It’s like trying to hate your grandma because she doesn’t like rock and she voted for Ronald Reagan: You disagree with her musical taste, you think her politics dangerously goofy–but darn it, she still makes the best butterscotch pie around. And she’s your grandma.

That’s the Daughters of the American Revolution all over.

There are 202,193 of them, and they don’t all live in Boston and Philadelphia. They are here among us. Illinois boasts 10,600 Daughters, with about 4,000 in the Chicago metropolitan area. In fact, the Chicago chapter is celebrating its centennial this year as the nation’s first local DAR chapter.

The Illinois Daughters held their 95th state conference recently and tried luring the press by sending out a nice fat publicity folder touting the Chicago chapter’s birthday. Yet Mrs. Sena Krieg, in charge of media relations, was endearingly surprised to hear that a member of the media did, in fact, want to attend. “Oh! The Chicago papers usually don’t do anything, to be honest,” she admitted. She wasn’t sure if she could get an extra ticket to the American Heritage luncheon, or the Salute to the First Chapter luncheon and fashion show. “I’ll have to see if there’s any room,” she worried. “This was dumped on me because the state publicity chairman’s daughter picked that day to get married.” The DAR is a conservative Washington-based organization, but it is not a slick, savvy machine by any means.

The conference was at the spanking-clean Oak Brook Hills Hotel, which is actually in Westmont–but given the bland interchangeability of western suburbs, it could have been Riverdale in an Archie comic strip. And, many people may be thinking right about now, wouldn’t that be the perfect place for the DAR?

Yes. No. Kind of. In short, it’s hard to say. While the group does indisputably good works, people have mocked it for 100 years. There has been much to mock.

In 1939 the group refused to let internationally celebrated contralto Marian Anderson, who is black, perform in its Constitution Hall. DAR member Eleanor Roosevelt quit over that one, and Anderson held a historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead.

In 1980 a Washington, D.C., chapter refused to admit Lena Ferguson, a black woman. The national DAR eventually offered Ferguson membership at large, which doesn’t confer the right to vote or hold office–just the sort of restrictions blacks have been objecting to for some time now. Ferguson continued her fight for local membership. In 1984 the Washington Post asked then national DAR president general Sarah King if the DAR considered discrimination by local chapters acceptable. “If you give a dinner party, and someone insisted on coming and you didn’t want them, what would you do?” King answered. The Washington, D.C., state regent, Eleanor Niebell, said, “I don’t see why it looks bad. There are a lot of black organizations I can’t join.”

At the same time DAR was considering a new bylaw: In addition to its traditional requirement that members be direct descendants of a Revolutionary War soldier or supporter, the new rule would have required proof that the genealogical line was legitimate–which would have effectively frozen out blacks, who couldn’t legally marry in Revolutionary times. King said the proposed bylaw had “nothing to do with black people. It has to do with the modern trends of society. . . . We’re trying to guarantee the integrity of the society. I don’t feel it is an entirely white organization. I know we had two blacks in 1895.”

These daffy statements, not surprisingly, heated up the Ferguson controversy. Two DAR members called for King’s impeachment for her handling of the case, and a Washington Post editorial suggested that if the DAR wanted privacy, they could have it without their tax-exempt status. At this point the DAR apparently hired a public-relations firm. King announced new bylaws would be passed prohibiting discrimination by local chapters, and acceded to requests from Ferguson’s lawyers to set up a program encouraging minority membership. Ferguson finally got her local membership.

Then there are the resolutions passed each year by the DAR Continental Congress, its national convention. National resolutions chairman Mrs. Erwin Connell Ward wrote in a recent issue of the DAR magazine that the resolutions are “an important educational tool to provide Daughters with factual information on current affairs.” Lessons last year included, “Whereas, The Soviet defector, Anatoly Golitsyn, revealed that the fall of the Berlin Wall and reshaping of Eastern Europe was planned in 1959 by the KGB as a strategic disinformation campaign to disarm the West. . . . Resolved, that the [DAR], as individuals, recognize the deception of Glasnost . . . ” And in 1989 Daughters were taught, among other things, that “the persistent drive for World Government continues to be actively pursued by a very exclusive group holding membership in the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission . . . forming a “shadow government’ that is manipulating world policy and finance. . . . Currently the creation of Regional World Governments is one of the primary aims of these internationalists, their final goal being the merging of all nations. . . . The five regional governments created or in the process of completion are the Warsaw Pact Nations (WPN), the European Economic Community (EEC), the East Asia Common Market (EACOM), the North American Common Market (NACOM) and the South African Common Market (SACOM) . . . ”

Nancy Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly are members.

Still, the DAR is mostly just full of nice people like Echo Ranta, a tiny, plump, elderly member of the Daniel H. Brush chapter in Carbondale, and Bettie Dwinell, regent of the Park Ridge chapter. I sat between Mrs. Ranta and Mrs. Dwinell during the American Heritage luncheon on the Illinois convention’s first day.

“When I sent in my reservation, I forgot all about this lunch, so my friends are scattered all over,” Mrs. Ranta chattered as an introduction. “But that’s all right, we’re going to make new ones!” she chirped, patting my hand.

“That’s right, that’s what it’s all about,” Mrs. Dwinell nodded, smiling. And darned if they didn’t go and make me feel right at home.

So just what does the DAR do? It has three official objectives: historic preservation, promotion of education, and patriotic endeavor. Under the first category, activities include maintaining the DAR museum and genealogy library at the Washington, D.C., headquarters and contributing to projects like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island renovations. In education, DAR is the principal supporter of two Appalachian schools for underprivileged children and helps support four others. It also sponsors yearly school essay contests during American History Month, and maintains an American Indian Fund for scholarships to Native Americans. And for patriotic endeavor, the DAR gives out Good Citizenship Awards, with the national society awarding a $1,000 scholarship and states awarding varying amounts of cash, pins, and certificates.

Though many consider the organization outmoded and irrelevant, it’s hard to dismiss the DAR. Its charity work is sizable, and it’s one of the largest women’s groups in the world. It snags vice presidents and senators as keynote speakers for its national convention. Last year Congress declared October 11 “DAR Day,” and the post office issued two DAR picture postcards. Nine first ladies have been DAR members, including Barbara Bush; other famous members include Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and Clare Boothe Luce. The ladies have connections.

The Oak Brook Hills Hotel was awash in tasteful two- piece suits and flesh-tone stockings on Day One of the DAR Illinois convention. Pants were nonexistent, unless you count the waiters and the man from the J.S. Caldwell jewelry company who sat behind a table loaded with pin samples, the DAR version of badges. Some Daughters transform into human pincushions–“Volunteer Genealogist,” “State Chairman Pin,” “Friends of the DAR Schools,” and so on. Strict rules govern pin wearing to keep the most enthusiastic collectors from getting totally out of hand: pins go on blue or white ribbons, up to a maximum of four ribbons no longer than 12 inches each.

The crowd was largely over 50, with a fair percentage over 65. Younger women, between 18 and 35, were acting as “pages,” who volunteer to usher and run errands in white dresses and white gloves. Some pages looked positively middle-aged, creating a disturbing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? effect. Nearly everyone prefers not only the moniker “Mrs.,” but also the use of her husband’s first name. A cursory glance at the list of speakers in the convention program could leave the impression that this was a men’s group.

As Daughters milled about before the opening meeting, I was trying to eavesdrop when Mrs. Krieg of media relations found me. Mrs. Krieg, from Lombard, is friendly and efficient. She quickly welcomed me and slipped in, “There are a lot of people who don’t know the DAR and the sorts of things they’ve been doing with Indians, immigrants, and education over the years.” This was a constant refrain at the conference. Contrary to the Daughters’ snobbish reputation, they worry a lot about whether other people think they’re snobs.

The opening meeting filled a large conference room, with about 200 chairs set up before a large stage. The Daughters stood as a piano player launched into “God Bless America” for the processional. Three immaculate pages in glowing white entered solemnly, the first carrying a huge American flag, the second an Illinois flag, and the third the DAR’s flag. “We have a great deal of ceremony at these things,” Mrs. Krieg whispered. Next came the state DAR officers. “There’s our state regent,” said Mrs. Krieg, pointing discreetly to Mrs. Virgil V. Clary of Winnetka as she swept past us. “I just love the color of that suit. I’m dying to get an Ultrasuede suit,” she remarked. Mrs. Clary’s Ultrasuede suit was, indeed, a stunning fuchsia.

We said the Pledge of Allegiance, we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we recited the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, and then we got into murky water with something called the “American’s Creed,” the patriotic equivalent of the Cub Scout pledge. The Daughters knew everything by heart, except one who self-consciously muttered “I used to know that” after the Preamble. They all put their hands on their hearts for the pledge and kept them there right through the creed.

Then we spent about an hour being greeted. First off, the mayor of Westmont, who made it clear that Oak Brook Hills Hotel or not, we were in his town. “This is a special time for Americans,” the mayor said, referring to the gulf war, a real lay-up with this audience. “Each of us walks a little straighter, a little more proud to be an American. I wish to thank you again for selecting Westmont and coming here for your convention. Thank you again and, uh, do your thing for the men in the gulf.”

The Sons of the American Revolution sent a former Illinois president, Burton Showers, to deliver greetings. To the extent that they toil, the Sons do so in obscurity. They were founded first, but acted like a tree-house club and wouldn’t let any girls in. Now the girls have their revenge: the Sons, with about 26,000 members, are a mere shadow of the DAR. While the DAR maintains a vast Washington headquarters, including a museum and the landmark Constitution Hall, the Sons tend a relatively modest Louisville, Kentucky, headquarters featuring a recently completed replica of George Washington’s library at Mount Vernon and a diorama of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. (“If you ever get to Louisville, please stop by our headquarters!” Showers said at one point. “Oh! I never thought of that,” mumbled a surprised Mrs. Krieg. )

Showers still managed to sound condescending. He tactlessly detailed why he was addressing the DAR instead of the SAR state president, who couldn’t make it, or the guy the state president asked to replace him, who canceled at the last minute and called Showers the day before the convention.

“You’re stuck with me again, girls,” Showers chortled. “This is your centennial year. We went through ours this past year, for good or bad, and we think it was pretty doggone good! And we wish you people well. I know you women always do a great job and show us men up something terrible–but that’s the way of life I guess!”

Later two of the DAR officers seated onstage presented Mrs. Clary with some sort of frog statue. “You can’t have a state meeting without a frog, and we present you with a frog on a lily pad,” they said, barely managing to choke out the words before collapsing in giggles. “You never know what these two will come up with!” laughed Mrs. Clary. I looked questioningly at Mrs. Krieg, who shrugged and said, “There’s some little joke with that frog, but I don’t know what it is.”

Mrs. Clary introduced everyone on stage, which apparently included every past officeholder still extant. There was a strict ritual here. For each introduction Mrs. Clary would approach the microphone with a white-clad page on either side of her, oddly reminiscent of the Black Muslim bodyguards that always flank Louis Farrakhan. And after each introduction Mrs. Clary would sit back down with the pages following her–even though the people introduced were simply standing briefly to acknowledge applause. She might as well have been doing aerobic knee bends. Another page stood behind the seat of each person as she was introduced, pulling her chair out as she stood, like a waiter at an expensive restaurant. Diplomatic protocol at superpower summits can’t be much more meticulous.

Finally the Daughters went over business. The credentials committee reported on how many chapters were attending, how many past state regents, how many past this, how many past that. Total: 297. The standing rules were recited, such as “Registration badges and ribbons will be shown at the door” and instructions to address Mrs. Clary as “Madame State Regent” for “the sake of brevity.” Treasurer Mrs. Ronald Plos reported that the Illinois DAR donated more than $57,000 to national projects in 1990, and state historian Mrs. Wayne W. Marquart reported that the state chapter moved a certain boulder and found and restored a Stephen A. Douglas medallion.

This year’s proposed state resolutions were read, and while quite conservative, they were considerably more mainstream than the national resolutions. The Illinois Daughters are concerned about confusing food labels, stricter regulation of TV, and an ordinance against pornography.

Individual Daughters are fairly cavalier about their exact genealogy. At the American Heritage luncheon I chatted with Echo Ranta, Bettie Dwinell, and Janet Miknaitis, 39, of Elmhurst, one of the few whose name tag did not include “Mrs.,” though she is married. Mrs. Dwinell was the only one who knew something about her DAR-qualifying ancestor. “Jacob Bartow, he was a soldier, I know that. He was a Huguenot, and a papermaker–and you don’t realize what the world would be like without paper. He was from Bartow, Pennsylvania–it’s a township now–and they used to have a railroad stop just for him.”

The sprightly Mrs. Ranta knew her ancestor’s name, H. Ward Clark, but that was thanks to her ancestor pin, a gold bar with the Revolutionary ancestor’s name inscribed in flowing script. Janet didn’t even have that. “Nope. I don’t know if I can remember the name,” she acknowledged cheerfully. “I don’t have a pin–I’m too cheap. They’re expensive. The DAR considers everything a donation. Just look at your plate–does that look like $17 worth of food?” I asked how she had joined. “My grandma was a member for years, but it was one of those things you know about but you don’t much care. Then a friend of mine who was a member said, ‘You should join, you’d really like this group.’ Still, if I had to hunt up the genealogy, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Mrs. Dwinell concurred; a cousin had done her genealogy. “You can see how ambitious we are,” she said sheepishly.

Someone inquired about my family background, and I admitted that while half my family was just off the boat, the other half had been hanging around for years and might qualify. “Still, for all I know they were traitors,” I said.

That brought quiet and odd stares from some women across the table. “Traders?” one asked doubtfully.

“No, you know, British loyalists,” I explained. They didn’t like that at all.

Mrs. Dwinell described the Park Ridge chapter’s work. “Our chapter is really busy with history essays in schools, good-citizenship awards. We have a lady who types for the blind, one who’s teaching English to a Japanese woman. We try to promote education, and love of country, and being proud of it. We’ve been quite active with the veterans, we’ve taken square dancers and given a party at the veteran’s hospital, we collect things and take them to the hospital. And we’re really pushing conservation now–at each meeting, somebody’s got something new to do about conservation.”

“People don’t know what the DAR is,” Mrs. Dwinell added. “We’ve been having problems with one of our high schools because it’s very ethnic, with many religions–and they don’t understand the DAR and good-citizenship concept. They don’t think it’s the ‘in’ thing.”

When the American Heritage luncheon’s speaker, Mrs. Merlon Dremann, began her talk on “The History of Quilts in America,” a visit to the exhibit room suddenly seemed like a great idea.

The exhibits, arranged on long folding tables, looked remarkably like my eighth-grade science project, with production values tending toward the poster-held-up-by-a-yardstick-taped- to-the-back variety. One, labeled “Constitution Week,” featured newspaper clips from what must be every small town in Illinois, with photo captions like “Canton Mayor Don Edwards signs proclamation designating the week of Sept. 19-23 Constitution Week in the city.” There were entries for an American Heritage Contest, which included a box labeled “Our Heritage in Fashion,” inside which were four dolls dressed in various period fashions. The National Defense Display was still in several unopened boxes, but a slip of paper promised it would be eight feet tall.

I was looking at a public-relations display when a Daughter, who turned out to be Shirley Lafferty of the LaGrange chapter, abruptly said, “See, this is just what we are–we’re born into it.”

“Hunh?” I said.

“Well, you need sponsors to get into women’s clubs, Kiwanis, all of that,” she said. “They’re all like that, but we get a bad name. People don’t know all the things we do.”

Cruising the exhibit room turned up another little-known facet of the DAR: the CAR, Children of the American Revolution, which is a coed organization. The CAR exhibit featured three posters headlined “Friendship,” “Leadership,” and “Membership.” Three CAR officers were staffing the booth: Michelle Rediger, 22, senior state president; Kathleen Clary, 22, former president of the Illinois CAR and daughter of state regent Mrs. Virgil Clary; and Shawn Yomine, 18, state president. CAR looks like a fairly diverse organization judging by these officers: Michelle, from Templeton, Illinois, is a businesslike young woman who appears ready to step into her chosen vocation, accounting; Kathy, of Winnetka, has the long blond hair, tan, and relentlessly bouncy good cheer that suggest spiritual citizenship in Daytona Beach; and Shawn, from Lake Bluff, wears his hair in a ponytail and sports a discreet earring. They were only briefly shy of talking seriously about CAR, and they spoke confidently about their commitment to the group.

“I see it as being about citizenship and being active in the concerns of the country, and making sure that I’m going to be able to influence other kids to be more patriotic,” said Shawn. “I mean, like the whole thing that happened in the gulf. I see that everybody supported it, but what if they hadn’t? At least I’ll be there.” He thought a moment and added, “And of course it’s a lot of fun. It’s kids who have at least one thing in common, which is the fact that we traced our ancestors all the way back to the Revolutionary War. And we only see each other once in a while, so we don’t have time to get in fights and stuff.”

“I think it’s showing a sense of purpose,” said Michelle. “That we’re here to teach the younger people. This way I’m able to help Shawn and younger members learn about history and conservation techniques and patriotism, which at times does run very low. You know, flag burning and things like that. It gives me a sense of pride to know that I have a sense of duty. We can be proud of our country. It may not be perfect, but we can help make it a better place to live in.”

“I’m the artistic type,” Shawn mentioned unnecessarily, “so a lot of my friends are sort of ambivalent about the whole thing. But if I can even help just a few people through CAR realize that what we’ve got here is one of the best governmental systems in the world, as far as I’m concerned, then at least that’s something.”

And they really mean it. CAR has about 540 members nationwide, with about 140 in Illinois. They range from 4 years old to the age limit, 22. Since most kids forced to play with younger relatives tend toward activities like tying them up in the basement and turning off the lights, it’s hard to picture what the CAR members do together. “One thing is each year the kids, the committee chairmen and the officers, come up with contests,” said Michelle. Contests fall under several set categories–Flag of the USA, Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier. “They come up with their own ideas, whatever they want to do. They might write a poem about how patriotic they feel, or write a story about the early settlers,” she explained.

I wondered what kind of reaction CAR members get from their friends.

“Uh, in my age group, it’s not very impressive,” Shawn admitted. “A lot of people don’t understand it.”

“They’re like ‘What?’,” said Kathy, imitating her friends’ screeches. “And I say, ‘You know what DAR is? It’s part of that.’ And they say, ‘You’re in DAR?’. In my area there’s a lot of information about DAR good-citizens’ awards, so they all know what DAR is. But you hear very little about the good things they do.” She was beginning to sound familiar. “They’ll be like, ‘I didn’t know they did that.’ Then they’re like, ‘Oh, is that the one that wouldn’t let blacks in?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but so did everybody else back then.’ It doesn’t make it right, but you can’t blame DAR singly for something like that.”

Like their older colleagues, the CAR members were uncomfortable with their organization’s image of being exclusionary, yet they didn’t think the rules excluding people on the basis of ancestry were any big deal.

“You have to prove your lineage, and in the 1800s there was very little record keeping, so even people who aren’t minorities have a hard time tracing their line,” said Michelle.

“But I think almost all organizations, they have rules,” Kathy insisted. “I mean, every organization, I think, kind of tries to keep people out. I mean, look at Rotary.”

“I think most people do have ancestors, if they go back and look,” Michelle theorized.

“Unless they just got off the boat,” Kathy added.

“But even then, it depends on who you marry,” Shawn put in. “My lineage is very mixed up.”

“You have to take the time,” Kathy said firmly. “I think if you’re willing to look, almost everybody can find it.”

Shawn, Kathy, and Michelle are obviously good friends, but since the adult organizations aren’t coed, they won’t be working together much longer. I asked them why, in these postfeminist times, the SAR and DAR don’t just merge into one group. “They’re a typical male organization,” said Michelle. “They just get together and sit around.”

“They don’t do anything compared to what we do,” Kathy agreed.

Shawn noted that he probably wouldn’t be active as an adult, unless DAR started accepting male members.

“Not likely,” said both Michelle and Kathy, smirking.

The Daughters do have a sense of humor about themselves. For instance, the convention’s second-day “Salute to the First Chapter” luncheon included a fashion show of changing styles from 1890 to 1960, modeled by members. The luncheon’s first speaker, Mrs. Donald Halamka, showed up in a preposterous hat and quoted an early observation of DAR members that called them women in silly hats. She got a good laugh. Still, the fact remained that they were having a fashion show of changing styles from 1890 to 1960, modeled by members. They only got half the joke.

I was sitting with two pages, Heidi Henneman of Thompson, Illinois, and Lisa Childs of West Chicago, both 17 and CAR members. On teenagers, the white outfits and gloves were anachronistic but not sinister. Heidi is national corresponding secretary, Lisa is state vice president and running for next year’s state presidency. Lisa has a lot of Revolutionary ancestors.

“There’s like 17 of them, on both sides,” she said. “My mom is a genealogist. We’re related through a cousin to George Washington and Daniel Boone.”

“I’m related to Henry VIII, but I didn’t want to brag about it,” said Heidi. “I don’t think it’s legitimate.”

“Oh, we’ve got one of those too,” said Lisa.

I checked with Heidi and Lisa on why the SAR and DAR don’t merge.

“Money,” said Heidi simply.

“Money,” Lisa agreed.

“The DAR makes a lot more money,” Heidi explained.

Mrs. Halamka’s speech became confusing when, without warning, she began speaking in first-person as Letitia Green Stevenson, the DAR’s second president general. As Mrs. Stevenson, she began meticulously recounting the early DAR presidencies.

Miss F. Lynette Sherman, former regent of the Chicago chapter, followed with a painstaking account of the life of Chicago’s first regent. She also told us that the woman originally picked to head the newborn Illinois state society had been disqualified. She could only find loyalist ancestors. A low, scandalized hum filled the room.

The fashion show itself was, in a word, a spectacle. Most models were in their 70s and 80s, with a sprinkling of the middle-aged. They filed into the banquet room from a side door, crossed in front of the long head table to a small platform, mounted two steps, twirled once or twice, and departed down the center aisle. Young pages kneeled on either side of the platform steps. Given the age of the models and the ungainly nature of the costumes, the pages were wisely placed. They lifted skirts as the models ascended and provided strategic support for the more portly participants.

The costumes were mainly family heirlooms, though some were custom-made. Mrs. Jean Metcalf of the Springfield chapter wore an 1890s dress she made from a vintage Vogue pattern for her role as Mrs. Mary Lockwood in the “Re-Enactment of the DAR’s First Meeting.” Several models were almost palpably thinking, “How did I get myself into this,” while others got thoroughly into character. Mrs. Miriam Jackson was notable for her portrayal of a 1920s flapper, gamely swinging her long necklace and flouncing down the center aisle. The piano accompaniment gave the whole thing a silent-movie atmosphere.

I spoke later with Mrs. Katherine Lathrop, regent of the founding Chicago chapter being honored at the luncheon. Mrs. Lathrop had given an entertaining talk on the chapter’s start, including quotes from the papers of the founding-chapter regent: “Alas, there were false reports that we were setting up a nobility. . . . The dues were $3, and the lifetime dues were as high as $25 and had few takers.”

Today the Chicago chapter has 150 members, said Mrs. Lathrop. “At one time it was a very large chapter, and by large I mean 1,000 members. And then as women started moving to the suburbs, they started chapters there. It became more difficult to come into the city. Nowadays nobody wants to come into Chicago,” she said, laughing ruefully. “Those who live in the suburbs, I mean. They don’t know what they’re missing though.”

In addition to supporting national DAR programs, the Chicago chapter contributes to the Newberry Library and runs the good-citizenship program in 19 Chicago public schools. “We get a pretty good response,” said Mrs. Lathrop. “We give a good-citizenship pin to each person named by their school, and invite them to a George Washington tea in February. And we give a $1,000 scholarship to the student named most outstanding–not necessarily in grades, but in helping the community. It’s really amazing what some of the young people are into these days.”

The Chicago chapter is a diverse one, said Mrs. Lathrop. “We have quite a number of professional people,” she said. “We have a number of attorneys. We don’t have very many people who are just housewives these days, but that’s because there aren’t so many women anymore taking care of the house and family.” She mentioned, almost as an afterthought, “I’m a professor at the University of Chicago.” The modest Professor Lathrop is in the radiology department.

Mrs. Eldred Martin Yochim, DAR president general and keynote speaker at the Illinois convention’s Centennial State Banquet Gala, has much in common with her rank and file. She joined the group only after a nephew researched the family genealogy. She knows the name of her qualifying ancestor–Ensign Francis Payne of the Fort Fauquier County Virginia militia–but remembers nothing else about him. And she’s touchy about those pesky DAR membership rules. She interrupted my question about the rules before I could finish. “There are a lot of organizations I can’t belong to,” she said, echoing everyone else I’d heard. I was beginning to wonder if the DAR was taking tips from the Republican National Committee and sending out crib sheets for responding to the press. “Every organization has its rules, the way you have to get in,” she insisted. “I can’t get into the Mayflower Descendants, I can’t get into–well, there’s a number I can’t get into. It’s just the rules of the organization. You have to trace back to the Revolutionary War for this one, you have to go back to a colonial period in another one–in the Patriots of America you have to use the same name all the way back. My husband is not eligible for the Sons of the American Revolution because he’s second-generation German. So everybody isn’t eligible for everything.”

Let me play devil’s advocate, I said. One reason people might view the exclusionary aspect as inconsistent is that the DAR is presumably dedicated to the principles of the Revolution, such as equality. So if somebody believes in the same things but doesn’t–

“No, that’s not what the Revolution stands for,” Mrs. Yochim asserted. “That’s not what it is. We have three objectives: historic preservation, promotion of education, and patriotic endeavor. We only use the Revolutionary War because we trace back to the independence of this country and we have to trace back to someone who took part in the independence of this country in some way. So it’s not whether people believe in what we believe in. My husband believes in everything the SAR stands for, but he can’t be a member–and he doesn’t think a thing of it. You can’t get into the Order of the Eastern Star unless your husband or father were Masons. I am a member, but I got in because my husband’s a Mason.” Obviously, no new insights were forthcoming from Mrs. Yochim.

I turned next to academia for a scholarly perspective and called Northwestern sociology professor Bernard Beck, who obligingly considered the membership rules. “Well, that’s the sort of thing that’s going on all the time in social life,” he said. But, he added, with such groups “there’s an inability to see why anybody on the outside would want to be in here. As if somebody knocked on your door one night and said ‘Hi, I can see you’ve got a lovely home here. I’d like to be inside of it.’ And you say, ‘You’re not a member of this family.’ And they say, ‘But it’s still a nice place.'” An observation eerily similar to Sarah King’s during the Lena Ferguson controversy: “If you give a dinner party, and someone insisted on coming and you didn’t want them, what would you do?”

Beck went on, noting that groups such as the DAR often form “because the world at large has become more complex than it used to be. There are privileges, or habits, that now seem more difficult or threatened because the world became larger and more heterogeneous. If all that’s around are people who are descendants of Revolutionary people, then you don’t have to make a group about it. It’s only when the world starts filling up with people who are not descendants from the Revolutionary War that you start saying ‘Wait, let’s make a distinction here.'”

And when does this social exclusion become racism? “Essentially the thing that makes a difference is discovering that there’s something inside the group that’s valuable and that gives an advantage to those that are in and disadvantages those that are outside,” he said, noting the feminist assault on all-male business clubs. “But, for example, the one famous instance that involves the DAR was their refusal to let Marian Anderson sing in their hall. Now, that’s more symbolic than anything else. Nevertheless, there is a real symbolic expression of monopolizing real social opportunities, and sometimes that happens deliberately. In other cases groups turn out to have an advantage unintentionally.

“Our general notion in this society is that there has to be an open market on opportunities, and any time any what we call in the trade “particularistic connection’ monopolizes opportunity, we are troubled ethically and politically. Sometimes it looks like we’re ready to sit still for any kind of bad outcome as long as there was a free and open market in opportunity.”

From a psychological standpoint, recent research indicates that joining groups has to do with “social identity”, said R. Scott Tindale, associate professor of psychology at Loyola. “You define yourself in some sense in terms of the groups you’re in. You have a personal identity, which is how you distinguish yourself from other people in general, but you also have a social identity, which is how you distinguish yourself as a member of that group from members of other groups.”

While many people have a straightforward motivation to join a group because they’re interested in its work, said Tindale, “it’s also a way of defining yourself in terms of the characteristics and traits of the group. So if this is generally seen as a positive group, then by becoming a member of it you also take on those characteristics yourself.”

Hmmmmmmmm. DAR members argue that today’s Daughters aren’t responsible for Marian Anderson’s outdoor concert, since the actions of ancestors should not and do not transfer to descendants. But by the same argument the actions of Revolutionary ancestors don’t transfer either.

In any case, Lena Ferguson’s long quest for DAR membership is far too recent to conclude that all vestiges of snobbery and racism have been fully purged from the group–though perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect snobbery and racism to disappear from the DAR until both are purged from society itself. Few would argue that such a purge has taken place, which explains the Lena Ferguson incident as the action of a few individual Washington members–for which the whole group is not accountable.

People who resent the DAR object not only to episodes like the rejection of Ferguson, but to the entire basis of the group: the idea that one’s ancestors, one’s biological makeup, determine membership eligibility. (Essentially the flimsy excuse the SAR boys made back in 1890 when they told the girls to take a hike.) But DAR is no Century Club or Skull and Bones. Not belonging is no social, political, or career impediment. So it’s hard to work up a real froth about being unqualified to join. After all, how many non-DAR members really want to listen to talks about quilt making or model period clothing at the Oak Brook Hills Hotel? Yet the ancestor-based exclusionary rules remain troubling. As Professor Beck said, our society expects an open market on opportunities. Even opportunities for something you don’t want in the first place.

Still, no one I met at the Illinois convention seemed the least bit elitist. Echo Ranta, possibly the only living person who still innocently pats stranger’s hands? Bettie Dwinell, who told me about her trip to Poland when she found out I was Polish and described buying black-market toilet paper in Krakow? Janet Miknaitis, who said her friends tease her about how somebody with a name like Miknaitis could get into the DAR? Just a bunch of nice people, and every one of them sincere about doing her own little part for the country.

Professor/Mrs. Lathrop addressed the snob question better than any other DAR member I asked, speaking with the thoughtful, honest deliberateness you expect only from Jimmy Stewart. She considers questions before she answers, instead of barking back instantly like a Pee-Wee Herman doll that’s just had its string yanked.

She said she joined the DAR in 1983 after visiting its museum and seeing a slide show on its various activities. “I didn’t know anything about all that. I thought it was just having an ancestor, and that didn’t seem like it was something that would have a lot of interest. I was very impressed by the support they’re giving to the mountain schools, and I think the museum is very worthwhile. So I joined.”

A lot of Daughters are concerned about seeming snobbish to other people, I told her. Do you think that’s the case? “You’re asking about people outside or inside the DAR?” she asked. Outside, I said. I assume DAR members don’t consider themselves snobbish.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she chuckled. “I’m not saying it’s a general feeling, but I think maybe sometimes there’s a little bit of that. But I think it’s like almost anything else you’ll find in other types of organizations–people who feel a little snobbish about belonging and others who are in it because they feel something worthwhile is going on.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.