A league of our own: The League of Women Voters remains active and relevant as it turns 90
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In July 1848, a convention of about 260 women and about 40 men was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to organize a campaign to eliminate laws that made women's possessions -- and the women themselves -- the legal property of their husbands. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, supported by former slave Frederick Douglass, convinced the group that without the right to vote, no rights won by women would be secure.
Thus was born the women's suffrage movement.
Only one signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments issued by the convention lived long enough to cast her ballot. She was Charlotte Woodward, then a young worker in a glove factory, who was in her 90s by the time the right to vote was granted 72 years later in 1920.
History remembers the names of the women who started the movement, including Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But it was finished by the next generation: women who many people have never heard of, among them Carrie Chapman Catt and Maude Wood Park. These women founded the League of Women Voters in 1920 to give newly enfranchised women some guidance in voting. The league began inviting men to join in 1974, and it elected the first man to its national board in 2008 -- our version of cracking the glass ceiling.
The league soon found out that all voters needed information on voting and candidates and now it is known primarily for its voter service program: candidate debates; the Facts for Citizens directory of public officials; the Voters Guide posted on local league websites; and the new online voters guide, SmartVoter.org, which gives candidates a free opportunity to provide voters with information about themselves, much more than is possible in a printed guide.
The league is nonpartisan, which means that it never supports or opposes any candidate or political party. This year, under a grant from the Election Assistance Commission, we will be helping teachers hold mock elections in area high schools. We also organize public programs that attempt to present all sides of an issue -- this year a forum on the impacts of gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale in October.
The league also does issues advocacy, which seems to surprise people when we speak out, but it makes sense that an organization born out of one of the great political struggles of our history would continue to address issues that arise in society.
Early successes included federal aid to maternal and child welfare programs and the merit system for selecting government personnel, replacing much of the patronage system. Later came conservation of natural resources; support for equal access to education, employment and housing; support for the United Nations and arms control; and the Voting Rights Act.
Recent issues have included campaign finance reform, health care and climate change. We often address matters related to elections: currently, the way the districts represented by our legislators are redrawn after a census.
In the Pittsburgh area, we have worked on the home rule charter, campaign finance reform, intergovernmental cooperation and consolidation, support for libraries, air quality, housing, schools and more.
We are just beginning national studies on the federal role in public education and the privatization of government functions, services and assets. Issues are selected by members at local meetings and at state and national conventions. They are studied carefully by members who reach positions by discussion and consensus and then advocate for appropriate legislation.
It is a very bottom-up process -- done by perhaps the only organization that still does things that way.
This year is the league's 90th birthday. We hope all Americans can join us in celebrating its history, work and accomplishments.
First Published August 24, 2010 12:00 am