Brief History of the League of Women Voters -- Since 1920
Adapted by Carole Weber
“What does the League of Women Voters actually do?” That is a basic and important question. This piece looks at the history of both our country and the League and will highlight the positions which have been its hallmark over the years. The information contained here has been shortened and modified from a longer article on the LWVUS website.
Founding the League
The League was formally organized in Chicago on February 14, 1920, as the National League of Women Voters. In its early decades, the focus was on the national board and state Leagues. Local Leagues had very little representation. For the first 20 years, the League program at the national, state, and local level was proposed by the national board, which meant that the national board became highly educated and experienced in handling all sorts of issues. It also meant, unfortunately, that many well-rounded, effective local individuals suffered by comparison. Nonetheless, the League began in 1920 by adopting 69 [!] items grouped in broad subject areas: child welfare, education, the home, and high prices, women in gainful positions, public health and morals, and independent citizenship for married women. 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 1928 we sponsored the first national radio broadcast of a “Meet the Candidates'' forum.
In the 30s
The Depression and the onset of WWII brought far-reaching change to the League. Membership fell from 100,000 in 1924 to 44,000 ten years later. One of the most interesting changes was caused by gas rationing, which forced League members to meet in small neighborhood groups. The start of grassroots LWV! During that time the League worked successfully for the enactment of the Social Security and Food and Drug Acts, as well as the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), with its concern for the depletion and conservation of national resources. When the government began hiring workers once again, the League launched a nationwide campaign in support of the merit system for selecting government personnel.
In the 40s
The League’s convention in 1944 made major changes in its structure. It declared itself an association of members, rather than a federation of state Leagues. Local Leagues began to flourish. State Leagues were given a stronger role, responsible for organizing and developing local Leagues. At its 1946 convention, the name was changed to the League of Women Voters of the United States, and the national program was considerably shortened in order to have a more substantial effect on fewer issues. At that time 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 U.N. as an NGO (nongovernmental organization). We also supported the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as NATO.
In the 50s
The witch hunt period inspired the League to undertake a two-year community education program in the individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Ultimately the League President testified against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s abuse of congressional investigative powers. Also, during the 50s, the League sponsored an extensive study of water resources, harkening back to its study in 1920 of the TVA. In 1957 the League Education Fund was instituted.
In the 60s
Membership reached a high point in 1969 with 157,000 members. With the growing civil rights crisis, the League directed its energies to equality of opportunity – in education, employment, and housing. The League also supported suffrage for the residents of Washington D.C. League was also one of the first organizations calling for the United States to normalize relations with China.
In the 70s
Inter-League Organizations (ILOs) were created to deal with regional issues, and in 1974 men were allowed to join as full voting members. We worked on the issue of income assistance and began our work on the Equal Rights Amendment. We also adopted a position on direct popular election of the President. In 1976 we sponsored the first televised presidential debates since 1960 – and we were awarded an Emmy! The League’s deep interest in the environment was dramatically evident in the 70s and has been ever since with broad positions on water, air, waste management, land use, and energy.
In the 80s
The 80s saw the League at the forefront of the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act and the major Tax Reform Act of 1986. We also worked on U.S. relations with Developing Countries; helped achieve Senate ratification of the groundbreaking Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty; underwrote some 150 debates among congressional candidates focused on national security issues – and adopted a position on public policy on reproductive choice.
In the 90s
In the 90s, members adopted a position on gun control and worked extensively on voting issues. Then, capping a 10-year campaign by the League of Women Voters, Congress passed a reauthorization of the Clean Air Act. With the end of the Cold War, the League began several international programs, working with emerging women leaders from Hungary, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Bosnia, and Africa. With the start of the new century, the League updated its positions on several topics -- trade and the U.N., the election of the President, abolition of the death penalty, plus a study on immigration policies.
In the 00s
Beginning in 2004, the League focused its legislative work under a “Democracy Agenda,” an umbrella that included redistricting, civil liberties, campaign finance reform, voting rights for District of Columbia residents, election reforms, plus ethics and lobbying reform. After 9/11, a major effort was the Local Voices Project that fostered a dialog on the critical issue of balancing homeland security and civil liberties.
Merging the Glencoe and Glenview Leagues
As the League of Women Voters of the United States continues its long path, with grassroots support of and participation by local Leagues, the Glenview and Glencoe Leagues have had notable histories of their own. Formed in 1946 and 1941 respectively, both groups worked on many similar, demanding issues – human relations, local school referenda, township government, monitoring village boards and commissions, library studies, and voter service activities. In addition, each League has been active on issues unique to their communities -- e.g. in Glenview, anti-ballistic missiles at the Glenview Naval Air Station, closing of the Lutter Landfill, preservation of The Grove and Wagner Farm; in Glencoe, solid waste and recycling services, and a referendum on having an armed officer in the middle school. In 2015 the Leagues of Glenview and Glencoe merged in order to increase efforts to serve voters. LWV of Glenview-Glencoe actively promotes voter service, studies of local, state, and national issues, and works for good governance at every level.
100 Years and Beyond
Since 1920 the League of Women Voters – national, state, and local – has worked energetically, with perseverance and dedication, to accomplish its goals. Reviewing this brief panorama of activity and issues lets us understand and be proud of our roots.
To learn more about the history of the League: