- A Rich History
- League Roots in the Suffragist Movement
- The Early Years in Minnesota
- The 1920s: Growing and Active
- The 1930s: The Depression Years and War
- The 1940s: War and Its Aftermath
- The 1950s: Facing New Issues
- The 1960s: The Civil Rights Era
- The 1970s: Education and Equal Rights
- The 1980s: Education Services Grow
- The 1990s: Children’s Issues Dominant
- The 2000’s: Focus on New Voters
A Rich History
League of Women Voters has a 95-year history of striving to make democracy work for all citizens. Its roots are in the suffragist movement, but it quickly moved from the enfranchisement of women to take on the issues of the day – always in a non-partisan framework supported by volunteers.
Much has changed since 1919. LWV has men members, as well as those not yet citizens. The goals of supporting good government have remained the same, however. We invite you to explore League in its decade-by-decade work to promote civic engagement and strong communities.
League Roots in the Suffragist Movement
One year prior to the founding of the League of Women Voters of the United States, Carrie Chapman Catt proposed the formation of a “league of women voters to ‘finish the fight’ and to aid in the reconstruction of the nation.”
The date was March 24, 1919; the occasion was the 50th Anniversary Jubilee Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NWASA), in St. Louis, Missouri. Catt asked: “What could be more natural than that women who have attained their political independence should desire to give service in token of their gratitude? What could be more appropriate than that such women should do for the coming generation what those of a preceding period did for them? … Let us then raise up a league of women voters… a league that shall be non-partisan and nonsectarian in character.”
Chapman Catt formally founded the organization on February 14, 1920, during the “Victory Convention” of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Chicago, Illinois. At the time, 33 states had ratified the suffrage amendment, but would be six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote after a 57-year struggle.
The League began as a “mighty political experiment” designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters. It encouraged them to use their new power to participate in shaping public policy. From the beginning, the League was an activist, grassroots organization whose leaders believed that citizens should play a critical role in advocacy. It was then, and is now, a nonpartisan organization. However, League members were encouraged to be political by educating citizens about, and lobbying for, government and social reform legislation. “Naturally, this course has failed to please extremists of either brand,” noted the League’s first president, Maud Wood Park, in 1924. “The partisan radicals call the League conservative, the thorough-going reactionaries are sure that it is radical or worse.”
The League has a long, rich history. Learn more at LWVUS’s history.
The Early Years in Minnesota
Franchise of Women in Minnesota
March 24, 1919, the Minnesota Legislature granted Minnesota women the right to vote for presidential electors. Suffrage associations in states where women had the vote automatically became members of the League of Women Voters, still an auxiliary of NAWSA. On September 19 a special session of the Minnesota Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment: in the House 120 to 6; in the Senate 60 to 5. Thus full franchise came to the women of Minnesota. Those who worked for it began to plan immediately for its use.
League of Women Voters of Minnesota Organized
The Minnesota Suffrage Association dissolved its corporation on the October 7, 1919 and passed a resolution that its effects—funds, office supplies, equipment—”become on that date the property of the Minnesota League of Women Voters to be organized October 29, 1919, as a branch of the national League of Women Voters for the purpose of completing full enfranchisement of women and increasing effectiveness of women’s votes in furthering better government.”
The 1920s: Growing and Active
By 1920 the League of Women Voters of Minnesota (LWVMN) had a chairperson in each congressional district, a chairperson in 70 of 86 counties, and an estimated membership of “at least” 14,000, including women who belonged to other organizations that agreed with League objectives.
Because it had built its state organization so fast, Minnesota was hailed as the “Banner State” at the 1921 National Convention.
Citizenship was the League’s first concern, and it conducted schools nationwide to inform the public about voting and the principles and structure of government.
In October 1920 the Fifth District (Minneapolis) League distributed 226,655 pieces of literature prepared in its own office, gave 99 talks, presented a play about voting before 60 organizations, maintained information booths in all the big stores for two weeks before the election, and recruited and trained more than 200 women to act as elect ion judges.
In 1922 LWVMN published State Election Laws Clearly Stated for the First Time. Despite the title, the Secretary of State approved it and it was widely used.
The League made its first radio broadcast in 1924 and began a series of programs in 1927. In 1926 it broadcast a meeting over WCCO featuring the four candidates for Governor.
Nationally, the League urged participation in disarmament conferences, the development of international law, and worked hard for U.S. membership in the World Court.
Locally, the League surveyed city government and found it wanting. Thus began the long and arduous campaign for a new City Charter. The City Hall Observers program also began.
Some talented Minnesota women devoted their lives to the LWV. Clara Ueland, a prime mover in the suffrage movement, became the first State President. She resigned to head the Legislative Council, and spent the last day of her life at the Legislature on League business. Mabeth Paige resigned from the National Board to become the first woman to serve in the Legislature from 1923 to 1945. Marguerite Wells was State President from 1934 to 1944.
The 1930s: The Depression Years and War
During the 30’s many federal laws were passed that included League-supported features – unemployment insurance, old age assistance, material and child health programs, aid to dependent children.
By mid-decade it was apparent that the program had grown too extensive to manage. The LWV narrowed its emphasis to two issues: 1) a merit system of government employment at all levels; and 2) reform of the tax system to provide adequate revenue…through an equitable tax burden. LWV led a successful campaign for civil service at all levels of government, with hundreds of federal jobs removed from the spoils system.
Shadows of war loomed as early as 1931.The LWV urged U.S. membership in the League of Nations and persisted in its efforts to get the Senate to ratify the World Court, but without success. LWV believed that war could be prevented by international cooperation and held that: “Peaceful change through the achievement of economic and social justice is the best method of preventing war.”
The 1940s: War and Its Aftermath
Long before Pearl Harbor, the League opposed the principle of the Neutrality Acts—that the U.S. should treat all belligerents the same. Although not all members agreed, and some resigned in protest, the League supported Lend-Lease. It supported price controls, rationing, higher taxes and especially a new world system of collective security.
When the Dumbarton Oaks proposal for the United Nations was presented, the League began an intensive campaign in support. Also strongly supported were the push for civilian control of atomic energy, the European Recovery Program and the concept of world trade.
The 1950s: Facing New Issues
The LWV maintained its support of the United Nations and of programs to help other countries through economic aid and technical assistance. It urged a more liberal trade policy.
The excesses of the Joseph McCarthy era brought about the Freedom Agenda, a League program to promote discussion of individual liberties under the Constitution, and a study of the federal loyalty-security system.
The American Legion attacked the LWV’s Freedom Agenda because someone had accused one of its authors of communist sympathies. The Milwaukee Journa1, one of many newspapers supporting the League, said: “They (Legion officials)… have blustered into battle with the League of Women Voters of the U.S. Their own choice of a battleground being patently untenable, they can only retire in disorder, looking foolish…”
League said: “Believing as it (League) does in the principle of free speech and free examination of all ideas, it will not yield to intimidation, oppression, or false charges.”
Concern about the depletion of natural resources appeared on the National Program in 1950, and focused more precisely on water beginning in 1956.
LWVMN efforts were concentrated on revising the Minnesota Constitution by convention. Since the Legislature was not persuaded, it finally supported revision by amendment. The Home Rule Article was a success, as was defeat of a reapportionment amendment the LWV considered inadequate.
Locally, the League concerned itself with city City Charter, adequate funding for schools, libraries, parks, welfare and general government purposes. It also published its first handbook on city government, Minneapolis Is Your Business.
The 1960s: The Civil Rights Era
The early 1960’s saw the first edition of Indians in Minnesota, the written by Elizabeth Ebbott of the Mahtomedi Area.
The Council of Metropolitan Area Leagues (CMAL) was developed, comprised of Leagues in the seven-county area. CMAL deals with questions of metropolitan significance.
While the League had taken a stand against racial discrimination years before, the 60’s saw study and action at the U.S., state and local levels with a firm stand against discrimination for any reason. It also studied and supported anti-poverty programs.
The LWVUS adopted a study of U.S.-China relations. At the height of the Vietnam War, relations with China were non-existent and the idea was suspect.
Locally, LWVMpls published a new edition of Minneapolis Is Your Business. It also began to collect, collate and report election returns. Started as an experiment for one television station, the project evolved into a major fundraiser that required up to 400 volunteers to provide fast, accurate election returns for participating media.
Bess Mlnarik, one-time Organization Chairperson for LWVMpls, created Citizen Power, a curriculum to encourage participation in government and civic affairs by minorities and the underprivileged. She instructed League volunteers in using the curriculum and arranged for dozens of classes, many of which she herself taught. Each year an award is given to an outstanding LWVMpls volunteer in Bess Mlnarik’s name.
The League of Women Voters celebrated its 50th birthday in 1969, kicking off a campaign to raise $11 million nationally. LWVMpls raised more than $18,000.
The 1970s: Education and Equal Rights
The local LWV agenda was crowded, with particular attention to the Minneapolis Public Schools. Declining city population meant declining enrollment and school closings. In addition, the League studied daycare, juvenile justice, services to American Indians, the police department, public housing, the park system, family violence, mass transit, and the city budget. A four-part study called Minneapolis: A City in Transition included sections on population, housing, education and property taxes.
The Hennepin County Leagues of Women Voters, with representatives from county Leagues, became active and published a lengthy report on county government.
Toward the end of the decade, efforts focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment. LWV Mpls surpassed its goal of raising $6,600 toward the $1 million LWVUS fund for education in un-ratified states and sent money for LWV Atlanta to use in its efforts toward ratification of the ERA in Georgia.
LWVUS televised debates by presidential candidates.
The 1980s: Education Services Grow
In 1980 LWV Mpls began training of city election judges as a fundraiser. After experimenting with various ways of doing the job, it produced a video called “A Day in the Life of an Election Judge.”
In 1982, the Legislature, aided and abetted by the LWVMN, passed legislation requiring comparable pay in state employment. The following year it passed a similar bill requiring all local governments within the state to follow suit. LWVMN published Pay Equity: A Monitoring Guide for organizations monitoring local compliance with the law.
The Election Returns project became computerized. Computers were used in the League office.
LWVMN issued the 4th edition of Indians in Minnesota, again written by Elizabeth Ebbott, this time published by the University of Minnesota Press. In 1985 LWVMp1s once again published an updated version of A Guide to Local Government.
The League studies also focused on issues related to children, city structure and preventing violence.
The 1990s: Children’s Issues Dominant
In the spring of 1990, the LWV Mpls voted to study the issue of race and published Reflections on Race in 1991. It was widely used as a training tool by corporations.
In early 1991, the LWV Mpls voted to evaluate its structure. This resulted in the first multi-year strategic plan and became the catalyst for the 75th Anniversary Campaign to raise awareness, initiate projects, and secure the League’s financial future. The first goal of the campaign—motivating citizens—led to expansion of candidate and issue forums and a renewal of interest in observing government meetings. The second goal—to strengthen communities—created the Young Women’s Community Leadership Project , in which League shared leadership practices with underserved high school women. That goal also prompted the League to provide extra support to neighborhoods, through facilitation, partnership and housing tours.
In 1993, the League published Valuing Children: The First Step—Early Childhood Care and Education in Minneapolis. A 1995 report, Breaking the Cycle of Violence: A Focus on Primary Prevention Efforts, the second in the series; followed. From Childhood to Adulthood: Putting Adolescents on a Healthy Lifetime Path was published in 1996.
During the mid 90’s, League also sponsored housing roundtables and mayoral town meetings. A continuing interest in education prompted publication of the unique Middle School Achievement Project: a Portrait of our Minneapolis Public Middle Schools and Recommendations for Improvements in 1998. Collaborating with the Minneapolis public schools and community groups, the LWV Mpls conducted an extensive shadow study of students and education personnel to catch a glimpse of the inner workings of middle schools. A sequel to it was released in 2000.
Other mid-late 90s activities included housing tours, a forum on Medicare and group interactions as part of a LWV MN project on immigration.
The 2000’s: Focus on New Voters
Guided by a 2003-06 by a Strategic Plan that had goals in four areas of Program, Membership, Image and Financial Strength, LWV Mpls further focused on its core mission in a 2006 Plan with goals of 1) expanding and improving voter information; 2) growing and sustaining membership to support mission and goals; and 3) maintaining effective planning, operations and funding to support mission and goals.
Voter education work is focused on providing information and support to new voters such as those who have come of age to vote and new citizens voting for the first time. Collaborations with community and ethnic organizations support this important work. Thus the basic work of LWV Mpls, still done by volunteers from the organization, is not too different from that of its founders—helping citizens understand their voting rights, and how to exercise them and being informed and acting on issues of concern in the community—democracy in action.