history of the League of Women Voters rightly begins with the very inception of the Women's Movement and the fight for liberation in the United States. During the early history of the United States there was little, if any respect for the principles of women's rights. In an intensely patriarchal society a man " ... virtually owned his wife and children as he did his material possessions. If a poor man chose to send his children to the poorhouse, the mother was legally defenseless to object." (Women's History in America) The history of women's movements in the United States is largely a reaction to this system of exclusion and male-dominance.
The start of the history of the fight for women's rights begins with a tea party hosted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in New York. Mrs. Stanton expressed her feelings of discontent at the situation of women in society. This meeting led to the first Convention on Women's Rights, which took place at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls in 1848. While this was a comparatively small meeting it was to have wide repercussions and affect the future of women in America. In an insightful move Stanton used the principles of the Declaration of Independence as a framework for her "Declaration of Sentiments." In so doing she succeeded in giving the idea of women's rights legitimacy by associating these rights with a powerful symbol of freedom and liberty. In her declaration Stanton mentions eighteen areas of discontent - the same number of grievances that was declared in the Declaration of Independence from England.
Her grievances included the following:
Married women were legally dead in the eyes of the law
Women were not allowed to vote
Women had to submit to laws when they had no voice in their formation
Married women had no property rights
Husbands had legal power over and responsibility for their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them with impunity
Divorce and child custody laws favored men, giving no rights to women
Women had to pay property taxes although they 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 such as medicine or law
Women had no means to gain an education since no college or university would accept women students
With only a few exceptions, women were not allowed to participate in the affairs of the church
Women were robbed of their self-confidence and self-respect, and were made totally dependent on men. (ibid)
At the First Women's Rights Convention all the proposals were accepted unanimously, except for one. This was the resolution dealing with the enfranchisement of women. At this time the issue of a woman's right to vote was hardly thinkable. However, after some argument the resolution was carried with a small majority. (ibid) The fact that there was such a large degree of dissent on the enfranchisement issue at the convention is an indication of the degree to which women were still enslaved by the male-dominated society.
As was to be expected there was an immediate and negative reaction from the male-dominated society to the results of the convention.
Newspaper editors were so scandalized by the shameless audacity of the Declaration of Sentiments, and particularly of the ninth resolution -- women demanding the vote! -- that they attacked the women with all the vitriol they could muster. (ibid)
The convention resulted in an expansion of the movement for women's rights. A series of similar conventions were held throughout America. Other figures in the movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century who successful promoted a variety of issues pertaining to women's rights were Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth. Besides these prominent figures another woman who furthered the cause of women's rights was Esther Morris, who was the first woman to hold a position in the judiciary. Other activists were Abigail Scott Duniway, Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, who were leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in the early 20th Century. Other women who also played an important part in the establishment of the Women's movement in the country were Alice Paul, the founder and leader of the National Woman's Party, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who become a member of the Supreme Court Justice.
These women carried the message of equality for women to various parts of the country. However, the opposition, especially with regard to the issue of the vote, was strong and "it took 72 years for the women and their male supporters to be successful." (ibid)
The early women's movement finally achieved one of their most desired objectives - and the vote was won in 1920. This however was not the end of the movement and many women continued to work and campaign for further rights and equality for females in society.
2. The League of Women Voters
The League of Women Voters was a development that emerged naturally from the success of the suffragist movement. Carrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters in 1920 during the Chicago convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. "The convention was held only six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote after a 57-year struggle."
(Past & Future.LWV Org.)
The hope and vision underlying the establishment of the League of Women Voters was that women voters should become an effective and important force in national politics.
(LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS. Houghton Mifflin)
On March 24, 1919 Carrie Chapman Catt proposed the formation of "a league of women voters to finish the fight and to aid in the reconstruction of the nation." This was during the 50th Anniversary Jubilee Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in St. Louis. In the face of the ratification of the 19th amendment, Catt posed the question: "What could be more natural than those women who have attained their political independence should desire to give service in token of their gratitude? What could be more appropriate than that such woman should do for the coming generation what those of a preceding period did for them? ... Let us then raise up a league of women voters ... A league that shall be non-partisan and non-sectarian in character ... " (The LWV Heritage)
In 1920 the League of Women Voters was officially founded as "a might experiment" and in 1921 the first annual convention of the League was held in Cleveland, Ohio. (ibid) Catt stated that the essential vision of League was " ... A League of Women Voters to finish the fight ... The "fight" was to win national woman suffrage and to eliminate other forms of legal discrimination against women. (League of Women Voters: Historylink)
She maintained that the League should continue to face controversial issues, as NAWSA had, should remain nonpartisan, and should educate for citizenship.
3. The purpose and function go the League
Not only was the League of Women Voters constituted to continue the "mighty experiment" in women's rights and continue the work that had lead to the female vote; but it was also to "help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters." (Stuhler 22) An important reason for the creation of the League was that Catt and many other women in the suffrage movement realized winning suffrage was only the beginning of the struggle towards full rights and privileges for women within society. They also realized that there was a large amount of education of women voters needed if the full liberation of women was to be achieved.
Catt and others realized that the winning of suffrage would not be not an ending but a beginning -- the beginning of full citizenship for American women. They would have to be trained in the rudiments of voting: how and where to register; how to assess candidates and ballot issues; and what to do at polling places. If the votes of these newly enfranchised citizens were to be effective, the citizens had to be informed about a wide range of issues. Among those already of interest were education, social services, child labor, governments that were open and accountable, women's rights, and world peace. (Stuhler 22)
The development of the league was therefore an extension of the success which had already been achieved, but which needed to be extended and consolidated. This is one of the reasons for the strong emphasis from the beginning in the League on advocacy issues. The league was envisaged to encourage women voters to " ... use their new power to participate in shaping public policy. From the beginning, the League was an activist, grassroots organization whose leaders believed that citizens should play a critical role in advocacy." (ibid) As the above quotation points out an important aspect of the League was its grassroots foundations…