Our Story

Making History for Almost 100 Years

WNDC was founded in 1922 at a historic time in American history — just two years after the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which began the enfranchisement of American women. After a struggle that had begun more than 60 years earlier at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, women were no longer to be denied  all the rights and privileges of citizenship. In November 1920, many women cast their votes for the first time. While the right to vote remained, and remains, under attack for far too many Americans, WNDC was founded on the principle of putting our democracy in the hands of the people.

The first organization for Democratic women in Washington, DC, WNDC opened its doors near the White House in 1924. The Club provided a social setting for political dialogue between visiting Democrats and residents of the District of Columbia, who were excluded from national suffrage, and continue to be denied full representation.

Founders

Emily Newell Blair, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in charge of women’s affairs, oversaw more than a thousand clubs for Democratic women throughout the country. She had also established political schools for women, hoping to revitalize the party through a well-informed women’s electorate. Believing that Democratic women needed a place in Washington, DC to discuss public issues and put their new franchise to work, she founded WNDC as a “hub” for the Democratic women’s activism.

Florence Jaffray “Daisy” Harriman, a Washington and New York socialite, recruited prominent political and social figures to become WNDC members and help provide financial support. Harriman had entered national politics in 1912 to campaign for her friend Woodrow Wilson in his first presidential bid. President Wilson endorsed the Club, and former First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson was elected honorary president. Harriman also launched a series of bipartisan Sunday night suppers that raised the Democratic Party profile and quickly became a Washington institution.

In 1924, the Club launched its twice-weekly programs, which included panel discussions, speaker series, roundtables, and more. Over 95 years later, we continue to host and learn from renowned political-thought leaders including former First Lady Rosalynn Carter; former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton; former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski; former PBS News Anchor Jim Lehrer; Maryland House Delegate Mark Kennedy Shriver; Civil Rights Leader Vernon Jordan; Members of Congress including Maxine Waters, John Lewis, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jackie Speier, Lucy McBath, Pramila Jayapal, Loretta and Linda Sanchez, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz; DNC Chair Tom Perez; and Ultraviolet Founder Shaunna Thomas.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt joined as a non-resident member before WNDC was officially chartered in 1923. When she became the Club’s first Democratic First Lady a decade later, WNDC entered a new era. The Club became Mrs. Roosevelt’s forum for her personal social reform agenda. Her major appearances included a September 15, 1939, broadcast to observe Democratic Women’s Day, carried coast to coast by the three radio networks of the day: CBS, Mutual Broadcasting Company of America (today’s ABC) and NBC. The First Lady urged the country to think about the future and what might be done to bring peace to the world. In 1959, in her final WNDC address, Eleanor Roosevelt advocated self-help aid to women in developing countries, a concept that two years later was instituted in the Peace Corps.

Through the Decades

Through the decades, WNDC has been on the forefront of national political issues and in the movement to elevate our Democratic values in government.

In the 1920s, we got our start harnessing the energy around the 19th Amendment to mobilize and amplify women’s political power. In 1927, we opened our doors at The Whittemore House to create a physical community space. In 1955, when Washington was a segregated southern city, the club welcomed Gladys Duncan, the first person of color to join the Club. Duncan was an elementary school teacher and powerful Democratic activist in her own right. She also played an active role supporting her spouse, Todd Duncan, the original Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, who desegregated the National Theatre

In the early 1960s, WNDC member Esther Peterson led John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Following the President’s death, Club members helped the White House respond to the country’s outpouring of sympathy to Jacqueline Kennedy.

The Club supported Lady Bird Johnson’s environmental efforts and today, our small, intimate garden is named in her honor. Rosalynn Carter found WNDC to be a powerful forum for her mental health advocacy. Club members also helped launch the successful Head Start program, which promotes school readiness of children under 5 from low-income families.

The WNDC’s Democratic Woman of the Year Award, first presented to Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in 1975, has honored many distinguished women, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Senator Barbara Mikulski, economist Dr. Alice Rivlin and Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

In 1988, the Board voted to admit men to the Club. The first male member was Wynn Newman, who then joined the Board in 1989.

In 1991, the Club established the WNDC Educational Foundation (EF), which oversees the Club’s scholarly collections, sponsors an oral history and publication program, and conducts community outreach projects. Supported by donations, the Foundation also maintains a historic preservation fund to help conserve the landmark Clubhouse. The Educational Foundation is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.

In honor of the Club’s 75th Anniversary in 1998, we created the Eleanor Award, named for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. We present the award in recognition of a leader who is dedicated to humanitarian principles. The first award was presented to former Secretary of State and then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on the occasion of the Club’s 75th Anniversary. Recipients have since included former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and artist and activist Harry Belafonte.

In 2016, the Hillary for America campaign established their DC organizing offices at the WNDC. In 2017, WNDC served as headquarters to the leaders of the Women’s March as they mobilized millions of people around the world for the historic January 21st March. Ahead of the 2018 March for Our Lives, WNDC provided a space for neighbors, musicians, and politicians to join in community action for gun violence prevention and comprehensive reform.