In the 1890s, Anne Banning and Ada Laughlin were high-society friends in Los Angeles. Banning was married to Hancock Banning, son of Los Angeles businessman Phineas Banning, known as The Father of the Port of Los Angeles. Laughlin met and married Homer Laughlin Jr. at Stanford University. He was the son of the founder of the Homer Laughlin China Company, which later created America’s favorite dinnerware, FIESTA.
The two women could have settled for lives of leisure, enjoying tea parties and galas. Instead they formed the Assistance League to help those in need, including many affected by the San Francisco Fire and Earthquake of 1906 and later, World War I. During the 1920s, the group pioneered charitable services for their community, including childcare, clothing exchanges, girl’s club and theater.
Soon, other communities wanted to follow their example, so Banning and Laughlin formed the National Assistance League in 1935. By the time they retired in 1948, there were nine other chapters throughout Los Angeles and Southern California. Today, as the organization celebrates its 80th anniversary, there are 120 across the United States.
This remarkable story is the subject of a new exhibit at the Women’s Museum of California — “From Victorian Parlor to 21st Century Boardroom: The Story of Assistance League in America.”
In addition to telling the story of the Assistance League, the exhibit also illustrates how women have moved forward in the last 150 years. “At the turn of the last century, women were still restricted, but they still wanted to do something worthwhile,” explained Ashley Gardner, executive director of the museum. The story of the Assistance League, she added, parallels the evolution of American women’s journeys.
The group’s national historian Anne Salenger agrees. “After the Civil War, women came out of traditional roles as keepers of the home and into the world, into the women’s club movement and new movements. They threw off their corsets, rode bicycles, went to college, transferred from home to community. Combined with progressivism and the women’s movement, they moved us along. They used their college degrees and intelligence to run organizations and corporations without their darling husbands.”
Salenger, who lives in Malibu and was the exhibit’s guest curator, said she has enjoyed using her education (master’s degree in library science) to benefit the Assistance League. Today, many men are also working in the group’s chapters, each a separate nonprofit corporation. Added Salenger, “we even have one male chapter president, in Tucson.”
Younger women are also participating, said Maggie Brasch, immediate past president of the San Diego Chapter. “Daughters and granddaughters are joining us,” she said. “They are working and then volunteering after retirement, getting back into management and using their skills.”
The exhibit, she said, shows how a group of people can affect change directly in their local community. “It’s also a wonderful place to learn about women’s history today; before it was under-exposed and appreciated. Traditionally, many upper middle class and upper class women have not worked. But this shows the arc of them stepping out of the home and up to the plate, using their education and leaving a fabulous legacy.”