Ernesta D. Ballard

Cecilia Moy Yep
Bernard C. Watson

Ballard won the 2000 Philadelphia Award for her work as a horticulturist and feminist. Growing up in Merion, Pennsylvania, Ernesta Drinker came from a high society family. The family home had five servants, her father Harry Drinker was a prominent lawyer, and her parents were descended from early colonial settlers. As a girl, Drinker was not encouraged to attend college. After graduating from St. Timothy’s Finishing School in Maryland, she married lawyer Frederick Ballard in 1939 and settled down to raise a family.

A s she later expressed it, Ballard grew tired of just being somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother; she wanted to be somebody in her own right. In 1954 she graduated from the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women and established her own horticulture business, Valley Gardens. She wrote two popular books on plants, The Art of Training Plants (1962) and Garden in Your House (1971), and hosted radio shows that gave gardening tips.

In 1964 Ballard closed her gardening business to become the director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The organization had an annual budget of $70,000 and four employees. The Philadelphia Flower Show was floundering and the group of nurserymen who ran the show had decided to cancel it for two years. Ballard believed that the public would lose interest in the Flower Show if Philadelphia were without it for that long, so she persuaded the Horticultural Society’s Council to prevent cancellation and stage the show in 1965. In 1968 the horticultural society became the official producer of the Flower Show. Ballard was the chief organizer of the ever expanding annual event, which she made “much more participatory” and educational in nature. Under Ballard’s leadership from 1964 to 1980, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society became a thriving organization with over 30 staff members, and the Philadelphia Flower Show grew to become the largest and finest indoor flower show in the United States.

As the proceeds from the Flower Show grew, Ballard started the Horticultural Society’s community gardening program, Philadelphia Green, which under her watch became one of the largest urban greening programs in the country. Philadelphia Green works with hundreds of community gardening groups to replace trash-filled vacant lots with vegetable gardens, plant trees and flowers, and maintain neighborhood parks. “The whole concept that greening can do a lot for a community—that is Ernesta,” remarked Jane Pepper, who became head of the horticultural society in 1981. Ballard became a member of the Fairmount Park Commission (1982-2002), where she worked for the preservation of historic houses and spearheaded the fundraising drives for the restoration of the Philadelphia Water Works and the Swann Fountain at Logan Square.

Ballard was also known as the “godmother of Philadelphia feminism.” In 1967 she founded the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women. Ballard fought for equal pay for women. She raised money, marched, lobbied, and campaigned in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although she was a Republican, Ballard worked for candidates of either party who supported women’s issues. In 1977 she co-founded and became chairwoman of the board of Women’s Way, the country’s oldest and largest women’s fund-raising organization, which supports an array of women’s causes including wage equity, support for victims of domestic violence, and reproductive rights. Ballard was a founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League, and was its chairwoman from 1989 to 1991.

In a 1976 speech, Ballard declared that women should “renounce their dependent status and declare their liberty.” Today’s feminists “have rejected gradualism and gone back to first principles, the principle that all human beings are created equal – equal in opportunity and equal in expectation.”

Ann S. Nista

Sources: “About Women’s Way,” Women’s Way,; Lillian Ciarochi,“In Memoriam, Ernesta Drinker Ballard,” National Organization for Women; Frederick Cusick, “Philadelphia Award will go to Ballard,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2001; “History of the Philadelphia Flower Show,” Horticultural Society of Pennsylvania; John F. Morrison,“Ernesta Ballard, a’treasure,’ dies – Pioneer in area feminist causes was 85,” Philadelphia Daily News, August 12, 2005; “Pennsylvania’s Most Politically Powerful Women,” Politics PA (The Publius Group 2001), Archived from the original on 2004-02-09,; Rusty Pray,“'One of the great citizens' of Phila. – Ernesta D. Ballard, Flower Show leader,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 12, 2005;; Fawn Vrazo, “A Wealthy Woman’s Rich Life in Feminism,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 26, 1986.