“What's the DAR?”

The 126-year-old social and civic club Daughters of the American Revolution has a partially deserved reputation for being stodgy, exclusive, and country-club-esque. I imagine that the TV show Gilmore Girls gave them a boost in name recognition and also reinforced their snobby reputation (even if we agree to set aside the 2016 revival “A Year in the Life” as its own thing). For those not in the know, the title of this post is a nod to Luke in the show. In reality, the DAR is an organization shaped by their rule that to be a member, you must prove you are the blood descendant of a Patriot in the American Revolution.

I became curious about the DAR because I had a coworker who was involved and loved it. She talked about writing reports on local history for her chapter newsletter, researching the lives of overshadowed women in the Revolution, and having a multigenerational group of friends, all things I like. A few years later, I got curious again after a colleague at a historic site I care about mentioned that without the DAR’s preservation efforts, the site probably would not have made it this far. (I won’t name the site because a rival organization to the DAR, the Colonial Dames, currently gives them more money.) It seems that whatever else the DAR does or doesn’t do, the interest in American history is not a thematic wrapping that the DAR puts on over idle tea parties on Emily Gilmore’s patio -- it’s a central and substantive part of their work.

I couldn’t put “join the DAR” on my list of things to do for the blog, because I didn’t know whether I’d be allowed in, since I don’t know if my heritage qualifies. Instead, I decided to do research into whether I’d be eligible. In this post (extraordinarily long, for this blog!) I chronicle my explorations of the membership process, which ended up raising personal questions as well as research questions.

One of the numerous genealogy publications published by the DAR.

Blogging about considering joining an organization is tricky. I’m very picky about adding new indefinite time commitments to my plate right now, but, like with Toastmasters, I’m serious about giving it a try, and I don’t want anyone I meet while exploring the group to think that I was playing at undercover reporting. My hope here is to have a new experience, and write about it for other people who might be interested, to save some people the time and give others the nudge they need to jump in.

I thought I might be eligible for membership because I knew that a great-aunt had traced a branch of my family in the US to back before the Revolution. My first step was to go to the DAR website and learn the process. It’s clear they’ve worked against their reputation, with photos of Black and Latina women on the front page and the phrase “regardless of race, religion or ethnic background” showing up repeatedly. Their requirements for membership are very precise: you need to be able to prove a blood relationship (adoptions are explicitly out) to a Patriot of the American Revolution. There’s a rigid list of things your ancestor could have done to qualify as a Patriot in the DAR’s eyes, such as serve in the Continental army or participate in the Boston Tea Party. To prove the relationship, you need copies of legal documents like birth certificates or census records -- the kind you can find with an Ancestry.com login if you’re lucky, or hours of library research if you’re not -- either all the way back, or connecting you to another DAR member.

I’m not the first and won’t be the last to notice the many categories of people who are excluded from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Immigrants need not apply. People with adoption anywhere in their family history would need the genealogical records of biological ancestors and proof of a link to them, which isn’t how adoption works for many families. People whose families used closed adoption or didn’t go through an agency may be out of luck. People with gay parents or parents with low income are likely to be in that position. The way “official” records work, and thus the way traditional genealogy works in the US, throws in even more exclusions. People whose ancestors lived in poverty, moved a lot for work, or didn’t belong to a church will have a harder time proving lineage. People whose ancestors were born out of wedlock or as the result of sexual violence between someone with Patriot pedigree and someone in a marginalized group may never find “official” paperwork because it doesn’t exist. For a taste of the tensions between “traditional” genealogy and marginalized groups, I recommend this Slate article, and the book Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America by Francois Weil (which also discusses why many people love geneaology). 




Do I want to be a part of an organization that’s so cavalier with their exclusivity? And one that’s committed to being apolitical apparently without examining the ways the status quo is politically charged? The latter is probably a topic for another post, although I’ve explored the more general version before. Thinking about exclusion, on the one hand, their stance has clearly evolved since they were founded. People within the organization had to be a key part of this change. I could reap the benefits (history club!) while gently pushing my chapter towards being more reflective of the true diversity of our society and our past. My local DAR chapter is in Watertown, MA, and I could see how they are connecting with the large Armenian population there, if they are. On the other hand, there are other mountains to work on moving, and I’m not sure I want to give the DAR my money. It’s not clear from the website how expensive it is, or what projects my dues would support.

Fast forward several months. When my dad emailed me a scan of a 1990s computer printout, the product of my great-aunt’s research, he noted “This page is from a genealogical list of the descendants of James Antram, who came to Burlington, NJ from Essex in England between 1678 and 1680. You and I are in paragraph 46, ten pages later.” There it was -- according to Aunt Jean, I am the six times great-granddaughter of John Antram, James Antram’s grandson and a Revolutionary War soldier.

I was briefly a little disappointed. It took me a few days of turning it over in the back of my mind to figure out why. I have dim memories of Aunt Jean’s visit when I was maybe eight or nine. She called it “cousin-hopping,” staying with various relatives while asking them about genealogical data (although in retrospect, I imagine the visit was largely social, since we wouldn’t have had any information my grandmother didn’t also have). She told us my brother and I were the 11th generation in our family since our ancestor moved from England. I was fascinated because I had never thought about spans of time in generations before. The man who immigrated, James, was a Quaker. At the time of Aunt Jean’s visit, I had recently learned about pacifism, and had heard that the early American Quakers had largely been pacifist, and I was excited to learn that I had descended from someone who was probably a part of this tradition. So, I was disappointed because my eight- or nine-year-old self would have been disappointed to also be descended from a soldier (although certainly, there has been military service in my family more recently than that!). It’s interesting to see how parts of my family’s past have meant different things to me at different times in my life.

Equipped with the information that I should be able to become a member of the DAR if I want to be, I moved on to the next steps: submitting a prospective member information request form to be connected with a representative from my local chapter, and looking into the documentation I’d need to provide about my ancestor and my lineage. My first interactions with the membership process went smoothly, although (since I didn’t fill out the pedigree fields in the form) I was told “You will have to have some idea of why you feel that you are descended from a patriot,” which makes sense in their vernacular, but to me, was amusing phrasing.

As I mentioned earlier, I had personal questions as well as research inquiries to make. I’m not sure that the DAR’s pedigree requirement really serves their stated mission. I understand that as a group that cares about and celebrates American heritage, they would want to encourage their members to do genealogy research, but plenty of members skip that requirement the way I would have, by resting on the research a family member has done. Wouldn’t it be better to to admit any woman who can demonstrate that she has researched her family tree a certain number of generations back? Or, since genealogy research can be more difficult for some populations than others because of the a lack of well-preserved records, could the DAR offer genealogy research classes to prospective members -- they basically already do this part -- but require that new members take the class, rather than requiring that their research have a certain outcome? It’s easy to say that the DAR doesn’t want to change because their organization is racist and anti-immigrant at its core, but I don’t personally have enough evidence to make that claim. I don’t know whether those are really the motivations, or whether the tradition of using pedigree as a membership criterion is just so deeply entrenched in the DAR that its members are unwilling to face the actual impact of their policies.

An image of "Today's DAR" from their website.


Given that I’m pretty uncomfortable with one of their core policies, but very curious about the organization as a whole, I was deeply ambivalent about joining. I planned to go to one of the meetings that my local chapter holds that’s open to new members, so I could at least get a taste of it, but they’ve only had two in the year or so since I started looking into this, and I had a conflict each time. Given that, I decided to ask two more questions that would help me decide: whether the DAR is open to all women who meet their criteria, or whether they secretly exclude trans women, and how much membership costs.

Fast forward a little more. I learned that dues are annual, $25 to the state and national society and $40 to my local chapter annually. For me that’s enough to make me pause but I could swing it if I were enthusiastic -- I’m giving the specific numbers because I couldn’t find them on their website.

Regarding whether all women who meet their criteria are welcome, the registrar of my local chapter wrote to me, “I will check with the DAR executive board for the transgender policy, and let you know.” Not a terribly welcoming response, but I waited for her follow-up. She wrote, “The Registrar General's office has returned the following information:

DAR applicants must have a birth certificate confirming female gender, and same lineage rules apply.

If you have any questions, you can contact the Registrar General's office via the DAR website or DAR mailing address in Washington, DC. I hope this is helpful information.”


Okay, so I have serious concerns about this. That doesn’t sound like a formal written policy, but perhaps an answer to my relayed question, and makes me wonder whether they have a written policy on inclusion at all. Why no email address to ask? My contact’s emails on this subject were a bit officious compared with her previous emails, and no longer seemed to be trying to get me to join. More importantly, requiring a birth certificate with a female gender marker is highly exclusionary. Changing your birth certificate is illegal in some states. In most states where it is possible, it’s expensive, and some states require that people undergo gender confirmation surgery before getting proper identification. Surgery isn’t financially or medical available to many people, and regardless, isn’t an accurate indicator of whether someone is transgender. This policy kind of sounds like a poorly thought-out attempt to exclude trans women (based on the false assumptions that birth sex means something about gender and that you can’t change a birth certificate), but I don’t know whether that’s the case. It could easily just be an attempt to dodge the issue, saying, “if your state says you’re a woman, you’re a woman,” while ignoring the fact that getting the state to accept your gender isn’t an option available to all women. I’m not comfortable with a women’s organization dodging the question of whether trans women are women.

I used the contact form on the DAR website to give a short summary of my concerns and ask for clarification, but it’s been six weeks, and I never heard back. Obviously, I’m not interested in joining a women’s organization if they’re not open to trans women as well as cis women, but I struggled why the DAR’s apparent dodge on the issue is a dealbreaker for me when the organization’s issues around race, created by their insistence on demonstrable pedigree, was not necessarily a dealbreaker. After a lot of thought, I concluded that while both issues matter to me, I went into the process of exploring DAR membership already knowing about the race issue, and thinking that if I did feel inspired to become a member, I’d work to do my part to raise the relevant questions from within my local chapter. I feel similarly about doing my part to raise the relevant questions about being welcoming to all women. If an organization I cared strongly about was unwelcoming or deliberately excluding trans women, I’d probably try to make change before I considered leaving, so if I were otherwise inspired to join a group with these issues, I might still join and try to make change. I think that the real reason this is a dealbreaker for me with the DAR is that I’m not interested enough to try to work for inclusivity from within on two different fronts. I’ll leave that to the people for whom it’s a meaningful, fun intergenerational history club that already plays a role in their lives.

Comments

  1. Your investigation is interesting. I have a very deep personal aversion to anything that is determined by "blood relationship" which has always made me suspicious of organizations like DAR.

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  2. This was a really interesting read, thank you for sharing your process. I, too, can easily link to the DAR based on the research of a great-grandmother but have had many of the same reservations you write about here. I don't have a decision yet - which in a way is its own decision.

    I wonder if/when they will start adjusting their rules based on the growing popularity of DNA tests? That might be a way for more people of color to prove links to Revolutionary soldiers. (Think, for example, of all the Sally Hemings descendants who could qualify.)

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  3. Thanks for your comments! I think that even though it's a civic and social organization, because DAR membership is also about heritage and family, thinking about membership is a deeply personal process in some ways. Amanda, I have been told that they do accept DNA tests as evidence on a case-by-case basis, but I don't know much about it. (The fact that one has to dig for that kind of information on what they will and won't accept is one of my reservations about them, honestly). I know that DNA tests are usually not as conclusive as their advertising claims, but it will be interesting to see how they change things.

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  4. I am happy to have stumbled upon your post, as I have many of the same concerns! I have a BA in history and am an atheist-humanist chaplain, so my first concern was whether or not atheists are welcome. DAR claims to not discriminate based upon how one identifies religiously, but not sure how they feel about folks like me who are not religious. I believe change must come from within, so I applied as I have three patriot ancestors, and upon acceptance have no problem admitting my atheist status. I am no fan of the religious mentionings in the chapter oath and opening before meetings, so others would need to be cool with me staying seated for that (they would be standing with one hand on heart and other raised high). Another concern I have is their acceptance of transgender women. I am mom to a trans teen and if I am accepted, she has already said upon turning 18, that she would like to perhaps join. She will be allowed to change gender on her birth certificate in our state upon her 18th birthday and likely will do so. Will she be one of the first transgender members? I do not know. Lastly, I have been ridiculed by some who ask me (with anger) why I would join a racist organization. I understand the history and know First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a pretty fired-up letter to DAR announcing her resignation...but I also see all the change they have made, much reform to include women of color, get black Patriots loaded into the system to aid those who are seeking to apply. I see chapters in TX and OH that do gently used bra drives for women who were victims of sex trafficking and other great efforts being made. So, my application remains pending and I wonder when my questions and concerns will be answered and addressed.

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