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It Began First in Wichita

The League of Women Voters started after women got the right to vote.

In her address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) 50th convention in St. Louis, Missouri, President Carrie Chapman Catt proposed the creation of a “league of women voters to finish the fight and aid in the reconstruction of the nation.” Women Voters was formed within the NAWSA, composed of the organizations in the states where suffrage had already been attained. Kansas had approved votes for women in 1912, the ninth state to do so. Jane Brooks of Wichita, wife of a prominent attorney and president of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association, was elected chairperson of the national league of women voters within NAWSA, because, as a contemporary said, “She was attractive, able, and not tarred up as an old suffrage warhorse.” She went home to Kansas and set about dissolving the KESA and establishing the first local League of Women Voters in the country in Wichita, Kansas.

The KESA held its last meeting on Wednesday, June 4, 1919, and laid the foundation for the Kansas League of Women Voters. In addition officers were elected for the Sedgwick County League of Women Voters. One week later, the first annual meeting of the Kansas League of Women Voters was held June 10-11, 1919, at the Hotel Lassen in Wichita. In January, 1920, the Kansas League held the “First School of Citizenship and Called Convention of the Kansas League of Women Voters,” again at the Hotel Lassen in Wichita. Leagues from Topeka, Enterprise, Hutchinson, Emporia, Manhattan, Wichita, Lawrence, Leavenworth, and Winfield were represented. Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen spoke on “Land Tenantry and Industrial Courts” and the heads of 25 local women’s organizations ranging from the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Kansas to the Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club served as “patronesses.” (See more history about the struggle for women’s rights in Kansas at LWVK History.)

[Carrie Chapman Catt, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, on telephone] from the Prints and Photographs Division: Library Of Congress

[Image of the National League of Women Voters during the 1920 Democratic Convention presenting the “Infancy and Maternity Care” and public health education planks. Image from National Library of Medicine and LWV US History]

The next year, on February 14, 1920—six months before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified—the League was formally organized in Chicago as the national League of Women Voters. Catt described the purpose of the new organization:

“The League of Women Voters is not to dissolve any present organization but to unite all existing organizations of women who believe in its principles. It is not to lure women from partisanship but to combine them in an effort for legislation which will protect coming movements, which we cannot even foretell, from suffering the untoward conditions which have hindered for so long the coming of equal suffrage. Are the women of the United States big enough to see their opportunity?”

Maud Wood Park became the first national president of the League and thus the first League leader to rise to the challenge. She had steered the women’s suffrage amendment through Congress in the last years before ratification and liked nothing better than legislative work. From the very beginning, however, it was apparent that the legislative goals of the League were not exclusively focused on women’s issues and that citizen education aimed at all of the electorate was in order.

Since its inception, the League has helped millions of women and men become informed participants in government. The LWV accepted men as members in 1972 but chose to keep the historic name.

In fact, the first league convention voted 69 separate items as statements of principle and recommendations for legislation. Among them were protection for women and children, right of working women, food supply and demand, social hygiene, the legal status of women, and American citizenship.The League’s first major national legislative success was the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act providing federal aid for maternal and child care programs. In the 1930’s, League members worked successfully for enactment of the Social Security and Food and Drug Acts. Due at least in part to League efforts, legislation passed in 1938 and 1940 removed hundreds of federal jobs from the spoils system and placed them under Civil Service.

During the postwar period, the League helped lead the effort to establish the United Nations and to ensure U.S. Participation. The League was one of the first organizations in the country officially recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental organization; it still maintains official observer status today.

See also League History from the League of Women Voters of the U.S.