Imagine an army dressed in needlepoint name tags, floor-length dresses, and sashes across their formidable chests. An army with its very own general and soldiers the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Grandma Moses and Ginger Rogers.
They're the Daughters of the American Revolution, who celebrated 100 years of God, home and country at their centennial anniversary dinner last night at the Capital Hilton.
With 200,000 members in 3,000 chapters, the DAR is one of the largest women's organizations in the world. Yesterday was proclaimed "DAR Day" by Congress, and the U.S. Postal Service issued two picture postcards saluting the organization's historic headquarters: Memorial Continental Hall at 17th and E streets NW, and Constitution Hall, which sits next to it.
"Although we cherish our yesterdays, we are building our tomorrows firmly on the bedrock of religious faith and patriotism," said the DAR's president general, Mrs. Eldred Martin Yochim, who like many of her compatriots prefers to use her husband's name.
Yochim was wearing the official badge passed down to each president -- a gold seal of the society surrounded by diamonds and sapphires -- and a replica of the blue silk brocade dress worn by Caroline Scott Harrison, the first DAR president general, in the portrait donated by the DAR now hanging in the White House. "It took 55 hours to do the beading," she confided.
Almost every other Daughter wore dozens of medals: committee pins, ancestral bars and other DAR insignia, all crammed onto blue and white ribbons. Members are allowed to wear up to four ribbons across but none longer than 12 inches "or they'd be hanging to the floor," said one Daughter with a laugh.
No effort was too great for the 700 guests at last night's celebration, which included greetings from President Bush and former presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, the DAR executive committee in period costumes ("The bustles are a problem," observed Mrs. Clinton Frank Stimpson, registrar general, who skipped the bustle but donned button-up shoes for the occasion), a fashion parade of dresses from the turn of the century and a birthday cake in the shape of DAR headquarters, with 100 candles.
But history is just one part of the DAR's work. The members are careful to stress the educational programs for naturalized citizens, the friendships and the community service.
"I joined to honor my ancestors who fought to defend my country," said Janet Burks of Tyler, Tex. Burks, 35, was one of the pages, or "young ones," in the DAR. "More young women need to join," she said.
"There's something for everybody in the DAR," said past president Mrs. Richard Shelby. "But all of us are patriotic and devoted to patriotism. And I think we're the first women's libbers."
The 1876 centennial celebrations of the Declaration of Independence sparked renewed interest in the Revolutionary War and its participants, but women were shut out of the Sons of the American Revolution. On Oct. 11, 1890, the four founders held the first meeting of the Daughters and asked Caroline Harrison to be its first president.
The DAR has always been very careful about its membership: All the Daughters must have a direct ancestor who fought or supported the American cause in the Revolutionary War. Social standing doesn't count; there are no honorary memberships. Of the recent First Ladies, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush (who gave a tea at the White House yesterday honoring the organization) are members; Lady Bird Johnson is not (although her daughters qualify through Lyndon Johnson's family tree).
Eleanor Roosevelt was a member until 1939 when she resigned after the DAR denied the use of Constitution Hall to black contralto Marian Anderson, who performed instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The DAR has since admitted blacks who descend from Colonial patriots, and has published four books on the role of blacks in the revolution. Alex Haley did research for "Roots" in the DAR's 85,000-volume genealogical library.
The members said that there are millions of women across the country who could qualify for membership in the Daughters.
"We're plain old Americans," boasted Ednapearl Flores Parr. "One of my ancestors was an indentured servant. You just don't have any idea how dynamic this organization is."