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Women’s Right to Vote a Hard Fought “Experiment”

The League of Women Voters
The League of Women Voters

by Catherine Rader

The League of Women Voters was founded by suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt on Valentine’s Day in 1920. Six months later, the league celebrated victory of the historic 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote for the first time.

The League of Women Voters began as a “mighty political experiment” designed to help 20 million newly enfranchised women carry out their voting responsibilities and participate in shaping public policy. From its inception, the league has been a powerful force on the national, state, and local scene. With its first success — passage of the 1921 ground-breaking Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act providing federal aid for maternal and child care programs — to informational forums countering Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s attack on civil liberties, and more recently, working toward equitable and affordable health care for all Americans and advocating for campaign finance regulations, the league represents the best of activist, nonpartisan grassroots organizing. In 1974, the league amended its charter offering full membership to men.

The process by which the LWV takes a stand is its hallmark: Leagues choose issues to study, present the findings of the study committee, arrive at a consensus opinion, and then take action on the new position ranging from informal conversations to lobbying at all levels of government.

After three years of effort, the LWV was instrumental in the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which brought us Motor Voter. The LWV of the Champlain Valley advocated effectively for improving sewer treatment in Burlington, resulting in cleaner effluent going into Lake Champlain. The LWV of Vermont continues to advocate for same-day voter registration, universal publicly funded health care for all Vermonters (concurrent with the national league’s advocacy for a national health care system), and mitigation of climate change.

The league is best known for its voter service activities. The LWVUS sponsored presidential debates until 1984. In 1987, the national Republican and Democratic parties announced the creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission chose the LWV Education Fund to sponsor the last presidential debate of 1988, but placed so many rules and restrictions on the possible format of the debate that the league voted unanimously to withdraw, stating it had “no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.” Nevertheless, state and local leagues have continued the tradition of sponsoring nonpartisan state and local candidate debates and forums.

This past October, the LWV of Central Vermont (LWVCEN) sponsored a forum for the Washington County Senate candidates, and co-sponsored with the LWVVT a lieutenant governor candidate forum. Both events were held at the Old Labor Hall in Barre and aired by Onion River Public Access (ORCA) television. LWVCEN also hosted a debate in the ORCA studio between the candidates for Washington County state’s attorney. The league will sponsor more such debates for offices whose function and candidates are less well known.

In September 2014, leagues across the nation joined other organizations in National Voter Registration Day. LWVCEN members registered voters at U-32 High School and the Berlin Mall.

Our efforts at the mall were disappointing, even shocking. Many people stated outright that they had no interest in voting and would not register. Later conversations with The Bridge led to speculation as to why there is resistance to civic engagement. Why do people not vote? Why do people vote? The right to vote is one that many of us take for granted. How can the league best fulfill its mission to encourage the informed and active participation of citizens in government? Perhaps this issue of The Bridge will give us some answers.

The League of Women Voters of Central Vermont can be reached at 229-4737 or  www.lwvofvt.org. Annual dues: $40 for individuals, $60 per family.