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Looking Back, Moving Forward: Former LWVUS Presidents Reflect on 95 Years of Making Democracy Work

Ninety-six years ago this week, Carrie Chapman Catt speaking at the National American Woman Suffrage Association 50th anniversary Convention proposed the formation of a "league of women voters” to “finish the fight” for women’s quality and to promote civic engagement and interest in political issues over partisan politics. Within a year, Catt’s vision would be realized with the founding of the League of Women Voters on February 14, 1920 and later that year women would finally win the right to vote after decades of advocacy by Catt and her compatriots.

As we look to the next 95 years and beyond, the League of Women Voters continues fighting to keep the power of our democracy in the hands of the people. As a powerful national network that includes 800 state and local chapters across the country, the League empowers people every day to tackle the most important issues facing our communities and to improve local, state and federal government.

In the 95 years since Catt set forth the ideals that guide the League today, 17 national presidents, have steadfastly worked to realize our mission of Making Democracy Work®. To mark Women’s History Month and to reflect on the League’s history, we recently spoke with some of our former presidents to hear about their best memories as well as their vision for the future of our organization.

It was the League’s commitment to impartiality and a balanced approach to the issues that caught the attention of former president Dorothy Ridings (1982-1986) while she worked as a journalist in North Carolina: “I learned that the League was a marvelous source to understand the differing positions on many political issues, thoroughly and without bias… [The League’s work] is gold to the American public today because of that long reputation for fairness and accuracy.”

Yet when the League advocates on a policy issue, our tenacity, determination and hard work are readily apparent. Former president Nancy Neuman (1986-1990) recounts when an early version of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) passed through the House of Representatives in 1990: “[We] lobbied for the bill and, despite harsh opposition, it passed. Rep. Al Swift (D-WA), chief sponsor of the bill, wrote me that ‘Without the League we wouldn’t have had a bill or our overwhelming victory... Stalwart is the word for the League.’ Majority Whip Bill Gray (D-PA) sent this message: ‘No organization in America has done more to bring the process of democracy to its citizens than the League. Your personal leadership on this bill is a testament to the League’s effort to make our system more accessible to the voters.’”

Over twenty years after the passage of the NVRA, the League remains committed to protecting this vital law that streamlined the federal voter registration process, enabling the voter registration work of organizations like the League. We’ve also looked for new ways to implement the law in order to help more Americans register to vote when interacting with federal agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Throughout the last century, our national presidents have led us through a number of notable accomplishments. And while, we’ve helped protect voting rights, made elections more accessible, cleaned up campaign finance regulations, worked to protect the planet and so much more, the need for the League and our work remains. Test your knowledge on some of the League’s key accomplishments!

Through our unwavering commitment to our country and government, the League is building on our legacy: “There is much work still to be done if all citizens are to have access to and engage in the electoral process…the League’s work is, in fact, the work of each person who cares about social justice. The League’s work is the work that keeps our democracy strong. The grassroots efforts that are the foundation of the League allow people to participate in issues that affect them on a daily basis,” said Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins (1998-2002) whose tenure spanned the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act and lobbying for the Help America Vote Act. Added former president Kay Maxwell (2002-2006): “The League continues to be the premier citizen organization dedicated to informing voters and a significant voice on issues that matter to us all. Especially in this era of partisanship and gridlock, the League stands as a beacon for reasoned, nonpartisan debate!”

When Catt called for a ‘league of women voters,’ she asked: "What could be more patriotic than that these women should use their new freedom to make their nation safer for their children and their children’s children?...Let us then raise up a league of women voters – the name and form of organization to be determined by the voters themselves; a league that shall be non-partisan and nonsectarian in character..." For 95 years the League has sought to fulfill Catt’s goal, and today we march into 2020 and beyond with new means to empower and mobilize voters that activists like Catt could not have imagined in 1919.  

What is your vision for the future of the League? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

This post is part of “Celebrating Women: Past, Present & Future,” the League’s series honoring Women’s History Month.

The League of Women Voters is celebrating 95 years of Making Democracy Work® at every level of government. In 1920, the League was founded as an outgrowth of the movement that secured women the right to vote to help new voters engage with their government. Today, the League empowers all voters to improve their local, state and national government. Learn more about the League of Women Voters and join our celebration!