“The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guarantee of your liberty… Understand what it means and what it can do for your country.”Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, upon the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote
As voters went to the polls this week for off-year election voting, the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment rapidly approaches. The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage– which guaranteed and protected women’s constitutional right to vote. This landmark ruling remains relevant in light of current issues related to equal rights for all and calls to mind the women behind this historic milestone of Democracy.
On March 23, 1919, in St. Louis Missouri, a “jubilee” convention was held which celebrated the 50th anniversary of Wyoming as the first territory (prior to statehood), to recognize rights of women on the ballot. Another prerogative of the women at the convention was to form a “league of women voters.” This League of Women Voters would be responsible for organizing a campaign for national women’s suffrage and proposed that its members be a determining factor in vital political issues across the Nation.
The idea gained quick momentum, and an article in the Asheville Citizen-Times on March 26, 1922 discussed the possible formation of a local chapter of the League in Asheville. There were a few additional blurbs mentioning the local League, but on August 11, 1922, buried on page 7, there was a small reference to the meeting being postponed due to the absence of several members. The next mention of an Asheville chapter would not come until Thursday, November 20, 1947.
Why the lapse in time? What happened to the Asheville chapter from 1922-1947? Unfortunately, there’s not a clear answer. However, here at UNC Asheville’s Special Collections, we are the repository for the records and Archives of the League of Women Voters for Asheville. While we have not yet located material in the collection which speaks to the League’s absence between those years, there is still a plethora of other fascinating history to uncover.
Indeed, one such intriguing piece of history can be found in the very first box of material containing several years worth of correspondence. In one of the first dated pieces, in a letter to the Asheville chapter from the President of the National League of Women Voters, Miss Anna Lord Strauss, she imparts upon its members “… that democracy is, in reality, a young and revolutionary idea in a world far more accustomed to authoritarianism.” President Strauss goes on to highlight the importance of a representative government, selected by its citizens and ready to accept full responsibility for upholding the freedoms of its Republic.
To this end, the League utilized various publications and educational resources to assist in championing their causes. In 1951, “The National Voter” magazine was first published. North Carolina chapters of the League employed their own publications, including the “Tarheel Voter,” the “North Carolina Voter,” and various brochures, pamphlets, and programs. In 1957, the League of Women Voters Education was formed to educate and inform citizens of major public policy issues, both national and local.
Indeed, the Asheville chapter of the League of Women Voters, the same as their local, state, and national compatriots, often lobbied fiercely over issues of taxes, the environment, the United Nations and International Trade, employment, and Constitutional freedoms, and they completed the work to sustain their position. Each League in North Carolina prided themselves on both their study and action: “Its reputation for thorough study of the issues it selects to work on is a second ‘shining armor,’ along with non-partisanship, when the League goes to testify or lobby, or takes an issue to the community.”
Today, the agenda of the League of Women Voters, both National and local chapters, remains much the same. The League’s grassroots organization champions the idea of voters as instrumental in shaping public policy. Non-partisan, the group focuses on issues that affect voters regardless of party affiliation. The League opposes partisan and racial gerrymandering, is a proponent for health care reform, and supports a transparent donation trail in elections. The League also takes great pride in advocating for voter rights for all American citizens, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or race, and they work to ensure that elections are fair, free, and accessible to all eligible citizens.
At a 1966 National Convention in Denver, North Carolina League President Louise Pitman (from Asheville), recalled receiving a message from Zella Leonard, a Chapel Hill member and former National Board member. Zella’s message read: “Keep your shirt on, the League of Women Voters can’t reform the world in five days.” Perhaps not, but looking at a storied history which has inspired an organization that is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion for all, the League is well-positioned to ensure that everyone at the table- regardless of political affiliation, race, or gender- has a voice in ensuring the future of “The Great Experiment.”
- “Last Great Convention Woman Suffrage Soon,” The Asheville Citizen, March 23, 1919.
- “What the League of Women Voters is and Intends to Do,” Mrs. L.E. Fisher, The Asheville Citizen, March 26, 1922.
- League of Women Voters, https://www.lwv.org/
- League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, https://www.lwvab.org/