Initially, the Daughters thought to join the Sons of the American Revolution, organized in 1889, in what seemed a common mission: to perpetuate the memory and spirit of the Revolutionary patriots. But at a meeting of the Sons in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 30, 1890, the Sons voted to exclude women, galvanizing a force as determined as that which fought for American Independence. As Letitia Green Stevenson would later write in her 1913 account of the Society’s founding: “It became apparent that if women were to accomplish any distinctive patriotic work, it must be within their own circle, and under their own leadership. The ardor and zeal of a few undaunted women never flagged, and their determination to organize a distinct woman’s society became a fixed purpose.”
The morning after the Son’s fateful vote, “American women throughout the country read the account in the newspapers and were stirred with indignation,” a sentiment documented for posterity in the first annual report to the Congress of the newly organized National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. One of those women, Mary Smith Lockwood, widow of a Union soldier, noted author and women’s rights advocate, channeled her reaction in a stirring letter to the Washington Post printed in July 13, 1890. In it, she recounted the thrilling story of the heroic Hannah Arnett, who courageously challenged a meeting of men hosted by her husband in their home, shaming them into supporting the cause of the revolution. Mary Lockwood ended her letter with these questions: “Were there no mothers of the Revolution? Where will the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution place Hannah Arnett?” Her questions would be answered swiftly by hundreds.
The first members of the DAR were quick to realize and recognize that “there is a woman to whom we owe more than to any other woman . . ..” At the urging of Mary Desha, Mary Virginia Ellet Cabell (1839-1930) attended the first organizing meeting of the National Society on October 11, 1890, and it was she who led it. Mary Cabell agreed that the new Society “should be presided over by a lady prominent in the United States,” so that same day, she and William O. McDowell paid a visit to Caroline Scott Harrison, following up on the letter sent by Mary Desha two months prior. The First Lady accepted, but only upon the promise that Mrs. Cabell would perform the bulk of those responsibilities, including not only presiding at most meetings but also handling the daily details of the office, forging policy, solving problems, and ensuring the success of the new organization. So she was appointed Vice President Presiding and later President Presiding, singular offices that only Mrs. Cabell ever held.
Her home became the headquarters of the Society for its first year. Daughter of Charles Ellet, Jr., a prominent civil engineer who built the first suspension bridge in the United States, it was Mary Virginia Cabell who proposed “the building of a House Beautiful, . . . the finest building ever owned by women . . .” one that would serve “as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” She would live to see not only the realization of her vision in Memorial Continental Hall, but also the Administration Building and Constitution Hall. She died July 4, 1930, at the age of ninety-one, the same date in history marked by American independence as well as the passing of signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
The Daughters’ first Continental Congress was held February 22, 1892, in the Church of Our Father on 13th and L Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. Before they could adjourn, Mathew B. Brady, one of the most renowned photographers of his day, asked for “the privilege of making a photographic group of the Society, to be added to my historical collection of the most eminent people of the world.” His image would capture not only the four founders but also the first President General, Caroline Scott Harrison (center), as well as the only member ever to hold the title of Vice President Presiding, Mary Virginia Ellet Cabell (to Mrs. Harrison’s right). On Mrs. Harrison’s left are founders Eugenia Washington and Mary Desha. Standing between Mrs. Harrison and Miss Washington are founders Ellen Hardin Walworth and Mary S. Lockwood.
For more than a century, the members of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution have dedicated themselves to historical preservation, promotion of education, and encouragement of patriotic endeavor. These goals are as relevant in today's society as they were when the organization was founded in 1890.