 11, 1890. Caroline Scott Harrison was the First Lady then and the first president general of the organization. Julia Dent Grant, Edith Kermit Roosevelt, Florence DeWolfe Harding, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Doud Eisenhower and Rosalynn Smith Carter are Daughters of the American Revolution. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis qualifies, but never joined.
More Daughters: Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Grandma Moses, Clare Booth Luce, Jean Marie Faircloth MacArthur, Edie Adams, Ginger Rogers, Lillian Gish, Harriet Nelson of "Ozzie and Harriet."
"Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon." Sarah King's Tennessee drawl thickens at the mention of the name. They are, after all, sisters in the Murfreesboro chapter. "Guess who's orbiting in space at this moment?" she says. "A member of the DAR! Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon. She is a surgeon. I stood with her husband, Commander 'Hoot' Gibson and her little boy, who is 2 years and 9 months old, on the roof of a building, the closest available site to launch, and watched her soar off into space as that little boy said, 'Mommy go shuttle.'
"It was probably the first word he learned. His daddy was up last February. They call him an astrotot. Well, Rhea was going to come and speak to us, but they kept delaying the launch. But she has our insignia and our banner with her. So the DAR is orbiting in space."
Which is, King says, one indication of just how far they've come.
"Mind, don't say we're spacey now," she says.
She is standing in front of the mirror in her hotel suite modeling the white straw hat with the ostrich plumes that she wore to the opening day's National Defense luncheon hosted by National Defense Committee Chairman Phyllis Schlafly. She is an imposing woman with a large sense of humor. "It's a terrible image for the DAR," she says, primping for a photographer. "They think all we've got is tennis shoes and hats."
They know what people think: That they are snobby, clanny, WASPy, silly. "My own son would tease me about drinking pink tea and eating petits fours and what way we were having our chicken, and he was a supporter of DAR," says Pamelia Long, the historian general.
If they have been dismissed as frivolous by some, they have been called pernicious by others. They have been branded as racist ever since Marian Anderson was denied permission to sing in Constitution Hall in 1939. "I was in high school," King says.
"We don't bring up Marian Anderson," says one national officer. "But everyone else does. How do you undo it? You don't."
"It's very sad to me," says Carolyn Pappas, national vice chairman of public relations. "I'm not a racist bigot, cat fighting. I'm Carolyn Pappas, and I'm proud to be a member of the DAR."
Last April the DAR was embroiled in a controversy over the exclusion of Lena Ferguson, a black woman, from a District of Columbia chapter. Since then Ferguson has not only become a member of the Elizabeth Jackson chapter but the vice chairman of the DAR Scholarship Committee.
In the last year the DAR has published Robert Ewell Greene's "Black Courage, 1775-1783," a survey of black soldiers who fought in the war for independence, and hired genealogist James Dent Walker to identify minorities who served in the American Revolution. His findings will be published next February. "All the hypotheses about minority service are wrong," he says. "They served in every conceivable capacity, as officers all the way down to cabin boys, in the Army, Navy and Marines. I have found a black officer on Washington's staff, a lieutenant colonel."
This week the DAR amended its bylaws to say that no chapter may discriminate on the basis of race or creed and voted to establish an ethics committee, appointed by the president general, to investigate allegations of discrimination.
They also passed resolutions supporting the Strategic Defense Initiative, a balanced budget, "freedom fighters" in Central America and the government of South Africa. That last resolution says in part: "The disinformation and protest movement against South Africa now prevalent in the United States has not arisen spontaneously, but under the guise of opposing apartheid . . . is being spearheaded by active fronts for the Soviet Union."
The group's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment is longstanding.
"I'm proud of the DAR for what it is strong in, but I don't share their ultra-conservative views," says attorney Marguerite Rawalt, a member who has testified before Congress on behalf of the ERA. "It's a tragedy that this great organization doesn't stand for progress for women. I think they are of another era largely."
Supporters of the ERA in the DAR? "Oh, there's lots of us," says Susan McDermott. "I even roomed with a Democrat."
"Mrs. King is a Democrat," Taylor says. King lost in the Democratic congressional primary to Albert Gore Jr. in Tennessee in 1976.
"I'm a Democrat," one Daughter whispered late Monday night outside Constitution Hall. "But they're all such dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Please don't use my name."
Some members say that partisan politics have obscured the good works that the DAR performs. "Absolutely," McDermott says.
In the last two years it contributed $1,168,000 to six DAR schools in economically depressed areas of Appalachia and the Southeast. It offered 113 college scholarships worth $64,050 last year.
They are committed to historic preservation. On Valentine's Day they held a "Liberty Love Day" and raised more than $300,000 for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. "And we had a committee on conservation in 1900, long before Lady Bird planted a tulip or a tree," says Long.
Last December they launched the Family Tree Genetics Project in conjunction with Vanderbilt University Medical Center, using the health histories of DAR members to research hereditary diseases.
"Just be what you are and hope people like it," King says. "That's the way I feel about the DAR. To be just what we are and hope that people appreciate us and forgive us for what they think we are not."
The lobby teems with Daughters. There is no mistaking them. Some carry book bags adorned with crowns, the emblem of King's administration. Others wear rhinestone crown brooches on blue-and-white sashes. They are higher-ups.
They are all bedecked with hardware -- "my artillery," says Taylor -- tangible evidence of their good works and good lineage. The rules specify where these medals can be worn (on the left side) and how long the ribbons may be (no longer than 12 inches), but not how many one may wear. "The only limit is the bosom," King says.
They are a vision in white, most of it in their hair. Statistics say that 35 percent of the membership is between 18 and 35. But as Taylor says, "The girls sure do live long in the DAR."
Olive Mann, of Clearfield, Pa., has been to at least 25 Continental Congresses. Her friend Jane Duckwall, of Huntsville, Ala., is new. She has been a Daughter for 15 years. "There are people who have no time for us," Mann says. "They don't understand us. They might be jealous of us."
Duckwall nods, twirling a blue-and-white ribbon between her fingers. "They still think of us as women who dress up and parade," she says.
"But we throwed our hats away," Mann says.
"I even throwed my white gloves away," Duckwall says. "Since our president general doesn't wear them, I can do without them. Oh, yes, it's keeping up with the times. It's not living in the past. We have an astronaut. We changed the bylaws to show no partiality for race, creed or color."
"Do we have some black members in some chapters now?" Mann asks. "I heard we had."
Duckwall nods. They fall silent, contemplating the passage of time, the '60s. "We didn't think it would go overboard," Mann says. "We felt it would steady itself."
"It always comes around," Duckwall says.
"They wore long hair, didn't they?" Mann says. "And went streaking, didn't they? They don't boo and protest now. I believe deep down they have respect for standards. Why, I sold $50 worth of desk flags just this morning."