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Dolls Taught Tolerance Ahead of Their Time: Looking Back at Dolls for Democracy


By Ann Rose Greenberg
January 2011

The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, MO, will feature a Dolls for Democracy exhibit from January 7 through March 6, 2011. We spoke to Joanie Kort, B’nai B’rith Women past international president, and a “doll lady,” about the rich history of the program, the dolls, and the new exhibit.

How did Dolls for Democracy get its start?

JWI, then known as B’nai B’rith Women (BBW), began the program in cooperation with Fellowship House in 1950. Eleanor Jacobson, president of BBW’s Heart of America Chapter, was approached by Sidney Lawrence, executive director of Fellowship House, an interfaith interracial program. He saw a need for this program among the neglected inner city children, and thought that it would be a good project for the chapter to take on.

The program was adopted by BBW and called Dolls for Democracy. Initially, a successful African American businessman would go into schools, with a middle-class white Jewish woman, and the “doll lady” would show the students dolls that were the likenesses of historical figures. By hearing the stories of these historical figures, the children saw real-life role models such as Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, and Marian Anderson, and learned how others had overcome obstacles and disadvantages and changed the world for the better. The children were taught that they lived in a world of tolerance.

Dolls for Democracy grew into a national program spanning decades. What was the program’s progression like, and what made it so popular?

BBW’s motto used to be “Pledge to Serve,” meaning community service. Dolls for Democracy was a project way ahead of its time. The project started at least 10 years before the height of the Civil Rights movement, and 20 years ahead of the Women’s Rights movement. Dolls for Democracy filled a community need for teaching tolerance, while providing women a valid volunteer activity. Women across the country rose to the challenge, and 90 communities ordered dolls. The Anti-Defamation League lent its support and cooperation. Rose Evelyn Sporn, the national program chairman, was very instrumental in taking the program to a national level. Everyone knew a doll lady or was a doll lady. Scripts for different dolls were made available, and some women used them, but most of the women did their own research and became experts about the lives of the dolls they were teaching.

The program continued nationally through the 1980s, and is still being done today in a few places, including Salem, OR. As time went on, the program adapted. For example, women felt comfortable going into the schools themselves, without the African American businessmen. Women would go into the schools in groups of 2 or 3 and cover a group of classes. The program was also adopted by JWI Canada, who sometimes had people dress up as the historic characters. One of the actual dolls that they used was Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman, but interestingly, they put a Canadian spin on her story and taught about the escape from slavery in the US to freedom in Canada.

The dolls used for the project were made by Cecil Weeks of Independence, MO. These dolls were handmade and amazingly realistic looking, with an unparalleled attention to detail. The Eleanor Roosevelt doll, for example, wore a replica of one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s inauguration gowns, and was beaded by hand. The Will Rogers doll had a real lasso and his clothes had hand-done tooling. These dolls were special. Also, some communities honored outstanding leaders by commissioning dolls in their likenesses. In 1975, for the United States bicentennial, three bicentennial dolls were commissioned and presented to Vice President Rockefeller. We still use some of the dolls for presentations today, usually to intergenerational groups.

How did the dolls come to be displayed in the Truman Library and Museum?

Unfortunately, there came a time when Cecil Weeks was no longer able to make the dolls. We spoke to doll manufacturers, but no one could manufacture the quality and quantity that we needed. We began to exchange existing dolls between communities. Dolls were kept at BBW District offices and later at regional offices. Eventually, there was no one place left to house the dolls. Many of them were sent to Washington, DC and were for a short time displayed in the Capitol Building.

Some chapters chose to keep their dolls, rather than send them to Washington, DC. One such chapter was the Heart of America chapter. Two years ago, we made the decision to give one set of our dolls, 65 dolls, to the Jewish Community Archives of Greater Kansas City, where they could be on permanent display. The Truman Library heard about the dolls and invited the Jewish Community Archives to loan them to the library. There will be 25 dolls on display at the library. Of course, at the height of the project, we had many Truman dolls, complete with walking stick!

Do you have a favorite doll?

My favorite doll is Marian Anderson. She had a magnificent voice that was nearly stifled by racism. Her church community came together to pay for her lessons. She should have gotten into any music school, but they all refused to even let her take the entrance exam. When the DAR refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, President and Mrs. Roosevelt intervened and she performed at an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The triumph of her singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the smile on her face as she sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” was so magnificent. When Aretha Franklin honored Marian Anderson and sang the same song at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, I believe the promise to Marian Anderson came completely to fruition.

I also like that I can do Marian Anderson together with the Eleanor Roosevelt doll and show the juxtaposition of their backgrounds, and how Marian Anderson overcame adversity and Eleanor Roosevelt, a bright, well- educated and privileged white woman used her position to make a difference.

On January 16th, I’ll be at the Truman Library and Museum telling the story and history of the dolls, and I’ll present Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt. Joyce Kotch, another of the doll ladies, will present the story of Girl Scouts of America founder Juliette Low, her favorite doll.

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