Making Democracy Work

History of the League of Women Voters

The League grew out of a Protest Movement

History of the League

The fight for Women's Right to Vote

When the the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787 it did not delineate who was eligible to vote. This was left to the individual states. At the time, no state permitted women to vote.

In 1848 women began to organize to seek the right to vote. In 1890 the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) formed out of a merger of previous groups. The NAWSA pursued women's suffrage at both the state and federal levels. States and territories began to grant women the right to vote, but there was little success on the national level. Women in California earned the right to vote in 1911.

Photo of the 1913 Women's Suffrage March on Washington In 1913, just prior to the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, who opposed women's suffrage, a massive women's rights march on Washington was held. For five years American Suffragists continued to protest in front of the White House.

Finally, in 1918, President Wilson changed his position, and supported the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the constitution. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in August, 1920. It stated:

" The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." 

Forming the League of Women Voters

In her address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association's 1919 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."  The League of Women Voters (LWV) 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:

Carrie Chapman Catt, LWV Founder

  "The League of Women Voters . . . 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."

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.

Acting on Principles

From the very beginning it became apparent that the legislative goals of the League were not exclusively focused on women's issues and that citizen education needed to be aimed at all of the electorate, not just women.

Since its inception, the League has helped millions of women and men become informed participants in government.

The first League convention in 1920 voted 69 separate items as statements of principle and recommendations for legislation. 1920 LWV Board They were grouped in broad subject areas:

  • child welfare,
  • education,
  • the home and high prices,
  • women in gainful occupations,
  • public health, and
  • independent citizenship for married women

The League's first major national legislative success was the 1921 passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act, providing federal aid for maternal and child care programs.  In 1928 the League sponsored "Meet the Candidates," the first national radio broadcast of a candidate forum.

In the 1930's, League members worked successfully for enactment of Social Security and the Food and Drug Act. 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 the Civil Service.

During and following World War II, 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 continues to maintain official observer status.

Many things about the way the League works have changed over the years, including the decision in 1973 to include men as full members. But, as we approach our centennial in 2020, the League continues to pursue programs in areas such as:

  • educating, engaging, and protecting voters LWV - Thanks for marching, here's what's next
  • defending the environment
  • defending women's rights
  • improving elections, including fair redistricting
  • improving government, including reforming money in politics
  • ensuring access to affordable, quality health care for all Americans
  • helping immigrants become active participants in our democracy

The League of Women Voters has always been a political organization, encouraging informed and active participation in government, working to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influencing public policy through education and advocacy. It is also a nonpartisan organization, not biased for or against any candidate or political party.

For more about our history, try League History and LWV Through the Decades from the League of Women Voters of the US. You may also be interested in the Transformational Journey Video.