Founding of the League of Women Voters of Wheaton

Account by Marget Hamilton, Organizer and First President of the Wheaton LWV.

I moved from Barrington to Wheaton in the early 1950's and was dismayed to find there was no League of Women Voters. When I would inquire about a League or about some organization that might be interested and active in politics, I was always referred to the Women's Republican Club, which was not quite what I was looking for. I did find out finally that there was a League in Glen Ellyn, and my mother-in-law Nell and I joined. As I recall, there were four other Wheatonites who were members of the Glen Ellyn League: Bea Decker, Elsa Helfrich, Jean Boe, and Katy Fitzgerald. 

At that time the League was organized into study groups, and the Wheaton contingent made up one group. We became more and more anxious to take action on local issues:

  1. Tthe park district badly needed funds. All referendums in recent memory had lost.
  2. Zoning issues (some things never change!)
  3. Inadequate storm sewers - Louise Heininger had marks on her wall with dates showing high water marks! She lived in the Hawthorne subdivision, which was perfectly flat!

Obviously Wheaton needed us! 

The national League reiterated its policy firmly: No action can be taken unless the League is organized on a municipal level. 

About that time I was asked to take the presidency of the Glen Ellyn League, and I decided, “No, if I'm going to work that hard, I will try to start a League in Wheaton.” We had grown to about 10-12 Wheaton members in the Glen Ellyn League. National sent out a representative to give us guidance and we “went at it”. 

First, we had to call a public, advertised organizational meeting, essentially to tell Wheaton, “Here we are!” We met at the Methodist Church on a rainy day, with maybe 25 people showing up. 

I had already received some unpleasant phone calls about “a subversive organization” and the local newspaper, which will remain unnamed, practically threatened when they said they were sending a reporter. I was confused - the Barrington League had never gone through this! 

While I was presiding at the meeting, two ladies in the third row asked, “Why do you think this organization is necessary in Wheaton? What exactly do you do?” I invited them to attend a study group and join later if they were interested. Betty Hamilton and her mother, Mary Ivey, became two of my dearest friends, and brought home anew the fact that one of the most important fringe benefits of League membership is lasting friendships. 

We were a provisional League for about 11⁄2 years - they extended the time frame for us. During that time we carried on the state and national agendas and made a thorough study of local government, and we quickly recognized that the county and township boards and the city council felt threatened by our diligent representatives taking copious notes at their meetings. Local government heads became a little impatient with our constant questions - but we persevered! 

We did not have a dime! Pat Smith and I called on the president of the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce - a meeting that I shall never forget. Somehow we persuaded him to finance the publication of the Wheaton Profile. It was still a “shoestring” project, and we sought help from everyone. It became a true community project. Husbands became so involved we were afraid they might take over. With lots of fun and lots of hard work, the first Wheaton Profile was published in 1956. The Chamber of Commerce was pleased. National League was pleased - and we became a recognized part of the League of Women Voters. 

Bear with me for a few more minutes while I tell you of the humorous incident that further explained why the community and the local press reacted so strongly to our presence. 

One of our national agenda items was a study of the so-called “national security” legislation being proposed by state and national governments. Remember that the House Un-American Activities Committee was still in existence and was publishing regularly a list of “suspicious” organizations. The League of Women Voters was on that list, incredible as it may seem. 

In addition, Joe McCarthy was going strong, and a local organization based in Wheaton was beating the drum for McCarthy. 

In the Wheaton League one of our primary concerns was the proposal to require all public school teachers to sign a loyalty oath. No other profession was singled out for this demeaning treatment. 

The Wheaton League, as was customary, publicized its monthly meeting as a discussion of proposed loyalty oaths. We were accustomed to having a small contingent of McCarthy's local followers at our meetings, but this was a mob scene! 

I opened the meeting by reading the famous Smith Act and its definition of subversive action, which included the phrase, “overthrow of the government by force and violence.” A very heated, lengthy, good debate ensued and I went home satisfied that we had enjoyed an informative, enlightening experience. 

The next morning at about 10 a.m. my front door bell rang, and a very young, pink-cheeked lad introduced himself as an agent of the F.B.I. He said I had been reported to the F.B.I. because at the previous night's meeting I had advocated overthrow of the government by force and violence. 

I explained to him about the League agenda. He had never heard of the League of Women Voters. I told him all agenda items were on file at the Library of Congress. He was surprised. I asked him if he had ever heard of the Smith Act. He had not. I read it to him. He was surprised. I asked who had reported me to the F.B.I. He said it was a person at the meeting, but he could not give out names. I questioned that. He was adamant. I told him I was impressed with the fact that the meeting had adjourned about midnight and he was at my door at 10 a.m. He told me that the F.B.I. was very efficient. I did not hear from him again. 

Many years later, when I presented the Fair Housing Ordinance to the Wheaton City Council, my life was threatened and the F.B.I. recommended that the Wheaton police assign me a bodyguard. By that time I was on a first-name basis with the F.B.I. agent in this area and one day, over lunch, I told him my “Smith Act” story and he was highly amused. 

(Note: The Fair Housing Ordinance was a cooperative venture of Bill Pollard, Hartman Stime, and Marget Hamilton, with some input from the NAACP.)