Tuesday, May 24, 2016

People Taking Charge: The League of Women Voters


"To deny political equality is to rob the ostracized of all self respect." - Elizabeth Cady Stanton


        The League of Women Voters is an American civic organization that was formed to help women take a larger role in public affairs as they won the right to vote. Women justifiably wanted more say in the way that their nation was run. It was founded in 1920 by Carrie Chapman Catt. At the final meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, approximately six months before the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gave women the right to vote, the organization was founded to continue the fight that had only just achieved one of many victories. The League of Women Voters, first, was considered a political experiment aimed to help newly enfranchised women exercise their responsibilities as voters. Originally, only women could join the league; but in 1973, the charter was modified to include men. It operates at the local, state, and national level with over one thousand local and fifty state leagues. The League of Women Voters is officially nonpartisan, though it supports a variety of progressive public policy positions, including campaign finance reform, universal health care, abortion rights, climate change action and environmental regulation, and gun control. Each of these issues involves the fate of women just as much as they do men, if not more.


        The League also sells itself as a watchdog of the voting rights of all peoples, not just women. As such, they sponsored the United States presidential election debates in 1976, 1980, and 1984. However, on October 2, 1988, their Board of Trustees voted unanimously to pull their support from the debates. Further, on October 3, they issued a press release condemning the demands of the major candidates' campaigns. Their President, Nancy Neuman, said that the debate format would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter and that the organization did not intend to become an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public. They were opposing legislative proposals that would limit the voting rights of certain groups. In 2012, the League helped to create National Voter Registration Day, a day when volunteers work to register voters and increase participation among traditionally inactive segments of the population. The League also sponsors voter’s guides like Smart Voter or Voter's Edge, which was launched in collaboration with MapLight, a non-profit organization that tracks the flow of money in Congress. The League lobbied for the establishment of the United Nations, and later became one of the first groups to receive status as a nongovernmental organization with the U.N. The League has also opposed voter ID laws and supported efforts at campaign finance reform in the United States. The League also opposed the decision in Citizens United v. FEC, and it very strongly endorses increased regulation of political spending.


        The League also pushed for adoption of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which requires states to offer voter registration at all driver's license agencies, at social service agencies, including those that provide public assistance, and through the mail. The League endorsed passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which banned soft money in federal elections and made other reforms in campaign finance laws. The League supports the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Kyoto Protocol, some of the most important pieces of modern environmental legislation. They also oppose the proposed Keystone Pipeline project. In January of 2013, the League urged President Obama to take action on global warming under his existing authority, the Clean Air Act of 1990, which the League supported. The League supports the abolition of the death penalty. It also supports universal health care and endorses both Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act. The League supports a general income tax increase to finance national health care reform. They are fighting for the inclusion of reproductive health care, including abortion, in any health benefits package that comes out of Congress. Conjointly, the League supports abortion rights and strongly opposed the passage of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003; though, this did expose them to a great deal of criticism, even from members within the organization.


        As has been noted, the League of Women Voters was born out of the completed mission of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. This means that American women have been fighting for their rights since the nineteenth century. This parent organization was formed on February 18, 1890 to work for women's suffrage in the United States. It, itself, was created by the merger of two much older organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. Its membership, which was about seven thousand at the time it was formed, eventually increased to two million, making it the largest voluntary organization in the nation. Also, as has been noted, it played a pivotal role in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which in 1920 guaranteed women's right to vote. Susan B. Anthony, a long-time leader in the suffrage movement, was the dominant figure and first president of NAWSA.


        Carrie Chapman Catt, who became president after Anthony retired in 1900, implemented a strategy of recruiting wealthy members of the rapidly growing women's club movement. It was projected that their time, money, and experience could help build a stronger and more durable suffrage movement. Anna Howard Shaw, a physician, teacher, and pioneering Methodist minister witnessed this very thing. Her term of office began in 1904, and she oversaw strong growth in both the organization's membership and its public approval. Going back just a little bit into the past, after the Senate decisively rejected the first proposed, and solely, women's suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1887, the suffrage movement chose to limit its focus and most of its efforts to state suffrage campaigns. This remained the policy for some time, and they won the day in a strong way in places like Wyoming. However, in 1910, Alice Paul joined the NAWSA and played a major role in reviving interest in the national suffrage amendment. She, however, had a very narrow focus. She was interested solely in fighting for the right to vote at the national level. She felt that the NAWSA was wasting its time and resources on state campaigns. After continuing conflicts with the NAWSA leadership over tactics, Paul created a rival organization, the National Woman's Party. She focused all of her time and effort on working to influence politicians in Washington, DC. Her organization has since gone defunct.


        Carrie Chapman Catt was elected president of the NAWSA again in 1915. She was able to exercise pull on the board of trustees of the organization in ways that Paul was not. They adopted her plan to centralize the organization and work toward the suffrage amendment as its primary goal. This was done despite opposition from southern members who believed that a federal amendment would erode states' rights. With its large membership and the increasing number of women voters in states where suffrage had already been achieved, the NAWSA began to operate more as a political pressure group than an educational group, which was one of its primary missions at its foundation. It won additional sympathy for the suffrage cause by actively cooperating with the war effort during World War I. On February 14, 1920, several months prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the NAWSA transformed itself into the League of Women Voters, as has been noted. The NAWSA, however, was not the first organization to fight for women's rights. It was actually born out of the merger of two older organizations.


        The National Woman Suffrage Association was formed on May 15, 1869 in New York City. The NWSA was created in response to a split in the American Equal Rights Association over whether the women's movement should support the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Its founders, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, opposed the Fifteenth Amendment unless it included the vote for women. Men were able to join the organization as members; however, women solely controlled the leadership of the group. The NWSA worked to secure women's enfranchisement through a federal constitutional amendment. The American Woman Suffrage Association was also formed in November of the same year in response to the same split in the American Equal Rights Association over the Fifteenth Amendment. Its founders, who supported the Fifteenth Amendment, included Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe, among others. The AWSA founders were staunch abolitionists, and strongly supported securing the right to vote for African American men. They believed that the Fifteenth Amendment would be in danger of failing to pass in Congress if it included the vote for women. The AWSA believed that success for women could be more easily achieved through campaigns conducted at the state level. As was just noted, these two organizations were still not the beginning of the fight for women's rights in the United States.


        The American Equal Rights Association was formed in 1866, following the conclusion of the US Civil War. According to its constitution, its purpose was to secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex. Some of the more prominent reform activists of that time were members, including women, men, European Americans and African Americans. Some of the of more prominent members included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass. The AERA was created by the Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention, which dissolved itself at its final meeting and formed itself into the new organization. Leaders of the women's movement had earlier suggested the creation of a similar equal rights organization through a merger of their movement with the American Anti-Slavery Society, but that organization did not accept their proposal. However, with the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the American Anti-Slavery Society was without a cause. Many of their members gravitated to the AERA.


        The AERA conducted two major campaigns in 1867. In New York, which was in the process of revising its state constitution, AERA workers collected petitions in support of women's suffrage and the removal of property requirements that discriminated specifically against African American voters. In Kansas, they campaigned for a referendum that would enfranchise African Americans and women. In both places, they encountered strong resistance against the campaign for women's suffrage. The resistance came mostly from former abolitionist allies, those who had not joined with them, who believed the measure to be a hindrance to the immediate goal of securing suffrage rights for African American men. The Kansas campaign ended in disarray and recrimination and created unfortunate divisions between those who worked primarily for the rights of African Americans and those who worked primarily for the rights of women. Worse, however, was the fact that it also created divisions within the women's movement itself. The AERA continued to hold annual meetings after the failure of the Kansas campaign, but growing differences made it difficult for its members to work together. Disagreements over the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would prohibit the denial of suffrage on the basis of race, was especially sharp because it did not also prohibit the denial of suffrage on the basis of sex. The final AERA meeting in 1869 signaled the end of the organization and led to the formation of the two competing women's suffrage organizations mentioned above. The bitter disagreements that led to the demise of the AERA continued to influence the women's movement in subsequent years, as has already been indicated.


        The National Women's Rights Convention was an annual series of meetings that was meant to increase the visibility of the early women's rights movement in the United States. Its first meeting was held in 1850 in Worcester, Massachusetts. The National Women's Rights Convention combined both male and female leadership and attracted a wide base of support including temperance advocates and abolitionists. Speeches were given on the subjects of equal wages, expanded education and career opportunities, women's property rights, marriage reform, and temperance. Chief among the concerns discussed at the convention, however, was the passage of laws that would give suffrage to women. In 1840, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled with their husbands to London for the first World Anti-Slavery Convention, but the women were not allowed to participate. Mott and Stanton became friends, and together planned to organize their own convention to further the cause of women's rights. It wasn't until the summer of 1848 that Mott, Stanton, and three other women were able to call together the hastily organized Seneca Falls Convention. The Convention was attended by some 300 people over two days, including about forty men. The resolution on the subject of votes for women caused dissension amongst the attendees until Frederick Douglass took the platform and made an impassioned speech about freedom, equality, and the vote for women. The Convention's central committee was working on a Declaration of Sentiments, and it was his speech that got women's suffrage on the bill. One hundred of the attendees subsequently signed the Declaration.


        The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits any United States citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. It was ratified on August 18, 1920. Until the 1910s, most states disenfranchised women. The amendment was the culmination of seventy plus years of work by the Women's Suffrage Movement in the United States, which fought at both the state and national levels to achieve the vote for women. It effectively overruled Minor v. Happersett, decided in 1875, in which a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give women the right to vote. Here is the sad part, the struggle for women in the United States is still not over. There are still glaring inequalities in areas like salary, rank and promotion, body autonomy, and many more, but the women struggling today should not be afraid; rather, they should take courage, for behind them, whispering in the wind, are the spirits of those women that came before them. These are the women who endured beatings in the streets at the hands of heartless police officers, who had dogs sicked on them during sit ins and marches, who were arrested and sacrificed their personal liberty even when others offered to help free them, who went on hunger strikes and were traumatically force fed by the police to keep them from giving up their lives for the cause, and who, against all odds, including the ravages of time, achieved what many had deemed impossible, the right for women to have a legitimate say in how they were governed. Though, there are many more battles still left to fight, one must observe that the war is looking better every day.

1 comment:

  1. All of these individual were Republican or was supported by Republican.

    ReplyDelete