League of Women Voters Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On the eve of ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the League of Women Voters was formed to carry on the struggle of the suffragists by educating and organizing voting women into an effective, nonpartisan political force.

Summary of Event

The idea for the League of Women Voters was first proposed at the Jubilee Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which was held in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 24-29, 1919. The fight for woman suffrage, which had begun in the nineteenth century, was almost over. Nearly thirty states had conceded full or partial voting rights to women, and women in these states had helped elect increasing numbers of suffrage sympathizers to the U.S. Congress. Enough members in favor of woman suffrage had been elected in 1918 to guarantee that the Sixty-sixth Congress would pass a federal amendment enfranchising all women in 1919. At the suggestion of the president of the NAWSA, Carrie Chapman Catt, the Jubilee Convention voted to create an auxiliary organization, called the League of Women Voters (LWV), to operate in the enfranchised states. League of Women Voters Women;organizations Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;U.S. [kw]League of Women Voters Is Founded (Feb. 14, 1920) [kw]Women Voters Is Founded, League of (Feb. 14, 1920) [kw]Voters Is Founded, League of Women (Feb. 14, 1920) League of Women Voters Women;organizations Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;U.S. [g]United States;Feb. 14, 1920: League of Women Voters Is Founded[05060] [c]Organizations and institutions;Feb. 14, 1920: League of Women Voters Is Founded[05060] [c]Women’s issues;Feb. 14, 1920: League of Women Voters Is Founded[05060] Catt, Carrie Chapman Park, Maud Wood Gellhorn, Edna Fischel Jacobs, Pattie Ruffner Edwards, Marie Stuart

Members of the National League of Women Voters pose next to the agenda they plan to present to the Democratic Party’s platform committee.

(Library of Congress)

In a dramatic speech, Catt outlined three purposes for the LWV: to assist the NAWSA in the last stage of the fight for the federal amendment, to press for the removal of remaining legal discriminations against women, and to work for more honest elections and a better-informed electorate. Stressing that ignorance and corruption are threats to U.S. democracy itself, Catt proposed pursuing the last of these purposes through a nine-point legislative program that became the mandate of the LWV’s first authorized committee, American Citizenship. Its demands included compulsory education laws in every state to wipe out illiteracy and higher qualifications for citizenship and voting to “Americanize” an electorate heavy with immigrants. A second LWV committee, Women in Industry, adopted a legislative program that incorporated demands for protective labor legislation—something that women progressives had been working on for several decades. The LWV authorized six additional committees—Child Welfare, Social Hygiene, Improvements in Election Laws and Methods, Study of Food Problems, Unification of Laws Concerning Women, and Research—without formulating legislative agendas.

Initially, the LWV was governed by a council of state NAWSA presidents chaired by Jane M. Brooks Brooks, Jane M. of Kansas. At the NAWSA’s final Victory Convention, held February 12-18, 1920, in Chicago, the LWV ceased to function as an auxiliary and became a permanent organization with a new structure. The Nineteenth Amendment Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) having passed at last, the suffragists voted to dissolve the NAWSA and reconstitute as the National League of Women Voters. It was anticipated that the LWV would preserve the NAWSA’s organizational momentum for the new challenge of training women to become voters and to cast their ballots for constructive social ends. Governance was vested in a ten-member board of directors, with the presidents of the state auxiliaries forming an executive council; the league’s headquarters was to be in Washington, D.C.

From the board of directors, the convention elected Maud Wood Park to be the first president of the new organization; Edna Fischel Gellhorn of Missouri was elected vice president, Marie Stuart Edwards of Indiana was elected treasurer, and Pattie Ruffner Jacobs of Alabama was elected secretary. Carrie Chapman Catt was made honorary president. The eight standing committees reported legislative agendas numbering more than sixty planks, which the convention endorsed. Resolutions proposed and passed from the floor included support for the League of Nations and defenses of freedom of speech and the press, both of which were under attack as the Red Scare prompted an ongoing government campaign against alleged subversives.

From the legislative program endorsed at the Victory Convention, the LWV chose thirteen planks to present at the Republican and Democratic Parties’ nominating conventions, hoping for party endorsement. (A fourteenth demand, for the creation of a Woman’s Bureau in the Department of Labor, was dropped after Congress passed the necessary legislation in June, 1920.) The league’s first priority was support for the Sheppard-Towner bill, Sheppard-Towner Act (1921)[Sheppard Towner Act] introduced in Congress the previous year, which would provide federal matching funds for state programs to improve maternal and infant health. The league also put its energies into the promotion of a constitutional amendment abolishing child labor, increased funding for the Children’s Bureau, and new or continued federal aid for three educational objectives: combating illiteracy, improving home economics education, and continuing public education in sex hygiene. Other concerns included the proposed establishment of a federal department of education, a federal-state employment service that would include women’s departments, federal regulation of food marketing, and compulsory civics education in the public schools. Three planks dealt specifically with fairness to women: ending sex discrimination in the civil service, independent citizenship for married women (who at that time lost their U.S. citizenship if they married resident aliens), and independent naturalization procedures for foreign-born women (who acquired U.S. citizenship when their husbands did).

The LWV’s agenda thus continued the pursuit of social welfare goals through an active, interventionist government that women’s voluntary associations had sought during the Progressive Era. The Republicans endorsed five of the planks and the Democrats twelve, but the leadership of both parties united in criticizing the LWV’s existence as an attempt to create a separate women’s party and divide the electorate along gender lines. Confusion about the LWV’s purpose also led some partisan women to denounce the organization, which they feared would duplicate their own efforts in political education and insulate women from political parties.


Although Catt envisioned the LWV as nonpartisan and all-partisan, she at the same time encouraged members to join political parties as individuals and to run for office; women who held prominent offices in the political parties served on the national- and state-level LWV boards. This dual vision proved difficult to implement, however, and disagreements arose among the membership as to what the LWV’s primary purpose should be. During the 1920 elections, some local branches of the league mounted well-publicized campaigns to defeat politicians who had opposed suffrage, offending members who interpreted nonpartisanship to mean not simply refusing to endorse candidates but avoiding all kinds of electioneering. Internal dissension, combined with hostility from the political parties, ultimately led the LWV to embrace a policy of strict nonpartisanship and to focus on women’s political education and study of the issues.

Controversy likewise developed over the LWV program. Some members argued that the LWV’s extensive legislative agenda was too politically controversial, that it duplicated the programs of other women’s voluntary organizations, and that it detracted from the goal of women’s pursuing political power. Such criticisms led to the appointment of the Committee on the Simplification of the Program to clarify goals and policies, but the LWV continued to embrace social reform through legislative lobbying. The Victory Convention had directed the LWV to take the lead in bringing together women’s organizations to work for legislation of common interest. That autumn, Maud Wood Park issued a call to which ten organizations responded. On November 22, 1920, they organized the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee Women’s Joint Congressional Committee[Womens Joint Congressional Committee] (WJCC), and Park became its permanent chair. Working in collaboration with the member organizations of the WJCC enabled the LWV to realize some of its primary legislative goals: passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921; passage of the Cable Act, Cable Act (1922) guaranteeing women independent citizenship, in 1922; and passage of a new child labor law in 1924.

Although the LWV had aimed to preserve NAWSA’s membership and momentum, fewer than one hundred thousand of the NAWSA’s two million members joined the new organization. Catt had envisioned state and local suffrage associations dissolving and being reborn as leagues, but only Pennsylvania’s suffrage association actually retained its leaders and membership as a state-level LWV. By the end of 1920, the LWV claimed organizations in forty-six states, but seventeen of them, in predominantly rural states, were weak and struggling. Local leagues were strongest in large cities where municipal reform movements had flourished during the Progressive Era; state leagues were most vigorous in the more heavily populated states east of the Mississippi River. Active city and state leagues in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York developed techniques, such as compiling and distributing candidate records and analyzing pending legislation, that served as models for other states.

The LWV grew slowly but steadily in the twentieth century, reaching a peak in membership of 150,000 women and men (with men first admitted in 1974) in the mid-1970’s. In 1976, it began one of its most visible projects aimed at voter education, the sponsorship of televised debates between U.S. presidential candidates. The league also undertook advocacy for the simplification of voter registration and supported passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the league devoted efforts to the promotion of campaign finance reform. League of Women Voters Women;organizations Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Mildred. The Right to Be People. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1966. Reviews the people and events leading to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and provides a critical look at the impact of the vote for women. Credits the League of Women Voters with major pushes toward equality for women beyond the vote. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Becker, Susan. “International Feminism Between the Wars: The National Woman’s Party Versus the League of Women Voters.” In Decades of Discontent: The Women’s Movement, 1920-1940, edited by Lois Scharf and Joan Jensen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. Describes the LWV’s efforts on behalf of protective legislation for women workers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buhle, Mari Jo, and Paul Buhle, eds. The Concise History of Woman Suffrage. 1978. Reprint. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Extremely useful collection of documents from the classic, original six-volume History of Woman Suffrage. Covers primarily the period leading up to the LWV’s formation. Includes informative introductory material and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Catt, Carrie Chapman, and Nettie Rogers Shuler. Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923. Firsthand account of the movement, dramatically told yet with intelligent assessments of the pertinent issues. Includes details of the legal machinations on both sides of the suffrage issue. Curiously omits any extensive discussion of the LWV’s postratification role, perhaps because of Catt’s own humility. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clift, Eleanor. Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Brief history of the suffrage movement in the United States describes important events and organizations and provides background on the movement’s leaders. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996. A standard source on the women’s movement through the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Includes abundant quotations and anecdotes, photographs, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fowler, Robert Booth. Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986. Thoughtful study of Catt’s life focuses on her leadership skills, organizational theories, and political savvy and how those elements intertwined with her personality. Explains the organizational model behind the League of Women Voters. Includes thorough notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Felice D. After Winning: The Legacy of the New Jersey Suffragists, 1920-1947. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986. Chapter 2 offers an in-depth analysis of a state-level LWV.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lemons, Stanley J. The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920’s. 1973. Reprint. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Classic study of women’s political activism in the first decade after suffrage. Provides a good brief introduction to the League of Women Voters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peck, Mary Gray. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Biography. 1944. Reprint. New York: Hyperion, 1976. Biography by a close friend of Catt displays personal insights available in very few other works on Catt. Suffers at times precisely because of the proximity of the author to the subject as well as Catt’s clear reluctance to have herself memorialized. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Voris, Jacqueline. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. New York: Feminist Press, 1987. Solid narrative account of Catt’s public activities. Chapter 4 describes the last conventions of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the beginnings of the League of Women Voters. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Louise M. In the Public Interest: The League of Women Voters, 1920-1970. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Excellent source of information on the league, well researched and clearly presented. Extensive endnotes are worth reading in their own right. Includes bibliography and index.

International Congress of Women

First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

National Woman’s Party Is Founded

Canadian Women Gain the Vote

British Women Gain the Vote

U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote

Cable Act

Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment

Categories: History