A transformative force behind one of the city’s premier annual cultural events, Ernesta Drinker Ballard was also leading local and national figure in the campaign for equal rights for women and the founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Born into a prominent Philadelphia family (with roots stretching back to before the American Revolution), Ballard graduated from the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women (now part of Temple University) in 1954. She operated a successful greenhouse business before becoming executive director of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. In this role, she steered a renaissance in the popularity and prominence of the Philadelphia Flower Show, transforming the event into a spectacular international exhibition, the largest of its kind in the world. She used profits from the flower show to expand the horticultural society’s programs, instituting Philadelphia Green, one of the largest urban community greening and gardening projects in the United States.
Concurrently, Ballard was working towards a flowering of women’s rights. She founded the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1967 and co-founded and chaired the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. She acted as a mentor for local activists and female leaders, and co-founded Women’s Way, a fundraising organization for Philadelphia women’s groups. Her vigorous campaigning helped ensure passage of the Equal Rights Amendment through both houses of congress in 1972. (The constitutional amendment, guaranteeing equal rights for women, was not ratified by the required number of states.)
Ballard was also a commissioner of Fairmount Park from 1981 to 2002, and played a leading role in saving and restoring such public treasures as the Swann Fountain in Logan Circle and the buildings and the Fairmount Waterworks.