The League of Women Voters
In her address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association's (NAWSA) 50th convention in St. Louis, Missouri, President Carrie Chapman Catt proposed the creation of a "league of women voters to finish the fight and aid in the reconstruction of the nation." Women Voters was formed within the NAWSA, composed of the organizations in the states where suffrage had already been attained. The next year, on February 14, 1920 - six months before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified - the League was formally organized in Chicago as the national League of Women Voters. Catt described the purpose of the new organization:
"The League of Women Voters is not to dissolve any present organization but to unite all existing organizations of women who believe in its principles. It is not to lure women from partisanship but to combine them in an effort for legislation which will protect coming movements, which we cannot even foretell, from suffering the untoward conditions which have hindered for so long the coming of equal suffrage. Are the women of the United States big enough to see their opportunity?"
Maud Wood Park became the first national president of the League and thus the first League leader to rise to the challenge. She had steered the women's suffrage amendment through Congress in the last two years before ratification and liked nothing better than legislative work. From the very beginning, however, it was apparent that the legislative goals of the League were not exclusively focused on women's issues and that citizen education aimed at all of the electorate was in order.
Since its inception, the League has helped millions of women and men become informed participants in government. In fact, the first league convention voted 69 separate items as statements of principle and recommendations for legislation. Among them were protection for women and children, right of working women, food supply and demand, social hygiene, the legal status of women, and American citizenship. The League's first major national legislative success was the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act providing federal aid for maternal and child care programs. In the 1930's, League members worked successfully for enactment of the Social Security and Food and Drug Acts. Due at least in part to League efforts, legislation passed in 1938 and 1940 removed hundreds of federal jobs from the spoils system and placed them under Civil Service.
During the postwar period, the League helped lead the effort to establish the United Nations and to ensure U.S. Participation. The League was one of the first organizations in the country officially recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental organization; it still maintains official observer status today.
In a formal ceremony in April 1920, held at Cleveland’s Hotel Hollenden, the Cuyahoga County Woman’s Suffrage Party of Greater Cleveland was retired and the League of Women Voters of Cleveland was formed. Belle Sherwin, a visionary leader, was the first president of the League of Women Voters of Cleveland, which was established in April of 1920. Through her efforts and forward-thinking, the Cleveland League established itself as a nonpartisan organization willing and eager to work with other civic organizations to advance good government through an informed and educated electorate.
Sherwin went on to become the second president of the League of Women Voters of the United States. During her ten-year tenure as national president (1924-34), she strengthened the League’s credibility through her continued insistence on maintaining the organization’s nonpartisanship. The League would endorse no candidates. However, she was a strong proponent of the League’s issue advocacy after intense study.
Spearheading the 1920 efforts of the local League in educating women to use the vote wisely, Sherwin and the Board of Directors of the Cleveland League adopted the slogan, “Every Woman an Intelligent Voter,” and launched a campaign to accomplish this goal. The League of Women Voters of Cleveland was the first in the nation to use objective questionnaires for candidates for public office. Another League of Women Voters of Cleveland innovation was the development and use of voting booth demonstration models. Leagues throughout the United States patterned their voter service/education efforts after the Cleveland prototypes, including “get out the vote” campaigns. These candidate questionnaires and demonstration models remain viable tools in the total program of citizen education, voter information and service offered by the League of Women Voters.
Other Cuyahoga County Leagues and the League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland
Throughout Cuyahoga County many other Leagues organized to serve local suburban communities. In 1922 the Lakewood League was founded as a separate League, but by the 1930s groups in several suburbs became branches of the Cleveland League. These branch Leagues became independent groups in 1946, following a national League ruling (later rescinded) that called for no more than one League in a city. To coordinate county-related matters for the independent Leagues, the Cuyahoga County Inter-League Organization was formed in 1967. However, because of the extra layers of organization and resulting inefficiencies, many of the suburban Leagues consolidated in 2003 to form the League of Women Voters of Cuyahoga Area. Several other suburban Leagues chose to become part of the Cleveland Area League and one, Shaker Heights, remained independent. At that there were three independent local Leagues in the county: Cleveland Area, Cuyahoga Area and Shaker Heights.
Not long after the formation of LWV Cuyahoga Area, members of the three Cuyahoga County Leagues saw the need to coordinate their activities to advocate for county government reform and regional issues. Doing so as three separate Leagues was doable but cumbersome. So, in 2013, a three-League task force formed to explore unification and prepare documents for accomplishing it. In May 2014, the memberships of the three Leagues voted to merge—and on July 1, 2014, the League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland was established to serve all of Cuyahoga County. Most of the once independent suburban Leagues and the Cleveland Area League have evolved into chapters of the LWV of Greater Cleveland, including a new chapter for East Cleveland that was established in January 2016. There are now ten current chapters of the LWV of Greater Cleveland.