Saving Fort Worth’s ‘forgotten’ girls: In 1917, effort began to give young women hope

March is Women’s History Month, which began in 1983 after Congress passed a joint resolution designating a span of days to focus on forgotten women and their contributions to the common good.

In Fort Worth, the focus on forgotten females began decades earlier, in 1917, when five well-to-do married women volunteered for the Girls’ Protective Bureau, which rescued young women at risk.

They found their clientele among girls stranded at the train station, alone with no ticket, no money and no place to go. They rescued other young women as they were released from jail with no change of clothes and no clue as to what to do.

Throughout World War I and the opening of Camp Bowie, the Army training base in Arlington Heights, swarms of girls arrived in Fort Worth searching for romance, adventure and work. Many were runaways, escaping the farm. Some were single and pregnant. Many could not read much more than their ABCs. They had high hopes in the big city.

The Women’s Protective Bureau, working with the U.S. War Department, met with these desperate girls and helped change the direction of their lives.

Postwar, the bureau evolved into the Girls Protective Association, which sent caseworkers and volunteers into poverty-stricken neighborhoods. With an assist from the courts and the schools, they organized classes and arranged for medical care.

With a $2,000 donation, the protective association bought a house, called Worth Cottage, at 917 Henderson St. The dwelling became an emergency shelter and a cozy home where a fire blazed on the hearth, a girl with an ear for music played the piano, and everyone pitched in to make meals and focus on a better future. An employment service that started in the cottage grew into an agency with a downtown office. It found positions for 1,500 to 2,000 girls a year as waitresses, clerks, house cleaners, companions for the elderly and babysitters. (It continued until 1935, when the Texas Employment Commission replaced it.)

From 1927 to 1930, the Women’s Protective Bureau served as part of the city’s welfare department until it received a new state charter and changed its name to Girls Service League, Inc., the name it retains to this day.

Throughout the Great Depression, safe and affordable housing was problematic for single women. A $20,000 gift from the Lassiter family served as down payment on Lassiter Lodge, a $50,000 house at 1008 Penn St. During the 1936 Texas Centennial, the Girls Service League opened a profitable tea room nearby to serve home-cooked meals to out-of-town visitors.

By 1939, the need had shifted from housing working women into finding safe havens for teenage girls from broken homes and abusive parents. The Scott Mansion, then a rundown cattle-baron estate at 1509 Pennsylvania Ave., was for sale at the bargain price of $17,500. Today, the 18-room, three-story mansion, also known as Thistle Hill, is a restored treasure owned by Cook Children’s Health Care System, which uses it for meeting space. However, from 1941 until 1968, the Girls Service League turned it into a wholesome residence for up to 30 teenage girls.

Among those who lived there in 1950 was Jeanette “Jan” Keen King Simcox, a 15-year-old with an alcoholic father and a mother who “took off” to California with a sailor. “It’s hurtful to talk about it,” said Simcox, who today at the age of 88 is a retired registered nurse and great-great-grandmother. At the Scott Mansion, she roomed with four girls in a bedroom facing Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I made new friends, learned from them what to do with your hair, your face, how to wash and iron your clothes. Before then, I had no home life. I did not have that kind of communication with peers. It was a huge turning point in my life. You get out of a destructive environment, and you see what life can be. That changes you.”

The Girls Service League helped “save” Thistle Hill by holding onto the 11,000-square-foot mansion during an era when historic dwellings elsewhere faced the wrecking ball. In 1976, a grassroots preservation group bought the mansion for $350,000, which the Girls Service League placed into an endowment.

At that juncture, the league had 350 members who dressed up for semi-annual fundraising luncheons. As the women’s movement came to the fore in Fort Worth, membership dwindled.

Times were changing, observed Dr. Claudia Coggin, the league’s current president and archivist. Women-member organizations were on the decline. “There are not that many women who get hatted and gloved and go out to lunch,” she said. “They go to work.”

In 2020, the Girls Service League voted to transition from a nonprofit membership organization into an institution run by a nine-member board. The board awards scholarships of up to $2,000 per semester to college students from Tarrant, Parker and Johnson counties attending Texas colleges and universities. Presently, the board is monitoring the progress of 16 students who must take 12 credits and maintain a 3.0 average. The league’s website,, gives guidelines and deadlines for scholarship applications. There is no age limit. One successful college grad matriculated in her 60s. Since 1978, the league has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships.

The core mission of the Girls Service League remains what it was a century ago. “How we carry out that mission has changed,” said Coggin. “We stand on the shoulders of the women of the past who foresaw these needs. We honor that legacy.”

Hollace Ava Weiner, author of “Jewish ‘Junior League’: The Rise and Demise of the Fort Worth Council of Jewish Women,” is a historian and archivist.