Women Won the Right to Vote a Century Ago; This Organization Works to Protect That Right

Sep 22, 2020

Credit www.lwv.org

In February of 1920, just six months before the 19th amendment was ratified, the League of Women Voters was founded by Suffragists of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Chicago, Illinios. The nonpartisan organization has been referred to as a "mighty political experiment," designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters.

Dr. Laura Wolliver, President of the League of Women Voters of the Columbia South Carolina area, said league founders like Carrie Chapman Catt wanted their work to transition from fighting for the vote to protecting access to the ballot. She said a major part of helping to protect women's right to vote was not only making sure women felt comfortable going to the ballot, but also protecting the potential power of their vote."

"She [Catt] also wanted to make sure that when they did vote, that their votes were counted fairly," Wolliver said.

With half the peolple in the country women, the 19th Amendement enfranchised the largest new population of voters in the history of the United States; Catt wanted to make sure "there wasn't any attempt to try to dilute the power of women's vote."

Similar to the overall suffrage movement, it was racial discrimination that would play a role in diluting the potential, collective political power of women at the time.

"Racial discrimination and the impact of poll taxes, especially in the Southeast, disenfranchised people of color, but also working class people and poor people of every walk of life," Wolliver said.

These barriers to full franchise, would impact the work of the league across the country for decades.

"In South Carolina, the League of Women Voters was established right after the passage of the 19th Amendemnt. It was active for about ten years and then it went into a sort of a hiatus structure."

Wolliver said they believe the Great Depression was the cause of this gap in League activity.

"Few people who were active in the League of Women Voters, during the Depression were not able to keep it going." She said when the league started back up in he 1950's, discimination based on race and economic status ruled. 

"It was a white women's only organization; white women who had enough resources to be members and participate in the activities of the League of Women Voters."

Wolliver said, "forces," would cause the League to make changes  from the inside.

"The Civil Rights Movement, women's movement, environmental movement, changed many of the orientations of people in the league, the makeup of the league and the programs that the league supported."

Today, the League of Women Voters has grown to over 700 state and local branches and has more than 500,000 members and supporters. There are 14 branches in South Carolina. Posted to its national website, the organization is open about having what it calls “tough conversations" about race and embracing a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policy. 

Wolliver describes the league in South Carolina today as very strong and robust. Ahead of the state's June primary elections, she said the league was active in getting criteria expansion for absentee voting and paper ballots, due to the health effects of COVID-19. 

She added the century-old organization's newsest voter education tool, www.vote411.org, is a great example of how league continues to carry out its mission of empowering voters and defending demoncracy.