What's the beef with the D.A.R.?!?
November 25, 2016 8:22 AM   Subscribe

I've always known of this organization called the Daughters of the American Revolution but I'd never paid much attention to them until recently. Why are they controversial? Are they still controversial?

I've recently become friends with two ladies who are members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and their encouraging my young daughter to pursue membership in their youth group. At a glance the DAR seems to be a perfectly reasonable charitable organization but I get this nagging feeling that something awkward and embarrassing's just below the surface. I've tried googling but all the criticisms seem to have been before my lifetime. Should I allow my daughter to become active with this group? What's wrong with them, if anything?
posted by Jamesonian to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

It seems like "no longer actively racist" is the most ringing endorsement on a national level. They're not the Klan Ladies' Auxiliary, but why would she want to join that rather than the Girl Scouts or something? Could be legitimate reasons, per the article.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:36 AM on November 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

I won some DAR Good Citizenship award thing as a kid and went to a recognition ceremony and a few meetings as part of the award. It probably really didn't help that I was in the south, but it was a group of very very white, stodgy, genteel women who seemed (in my kid-opinion) more concerned with appearances and sitting politely rather than talking about anything worthwhile. They weren't doing anything actively nefarious, but they kind of represented The Thing I Hated Most and by my second event with them I was clawing at the walls and begging my mom not to make me go back.

posted by phunniemee at 8:40 AM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

It isn't clear how old your daughter is, and how she chooses her friends. I'll assume that she is of an age where you manage her social activities.

Suppose your daughter joins the group and enjoys it. She then asks if one of her other friend can join too, but maybe they aren't descended from the right forebearers. Are you comfortable with how you will explain to your daughter that in this play group, we care more about bloodline descent than anything else about a person?
posted by metaseeker at 8:50 AM on November 25, 2016 [32 favorites]

After finding my ancestor and getting all the paperwork together I joined at the urging of my Aunt. The group I joined was a bunch of older rich ladies that seemed to be concerned with dressing properly, drinking tea, having good manners and providing a boring monthly program. This was all at 10 AM when I was and still am (gasp) a working woman. I resigned since I didn't feel I was getting anything out of it for $60 dues. I've heard there are other more progressive groups that are more accommodating to younger working ladies.
posted by PJMoore at 8:58 AM on November 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is anecdata, so take with a grain of salt - I'm just contributing it to give you an idea of one person's perception having dealt with DAR indirectly. As a child, I just knew they were the group that said my family and I couldn't take our telescope out for stargazing in the nearby historic battlegrounds (an ideal location because of the clear sky and lack of light pollution). I'm not saying they were wrong for wanting to manage the use of the battlefields, as a way of protecting its historical and natural integrity, but in many ways this act and others like it just dripped of white privilege (despite their focus on racial diversity the last few decades), elitism, 'i have the real say on the use of this land because of my bloodline', and nativism with little to no regard to the indigenous peoples who inhabited the continent long before european settlers.
posted by nightrecordings at 9:00 AM on November 25, 2016 [14 favorites]

They fought hard to keep a public statue commemorating the Confederate Army from being removed in my hometown (it's still there).
posted by capricorn at 9:05 AM on November 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

This seems like the wrong year to join a group that venerates the mostly white past.
posted by puddledork at 9:08 AM on November 25, 2016 [49 favorites]

I dunno if the lineage requirement applies to auxiliary youth groups or whatever, and I am too lazy to open that NYT article in an incognito window, but while they've expanded their membership to acknowledge larger groups who were instrumental in the revolutionary war, the membership requirements still actively exclude the vast majority of more recent immigrants to the US, which is reason enough that I wouldn't want my kid involved.

The expansion was recent and weak enough that I parse it as "kicking and screaming," so I'd imagine that there's still a good amount of casual racism in the rank and file, even if it's not part of their official mission anymore. Sounds like lots of tedious gender policing, too.

It's just kind of a weird thing to base a group or a personal identity on, IMO, having some distant, putative (lol patrilineage) ancestor who participated in some specific event. Specifics aside, even, it's maybe worth considering if that's a fundamental mindset you want your kid immersed in.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:09 AM on November 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

Is this something she'd be able to be proud of later?
posted by amtho at 9:21 AM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Historically, an incident involving Marian Anderson being denied the use of Constitution Hall (which the DAR owns) did not show the DAR in a flattering light and cast the organization as upholding racist beliefs. This 1993 NYT article sheds some light on the matter:


posted by kuppajava at 10:00 AM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I've been told that if I do some more research and paperwork I should be able to join the DAR and the equivalent Confederate organization, I forget the actual title. I ain't gonna. The largest impression the DAR has made on this country is to attempt to publicly humiliate Marian Anderson, and as for the Confederates, the less said the better. Even if your friends are lovely people, I think your daughter will learn a better lesson from not being allowed to join. The traditional job of a parent is, after all, to keep their kids away from a "bad influence," and there is a lot of bad influence in the history of DAR.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:02 AM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm eligible, but the only reason I ever considered it was because they have some scholarships available for college-bound kids. That was the only plus I could find, so I'm not joining. (Plus, it just reeks of something my mother in law would revere, and I can't stand her, so.)
posted by wwartorff at 10:04 AM on November 25, 2016

My grandmother was a member. One of her sons (my uncle) has taken up her mantle of talking about our fore-bearers--almost exclusively as some sort of strange justification for his conservative viewpoints ("If your ancestors had been here since the revolution, then you would have voted for candidate x, too"), and ignoring the fact that his nieces and daughter all claim the same heritage but are liberal. I've looked into the organization occasionally but my instinct is that I'm just too radical and leftist to join.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:08 AM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Here is my answer in a somewhat related thread.

Due to aging-related illnesses and deaths, my chapter is now MUCH, MUCH younger. Hooboy is it younger! I could be the mother of many of them. I made better media-profession contacts than in my media-related professional societies.

She could join CAR, which is what I assume you are talking about, and if she likes it, great. She could help make CAR what it could be, too. Perhaps a project focusing on non-whites in the Revolution? Or *non-soldier* and female Patriots? (There are lots of both, and yes, we do cap that "p". I do, at least.)

Or she could not like it and then resign. I might well do that myself.

I know about Marian Anderson, and I personally knew Lena Ferguson, too. I also know women of color and non-Christians who are members. We welcome them.
posted by jgirl at 10:39 AM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

They get upset if there are onions in anything. Hope that helps.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 10:45 AM on November 25, 2016 [14 favorites]

I'm a member--most everyone seems heavily involved with genealogy and historical preservation more than anything else. I never participate in anything, I admit.


posted by Ideefixe at 11:45 AM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The criticism of the DAR that I am most familiar with is that the documentation requirements for membership are almost impossible for black women to meet, because they rely on having documented birth, death and marriage records. Black marriages weren't legal or recorded in the South for two centuries, and births weren't recorded until at late as the 1960s. So even if a black woman knew she had a qualifying ancestor, she would be unlikely to be able to prove it if, say, her great-grandmother wasn't issued a birth certificate. I would be super uncomfortable joining an organization that denied membership to people because their ancestors had been enslaved or segregated from state record keeping. Maybe a member can clarify if this has changed; I didn't see anything in the NYT article or on the DAR website to contradict it.

Honestly, I'm white and just typing this answer made me wonder why the membership requirements aren't something like, "Any woman who shares our interests in civic engagement, historic preservation and genealogy, and who wishes to promote good citizenship and the study of the American Revolution."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:20 PM on November 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

My impression of the group is that it is for old white ladies. The old white ladies I've met who are with DAR had no understanding of American History - they were in their 80's and were shocked (shocked!!) to hear about the Trail of Tears.

One data point...but still...
posted by Toddles at 2:46 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Others have covered the controversies pretty well, so just stopping by to note that if your daughter is looking for an inclusive and service-oriented women's volunteer group to get involved with, there are lots of long-standing organizations that are not problematic in this way, including YWCA youth groups (their board was integrated in the 1920s!), and the Girl Scouts.
posted by veery at 2:59 PM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Cate Plys at the Chicago Reader reports on her Luncheon with the DAR.
posted by metaseeker at 3:12 PM on November 25, 2016

One more data point: It's just sad. In a small town in northern New Mexico, we have a parade once of year on the 4th of July, and a handful of old ladies march with a DAR banner. It's pathetic when the one's biggest boast is that you are related to someone who might have been involved in something over 200 years ago.
posted by allelopath at 3:16 PM on November 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I worked for their museum located in their national hq in Washington D.C. until about 8 years ago. At that time they were actively trying to mend some things, including being more accommodating to younger working women and expanding and emphasizing research for Native American and Black ancestry. (I worked on an exhibition that was specifically about that research.) For what it's worth, I found that all the stereotypes were true and not true, and could vary greatly on the local group. I met some horrible old ladies and some thoughtful, lovely ones. They would sometimes get caught up in minutiae and frequently did a lot of really cool charity work. There was diversity but not as much as there should have been. I don't know if they are still actively trying to become a less white, less hidebound organization, because they elect a new head every 3 years and the direction of the institution could change and I've been away a long time. But genealogy will always be a big deal because that's a primary interest ( they have a great library and will help you research even if you're not a member or not trying to become one). So that's my experience with them.

(It's a great museum and if you like costume history you should visit now.)
posted by PussKillian at 5:07 PM on November 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have relatives who joined and as far as I have heard it depends on the chapter. My aunt was annoyed that the one near her was clearly intended for/ scheduled for retirees. My cousin is 29 and wanted in for some reason to do so with becoming a lawyer, but I do not know if she has actually done anything much with it due to law school.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:32 PM on November 25, 2016

It occurs to me that the idea of the DAR is similar to the idea of royalty. That is, you can earn a particular privilege (membership in the DAR, or ascent to a country's throne) based solely on ancestry and not on merit. Countries where I don't live are welcome to continue to fund and support the institution of royalty, strange as it is. But here, an organization like the DAR could be far more useful and effective if it removed the genetic test and substituted one that emphasized community service. Why can't you be a "daughter of the American revolution" simply if you support and are willing to work for the ideals of the Declaration of Independence rather than qualifying by virtue of a direct (but always questionable) "bloodline" to someone involved in the Revolutionary War?
posted by beagle at 11:01 AM on November 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

There are lots of service organizations for women if you don't like the DAR.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:07 AM on November 26, 2016

Well, as a local historian I can offer a sort of counterpoint. I live in a small northern Minnesota city, and the local DAR invited me to speak to them about a notorious local madam from a hundred years ago. Basically I was to tell all about what the red light district was like and how the "fine upstanding ladies" of the time--their predecessors, natch--were hypocritically involved in destroying it while sometimes simultaneously secretly enjoying it on the sly. I talked openly about human trafficking, the racism inherent in the term "white slavery," anti-immigrant sentiment, and rampant sexism. I was careful to keep my discussion PG-13, but they were very interested and very welcoming, and all told me how fascinating my talk was.

I was surprised they invited me, and there was definitely finger sandwiches and tea. I expected tittering, and I got some of that, but there were no white gloves or flowered dresses. It was just a bunch of white women of a wide range of ages who are *really* into genealogy and love talking about history. I also told them that my grandmother wanted to be in the DAR really badly, but found to her dismay that we were Quakers and had our farms confiscated by the Continental Army. lol

So, basically it's a gathering of history and genealogy hobbyists, and their charity work is pretty banal, but well-meaning. They have a racist history, but you know, so did the suffragists, which comes down to us as the League of Women Voters.
posted by RedEmma at 4:09 PM on November 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

I don't live in the States, don't know a huge amount about the DAR, but if I met somebody who was a DAR member I would probably assume they were at least a little bit racist, and certainly very oblivious or outright hostile to progressive causes, and then politely distance myself. It's not exactly an organisation with sane-seeming membership criteria and I don't think they have any sort of good reputation anywhere outside of the US where people might have heard of them. Too many countries have had too many major problems thanks to groups who were too interested in some of the DAR's interests, you know...? I think you are right to be wary.
posted by kmennie at 4:01 AM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

> Too many countries have had too many major problems thanks to groups who were too interested in some of the DAR's interests, you know...

Could you go into detail? I've never heard about the DAR being involved in overseas nefariousness.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:43 AM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I could be in it, too. We should start an online DAR group of kickass feminist nerds who use their WASP/colonialist privilege for Real Good.
posted by pomegranate at 5:26 PM on November 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

The nagging and uncomfortable feeling you have probably has a lot to do with the fact that they are seen as an exclusionary club comprised of women descended from the rich, white landowners of yore. Thinking about the DAR too much makes me cringe because it seems like the sole purpose of it existing was so that ladies could have a social club only with people "like them" without looking like they were keeping out POC or poor people. "It's about being proud of your ancestors!" is just a positive spin on "It'll look bad to actively discriminate so let's just make the barrier to entry something that non-white non-landed gentry folk can't possibly prove".

I am sure that many, many DAR groups do good works and are lovely clubs to hang out in, but I wouldn't have a really positive impression of a young woman who I learned belonged to one.
posted by amicamentis at 12:47 PM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Could you go into detail?

"Too many countries have had too many major problems thanks to groups who were too interested in some of the DAR's interests, you know...?" should have been "groups with interests whose public personas were comparable to that of the perception of the DAR have been problematic"...?

Does that follow...? I think in other countries, DAR is some weird stuff in 2016. It's comparable to, I think? Girl Guides/Girl Scouts. There are some difficult things in their past; they need to denounce those to get past it.

For example...? We don't have a tenth of the politics surrounding Scouts/Guides in Canada, but. An organisation with a problematic past is one that needs, I feel, to denounce that. And not weakly, too.

But -- my answer was primarily -- even though I spent some years living in the US -- "Here is my take on it from outside the USA." That's all.
posted by kmennie at 7:36 AM on December 6, 2016

Maybe that article about Girl Scouts doesn't say what you think it does. It's not an example of Girl Scouts having a problematic past that needs to be denounced, other than one council in Louisiana. I remain confused.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:06 PM on December 6, 2016

They fought hard to keep a public statue commemorating the Confederate Army from being removed in my hometown (it's still there).

I've learned more about this in the last few months, and this was almost certainly the easily-confusable Daughters of the Confederacy. I retract my previous comment and beef with the DAR.
posted by capricorn at 8:56 AM on September 7, 2017

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