Making Democracy Work

History of the League

The League of Women Voters started after women got the right to vote.

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. The League also supported creation of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, NATO, economic aid to less developed countries, and the Marshall Plan.

The witch hunt period of the early 1950's inspired the League to undertake a 2-year community education program focusing on the individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Next came an evaluation of the federal loyalty/security programs and ultimately a League position that strongly emphasized the protection of individual rights.

In response to the growing civil rights crisis of the 1960s, the League directed its energies to equality of opportunity and to build a solid foundation of support for equal access to education, employment and housing. In 1969 the League was one of the first organizations calling for the US to normalize relations with China.

In the early 1970s, the League addressed the issue of income assistance and also began its efforts to achieve a national Equal Rights Amendment, an effort which ultimately failed. In 1976, the League sponsored the first televised presidential debates since 1960, for which it received an Emmy Award.

The League was in the forefront of the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1982 and contributed significantly to enactment of the historic Tax Reform Act of 1986. The League underwrote some 150 debates among congressional candidates, which focused on national security issues. In 1983 the League adopted a position on public policy on reproductive choice.

In the 1990's the League launched "Take Back the System," a voter campaign to reclaim government and elections and won passage of the National Voter Registration Act, better known as Motor Voter. Other activities included "Running and Winning," a program that encouraged young women to consider careers as political leaders. Internationally, the League began programs promoting women's rights and democratic elections in Poland, Hungary, Russia and Belarus, Bosnia and Africa.

In the 21st Century the League was instrumental in the enactment of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform of 2002. The League worked to renew the Voting Rights Act and filed a number of amicus briefs that included redistricting, civil liberties, campaign finance reform, voting rights for District of Columbia residents, election administration reform and ethics and lobbying reform. A major effort was the Local Voices Project that fostered a dialogue on the critical issue of balancing homeland security and civil liberties.

The League is political, but nonpartisan. It never supports political parties or candidates, but it does study issues, develop consensus opinions and then actively work to support those positions. As Carrie Chapman Catt noted in 1919, "Is the (League) political? Certainly, but not partisan. Its members are as free as other women to join and vote with the party of their choice. They make no pledge otherwise in joining the League."

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