In the late 1800s women weren’t allowed yet to vote in elections, and thus it would seem that they wouldn’t be able to wield the political power needed to bring about change. The conventional wisdom of the time was soon to be challenged, however, by two women who first founded National PTA’s predecessor, the National Congress of Mothers. On February 17, 1897, the two founders, Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst, looked out at the 2,000 people from across the country who gathered for the Mothers Congress’ first meeting in Washington, DC, and saw the beginning of the largest (and now oldest) volunteer organization that works exclusively on behalf of children and youth–a group of people who had even fewer rights at the time than women.
Alice McLellan Birney
Alice McLellan Birney (1858-1907) was a cofounder of the National Congress of Mothers, which later became the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, or National PTA.
She was born in Marietta, Georgia, completed high school at 15, and attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
At 18, she married Alonzo J. White, a lawyer from Charleston, South Carolina. He died within the year, leaving her an expectant mother. While rearing her daughter, Mrs. Birney studied medicine. When financial difficulties forced her to abandon this course and earn a living, she entered the advertising business and was an unqualified success.
Fourteen years following White’s death, she married Theodore Weld Birney, a lawyer practicing in Washington, D.C. They had two daughters.
Mrs. Birney wrote “In the child and in our treatment of him rests the solution of the problems which confront the state and society today.”
Extremely well-read and sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate, Mrs. Birney aspired to build a better world for children. With her husband’s support, she first presented her plan at an adult education center in Chautauqua, New York, in 1895. Then, in 1897, she met Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who helped her transform her plan into a reality. It was a success from the start.
Mrs. Birney served as president of the new organization until 1902.
Selena Sloan Butler
Selena Sloan Butler — Founder and first president of the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers (NCCPT) to function in states that legally mandated segregation. In 1970 the congress united with the National PTA. Today, Mrs. Butler is considered a co-founder of the National PTA.
Mrs. Butler, mother, teacher, and wife of the outstanding physician, Dr. Henry R. Butler of Atlanta, Georgia, was a pioneer in the work of the improvement of racial relations, especially the rights of children. In spite of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers’ mission to protect the rights of all children irrespective of color, Mrs. Butler believed more needed to be done.
In 1919, Butler dedicated her life to forming an organization which would have the same objectives as the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. She wrote several letters encouraging parents and teachers of color to form a union with the primary purpose of uniting home and school into a planned program for child welfare. Her letters stimulated interest in the parent-teacher movement and her own state, Georgia, became the first to organize. By 1926, Mrs. Butler aroused sufficient interest and issued the first call for a convention. To this call, four states responded and sent delegates.
In 1919 the Yonge Street Parent-Teacher Association was the first unit of the Georgia Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers (the precursor of the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers).
Her letter-writing technique inspired President Hoover to appoint her to serve on his 1929 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection representing the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers and working on the Committee on “The Infant and Preschool Child,” whose work contributed to the writing of the “Children’s Chapter.”
Mrs. Butler lived to enjoy and participate actively in the work of this organization for more than thirty years.After working 50 years apart, NCCPT and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers united in 1970 to expand their outreach. Today, Selena Sloan Butler is considered one of National PTA’s founders.
Phoebe Apperson Hearst
Phoebe Apperson Hearst (1842-1919) helped to establish the National Congress of Mothers in 1897, which later became the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, or National PTA.
Born to pioneering parents in Franklin county, Missouri, she attended a one-room log cabin school. She completed her education in St. James and became a teacher at the age of 16. In St. James, she met and married George Hearst of San Francisco and moved to California. The fortune Hearst built enabled Mrs. Hearst to transform many of her dreams into realities.
Mrs. Hearst was especially concerned about school training for the very young. As a parent of one son and as a teacher, she realized that a child’s early education could determine his entire future. In 1883 she founded one of the first kindergartens, which she supported with her time and money. She formed seven in all – first in San Francisco, and then in Washington, D.C., where the Hearsts later lived.
When her husband died and she took control of his empire, education remained her foremost interest, for she believed that only through education could there be a lasting improvement in human welfare.