Making Democracy Work

League of Women Voters History

This page has articles on various aspects of League history--from suffragist efforts to history of the League of Women Voters of Marion and Polk Counties.

A Short History of Suffragists and the League of Women Voters

Sandra Gangle--Excerpts of remarks at the LWVMPC 60th Anniversary Party

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said the following about the early Suffragists: I think about how much we owe to the women who went before us--legions of women, some known but many more unknown. I applaud the bravery and resilience of those who helped all of us--you and me--to be here today.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton used the familiar words of the Declaration of Independence to frame the Suffragists' argument for equal voting rights: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Stanton enumerated eighteen areas of life where women were treated unjustly, including the following:

+ Women were not allowed to vote.

+ Married women had no property rights.

+ Husbands had legal power over their wives.

+ Women had to pay taxes, but had no representation in the levying of these taxes.

+ Most occupations were closed to women and when women did work they were paid only a fraction of what men earned.

+ Women were not allowed to enter professions, medicine or law.

The campaign for woman suffrage continued for 72 years before it was finally successful. Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth joined with Elizabeth Stanton in lecturing and organizing. Abigail Scott Duniway won the right to vote for Oregon women in 1912. Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman's Party, pursued more radical and aggressive strategies and ultimately persuaded President Wilson and the U.S. Congress to pass, and two-thirds of the States to ratify, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

After the vote was finally won, many women understood that the quest for women's rights would be an ongoing struggle. So, they established the League of Women Voters to ensure that women would understand American democracy and use their new right to vote wisely.

The League established a network of local and state groups as well as a strong national organization. The League took a non-partisan stance and focused its research and advocacy on issues, not candidates.

In 1947, the Salem League was formed; it later became LWVMPC. Our League has a remarkable record of recruiting and retaining dedicated women--and, since 1974, men--as members. We are very pleased that four of our current members can trace their membership back to before 1957 and that one, Nina Cleveland, was a charter member. The other three are Marian Churchill, Sally Anderson and Mary Stillings.

These Leaguers were diligent at registering voters and educating the public about campaign issues. They conducted studies and worked with fellow Leaguers to reach positions through consensus. Nina Cleveland and Marian Churchill both have told us that they were young and inexperienced about government when they first joined League, but they became empowered to attend public meetings and speak out.

Alice Paul, the intrepid Suffragist whose work and accomplishments we will hear more about in the movie Iron-Jawed Angels once said: The women's rights movement is sort of a mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end.

Women, acting together in the League of Women Voters, both nationally and in our local Marion-Polk League, have accomplished a great deal. American life is better today because of their sacrifices and hard work. We have a lot to be proud of and to celebrate today.

Nina Cleveland Remembers

I joined [the League] in 1947 or 48. David was just a baby when I attended a meeting held downtown...[A Portland woman] described to just a few of us what the LWV was about and I was very interested. I must have joined very soon after.

I remember my towering ignorance of political/civic affairs in those early days. I once went to a City Council meeting in the old City Hall; the mayor or manager or someone in charge was going on about how we needed this measure or that, and there would be a vote, and Salem was in such good financial shape and had only a certain debt, whereupon I asked how we could be so remarkably well off if we had any debt at all. I guess I just thought cities ran on a financial system like a household.

I had never heard of capital funds, bonded debt, general funds, or any of those matters, but I have noticed that the young women who joined League later came in with much better preparation than I had. They already knew most of the stuff I had to learn as a Leaguer.

I found [the League] a great escape from diapers! I loved to "mix and mangle" with other women who could ask questions and be concerned about ideas and public affairs.

Marian Churchill Remembers

One of the first League studies was about accidents at railroad crossings. The League had done an in-depth study of the problem and was bringing pressure on the city and railroad to remedy the situation. My husband Tom was assistant city attorney at the time. Tom asked me how many women belonged to the League. My reply was 52. His reply, "My God, we thought there must be 500!"

I remember going with Mary Stillings in her Volkswagen to check out the sight conditions at various rail crossings. The two of us would emerge from that tiny vehicle, and everyone would stare. It was amazing how many obscured crossings there were. It took awhile, but the crossing arms were installed.

At the time, the state League was lobbying for meat inspection in Oregon, and I was active going to evening meetings of the legislature and testifying on that subject, too. The League later took on the problem of air pollution, and we even had a booth at the state fair.

When Tom and I moved to Capital Manor [retirement complex], I discarded some of the materials remaining from that study and display. It would have been fun to have them at the 60th Anniversary party, but, of course, I could no longer hang on to them.

When I look back, I think I can say that the League has made significant contributions to the community even though at the time we would wonder whether anyone was hearing what we had to say.

From Suffrage Movement to the League of Women Voters

In her address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association's (NAWSA) 50th convention in St. Louis, Missouri, President Carrie Chapman Catt proposed the creation of a "league of women voters to finish the fight and aid in the reconstruction of the nation."  Women Voters was formed within the NAWSA, composed of the organizations in the states where suffrage had already been attained.

The next year, on February 14, 1920 - six months before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified - the League was formally organized in Chicago as the national League of Women Voters. Catt described the purpose of the new organization:

    "The League of Women Voters is not to dissolve any present organization but to unite all existing organizations of women who believe in its principles.  It is not to lure women from partisanship but to combine them in an effort for legislation which will protect coming movements, which we cannot even foretell, from suffering the untoward conditions which have hindered for so long the coming of equal suffrage.  Are the women of the United States big enough to see their opportunity?"

Maud Wood Park became the first national president of the League and thus the first League leader to rise to the challenge. She had steered the women's suffrage amendment through Congress in the last two years before ratification and liked nothing better than legislative work. From the very beginning, however, it was apparent that the legislative goals of the League were not exclusively focused on women's issues and that citizen education aimed at all of the electorate was in order.

Since its inception, the League has helped millions of women and men become informed participants in government. In fact, the first league convention voted 69 separate items as statements of principle and recommendations for legislation. Among them were protection for women and children, right of working women, food supply and demand, social hygiene, the legal status of women, and American citizenship.The League's first major national legislative success was the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act providing federal aid for maternal and child care programs.  In the 1930's, League members worked successfully for enactment of the Social Security and Food and Drug Acts. Due at least in part to League efforts, legislation passed in 1938 and 1940 removed hundreds of federal jobs from the spoils system and placed them under Civil Service.

During the postwar period, the League helped lead the effort to establish the United Nations and to ensure U.S. Participation. The League was one of the first organizations in the country officially recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental organization; it still maintains official observer status today.

See also League History from the League of Women Voters of the US.