Learning from the Suffragists:
The League of Women Voters Educates Citizens for Action

Becky Cain

In 1920, when the suffragists knew they had won their battle for the right to vote, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), founded the League of Women Voters to ensure that the lessons of this seventy-two-year struggle would not be forgotten. "What could be more appropriate," asked Catt, "than that women who have attained their political independence ... should do for the coming generation what those of a preceding period did for them?"
Euphoria radiates from the accounts of the convention at which the League was born. It took place seventy-five years ago in the Gold Room of the Congress hotel in Chicago. Wrote one observer: "How happy everybody was! How victory electrified the air! At 2:30 P.M. the convention was called to order. It wasn't. It was called to disorder-the gayest, singingest disorder that ever was."

The euphoria of this convention was the euphoria born of a stunning victory, the Nineteenth Amendment. A group of women, finding themselves shut out of the system with no votes and no political voice, had discovered an alternative source of power. Traveling hundreds of thousands of miles and giving thousands of speeches, these citizens developed a new political tool-educating citizens for political action. They had mobilized ordinary people in towns, rural counties, and cities all across the country to exert intense pressure on the system from which they had been excluded. And after a seventy-two-year battle, their labor, persistence, and passion paid off.

The energy, optimism, and trust of the suffragists mark a stark contrast to the voters' mood seventy-five years later. Everyday we hear how upset the voters are. They're angry, they're apathetic. They're cynical. And they're mad. Whatever happened to the energy, the optimism, and the faith of the suffragists? Was the experience of the suffrage movement a unique phenomenon, never to be repeated? The history of the League proves otherwise.

While women were the immediate beneficiaries of the suffragist movement, which enfranchised them, in the end every citizen benefited from their efforts. For when the suffragists opened up the political system by mobilizing citizens at the grassroots level, they changed the American political landscape forever. One significant change, of course, was the addition of twenty million women voters, a hefty figure for the period. These twenty million new voters could have potentially doubled the electorate. But the success of the suffrage movement also lay in discovering the power of civic education and activism. From its founding on the eve of the Nineteenth Amendment's ratification, the League of Women Voters has continued to use civic education as a potent force for political change.

Susan B. Anthony, head of NAWSA, despite living into her eighties, was not alive to see women vote, although the amendment that the House and Senate passed in June 1919 and that went to the states for ratification was referred to as the Anthony Amendment. Anthony chose Carrie Chapman Catt to be her successor to head the NAWSA. Catt, who turned sixty in 1919, proposed the League of Women Voters as a new institution to transform the participation of Americans, particularly women, in politics. When Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Anthony Amendment, the League was already in place, with a national office established near the White House in Washington, D.C.

Even after the vote was won, women continued to be largely excluded from public office and had to rely on other means to achieve their political goals and influence public policy. The suffragists' campaign to win ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment was a guidebook on how to get what you want from a government that doesn't want to give it to you. The League studied the primer for political activism written by the suffragists carefully and discovered that the keys to power are easily accessible-to those willing to work for them. Through grassroots organizing, coalition building, and citizen activism, members have influenced and continue to influence local, state, and federal action in the arenas of social policy, international relations, natural resources, and good government. The League has used these tools in combination with civic education to make the people's voice heard. And while the issues have changed, the League's commitment to non-partisan civic education as a means of empowering the citizens has remained constant.

During the course of the League's seventy-five-year history, civic education has been deployed as a tool to improve and sustain the democratic system. In 1921, for example, the League established "Citizenship Schools," serving as a practical course in voting and politics for the new women voters. And throughout the 1970s, the League vigorously campaigned to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Each of these efforts operated on the belief that educating citizens for civic activism is fundamental to self-government.

Teaching Women "Courage and Confidence": Citizenship Schools
In the first year of the League's existence, state and local Leagues started Citizenship Schools, "demonstration classes" to explain to the newly enfranchised women the proper way to mark a ballot and other technicalities of registration and voting. The League was fearful that women, having won the vote, would not use it. The ostensible goal of these classes, then, was to overcome women's diffidence. The League's fear was justified. In the first election, the addition of women to the electorate resulted in a decline in voter turnout to less than 50 percent. Not until the 1980s would women vote in equal proportion to men. Today, however, voter turnout is greater among women.
The curriculum for these classes points to yet another goal and at the same time provides an illuminating view into what the League perceived its public role to be. These classes did much more than merely show women how to vote; they provided lessons in government, citizenship, and practical politics. In a speech to the Chicago Citizenship School, Catt outlined the ideal course curriculum:

Catt's list blends topics still taught in social studies classes in high schools today-the Constitution, how laws are made, and the powers of the president and Congress-with practical lessons such as how money influences politics and how to serve as an election official.

In the context of that era, the League's efforts to obtain and publicize this information through these Citizenship Schools constituted an activist strategy. Catt, notably, looked to women teachers as a potent resource in educating women on how to make the system work for them. The Citizenship School concept continues today through the League's voters' service programs.

The Equal Rights Amendment
The campaign to ratify the ERA to the Constitution, which would guarantee women equality under the law, put the lessons in activism learned from the suffragists to the test. The fight for ratification was a defining moment in the political history of American women.
The ERA, authored by Alice Paul, was first introduced in Congress in 1923. At that time, the League of Women Voters opposed it on the grounds that it would endanger newly won labor reforms that specifically protected women and children. The early League preferred a step-by-step attack on legal and administrative discrimination. Over time, support broadened for the amendment, and in 1954, the League officially changed its position to support the amendment during an overhaul of its legislative program. Support for the amendment grew among League members with the rise of the women's movement in the 1960s, and then grew exponentially after Congress passed the proposed amendment in 1972. At the League's 1972 convention, members voiced their overwhelming support.

The U.S. Congress passed the amendment with relatively little controversy. Following in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, an amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women seemed a logical progression. Hawaii ratified the amendment within two hours of congressional passage, followed by three other states the next day. In less than a month, thirteen states had ratified, and by the end of 1972, twenty-two of the requisite thirty-eight had come on board. In short, no signs indicated early on that the amendment would face any difficulty being ratified in the states.

At the end of 1972, however, anti-ERA factions had begun to surface and were making their influence felt. Conservative groups aligned themselves and began using the amendment as a fundraising and organization-building tool. To counter this opposition, ERA supporters had to wage a battle against fear, suspicion, and deeply entrenched ways of thinking about women in American society.

The tremendous resources, time, energy, money, and political know-how required to mount a successful national campaign for an amendment cannot be overestimated. As the suffragists had learned, no one group could accomplish such a feat alone. A national political campaign can be won only with supporters working together to mobilize citizens at the grassroots level.

The experiences of the League and other active women's groups during this national campaign showed both how much had changed in American politics since 1920 and how much had stayed the same. Some lessons that the suffragists had learned in their seventy-two-year campaign in overcoming obstacles to coalition building, and how to respond to irrational arguments, had to be learned all over again.

But the changed environment of the 1970s also required new forms of political activism. In 1979, for example, the League, working with ERAmerica, developed the National Business Council to solicit support from business leaders for ERA. Actress and businesswoman Polly Bergen co-chaired the initiative, which had fifty top corporate leaders as founding members. The National Business Council helped defuse worries in the business community about the impact of ERA. It also gave the coalition added political clout and, thanks to Bergen's involvement, greatly heightened media exposure. To succeed in the 1970s required both political pragmatism and public relations savvy. Whatever political skills the coalition lacked in the beginning of the campaign, it had by 1979.

One thing had not changed since the days of suffrage: the fundamental importance of grassroots organization and education. By early 1974, the League had targeted "winnable" states, that is, states in which the amendment had a chance of passage in the legislature and where the local Leagues had the resources to conduct a lobbying campaign. The League then worked quickly to develop coalitions within the targeted states, to target national resources for those campaigns, and to expand participation in the campaign.

At the state level, Leagues formed coalitions with an array of other women's groups including the American Association of University Women, National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Church Women United, Common Cause, National Council of Jewish Women, National Organization for Women (NOW), National Women's Political Caucus, and the YWCA. The coalitions engaged in diverse forms of political action such as staging rallies, holding vigils, and encouraging the economic boycott of non-ratifying states. The coalitions vigorously raised funds for the issue and attracted media exposure for the cause.

Decades of lobbying experience helped the state Leagues as they built legislative support for the amendment and trained coalition members in political effectiveness. The extensive contact with state legislators during the lobbying effort was an eye-opening experience for many League members, including those who had lobbied before. Battling the tactics that enabled a minority to obstruct passage of this popular amendment sharpened their political skills. The intensity of the struggle galvanized many of these women. Increasingly, they recognized the importance of women running for office, entering law as a profession, and positioning themselves to fight for equity within the system.

At the local level, League members supported the state lobbying effort by raising public awareness of ERA and educating citizens about what its real effects would be. They disseminated information through every possible medium. They participated in countless debates and talk shows focusing on ERA. They spoke about ERA at public meetings. These local League members made an important contribution to the campaign; while in 1973 ERA was a relatively obscure issue, by 1976, almost everyone in the country knew what ERA was.

In the end, however, time worked against the amendment. Historically, constitutional amendments have been ratified within three years or not at all. The passage of time allowed the opponents to develop their own coalitions. The opposition became more intense and, at times, even hysterical; ERA supporters received bomb threats and death threats, and disinformation in the state houses was widespread. The country was also experiencing a conservative swing. According to the League's ERA lobbyist Mary Brooks, "The resurgence of the conservative right coincided with changes in campaign finance law that... put a premium on finding issues to raise money on. The ERA and women's issues became very, very big fundraising issues for the right." Finally, some sectors of the business community perceived a threat to their interests and joined the opposition. Together, this minority was able to defeat a law that the vast majority of Americans still support to this day.

The ratification effort failed, but in the process, a whole new generation of women had been politicized. The campaign bore unanticipated fruit; the effort to ratify ERA brought women's issues to the forefront of American politics and energized women to participate more directly in the political process. It is no accident that many of the women now serving in Congress are former or current League members.

For seventy-five years, mobilizing citizens for action has defined the League's unique modus operandi. Belle Sherwin, the League's second president, called the League a "university without walls . . . whose members enter to learn and remain to shape the curriculum." The women who have shaped the League's history will not be found in most textbooks, yet their impact on American politics has been decisive, and in every instance, they viewed educating the public as a vital component of their political activism. The Citizenship Schools and the fight for ERA were both founded on the belief, developed by the suffragists, that citizen activism can and must be an integral part of self-government. Despite the immense technological and social changes that have taken place since the League's founding, the lessons of the suffragists are still valid: only through creating an active, informed citizenry can the integrity of the political system be maintained and enhanced.

Becky Cain is president of the League ofWomen Voters of the United States,Washington, DC.