The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 by the leaders of the campaign to win American women the right to vote [in federal, state and local elections.] This difficult and hard-won fight had lasted 78 years, and had taken the combined efforts of many women’s suffrage organizations over several generations.
Once the 19th amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, and women “had the vote” there remained a lot of work to do. Women needed to learn how to evaluate candidates, talk with their elected officials, organize campaigns to pass specific laws, and run for elected office themselves. Many rights which women leaders had expected to fall into place once suffrage was achieved instead required several more generations of struggle to accomplish–notably the right and obligation to serve on juries on an equal basis with men. In most parts of the USA women did not achieve jury service equal to that of men until the early 1970s.
The League of Women Voters was founded to continue the work of the suffrage campaign in integrating women fully into the public sphere of government. Some of the early laws that the LWV campaigned for concerned the health and welfare of infants, children and mothers. League studies gradually covered more and more public issues, from education, the environment, taxation, government ethics, city charters and reforms in every conceivable area of human activity. For instance, we continue to press for the right of the citizens of the District of Columbia to fully participate in their own government instead of being ruled by Congress.
Women organized by town or city to learn about and participate in local government; by state to join state governing bodies, and nationally to affect legislation by Congress. Tools that were developed by early generations of LWV members included: observing legislative and committee meetings and reporting back to members on what debate and actions had occurred; collecting statements from candidates for office and publishing them to give voters some basis on which to decide whom to vote for, organizing debates and public forums for people running for office, and focusing on particular issues thru study groups that then provided the background for the LWV to lobby on legislation at all levels of government. The LWV continued the tradition of being willing to work for several generations to achieve goals that were not easily accepted by those in power.
The LWV encouraged women to run for office, serve as judges, serve as appointed and elected officials, and participate in government fully. At first only a few women did run for office, and most women voted the same way that the men in their families did. It took more struggle and a long learning process over three generations before women were elected to office–executive, legislative, and judicial in significant numbers. By the 1990s American women had developed different voting patterns from their male relatives.
The tools developed by the LWV proved to be very useful to all citizens who wanted to participate in government and in making decisions about public policy. Some became part of American political traditions; others became laws, and many other groups fighting to promote the participation of minority groups borrowed, elaborated and improved on techniques pioneered by the LWV.
A sample of issues that the LWV of Newton has studied and taken action on during the last 25 years include: the need for a new city library, the number of people who should be elected to the city’s Board of Alderman (now the City Council); whether there should be gambling casinos in Massachusetts; the advisability of having a death penalty; how political campaigns should be financed, housing and transportation issues, gun control, and many specific as well as broad policy decisions about the Newton Public Schools.
Today women participate widely in American government. We attend political conventions, hold office, earn law degrees and serve as judges and department heads at all levels of government. The need for specific women’s organizations has diminished but not disappeared. Women trained in LWV techniques have found them an excellent apprenticeship for all kinds of public and paid work.
We are eager to tell people from around the world about the activities and practices of the League of Women Voters, because we have found them extraordinarily useful in promoting good government, providing public oversight, training people in the realities of representative government, and in building avenues for wider participation in government and civic decision making.
Compiled by Linda C. Morrison and the League of Women Voters of Newton, Massachusetts, May 2006
View the LWV timeline at LWV.org