LWV History & Racism in the Women’s Suffrage Movement

History of the League of Women Voters

The League was officially founded in Chicago in 1920, just six months before the 19th amendment was ratified and women won the vote. Formed by the suffragists of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the League began as a “mighty political experiment” designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters. Read more here.

The League of Women Voters of Philadelphia (LWV Philly) has been active for over fifty years. LWV Philly’s membership approved its position on the City Charter in 1975; reviewed and updated portions regarding education in 1978; studied recommendations made by the City Charter Commission in June 1991; and again updated its position in 1993.

The Charter Commission was charged with revamping Philadelphia’s city government and making provisions for integrating city and county functions into a working single governmental entity. A major product of the reform movements active in post-World War II Philadelphia, the Commission, a bi-partisan body, completely overhauled Philadelphia’s existing governmental structure and executed a document which still acts as the City’s basic frame of government today.

Today, LWV Philly acknowledges that the victories of those founding suffragettes were both hard one and not done. We continue working to empower voters and defend democracy through advocacy, voter education and community engagement.

Exploring Racism and the Women’s Suffrage Movement

The history of the League of Women Voters as an organization and the history of the women’s suffrage movement in this country are both steeped in racism.

LWV Philly commits to doing the work of learning from this history, advocating for anti-racist policies at every level of government and amplifying the voices who have been marginalized. Read our June 2020 statement killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor here.

As the League of Women Voters of the US writes in Facing Hard Truths About the League’s Origin:

The League was founded in 1920—just months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment—by American suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt was a complicated character, a political operative, and by modern standards, yes, racist. While fighting for the 19th Amendment and lobbying Southern senators, she famously claimed, “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” These remarks are sometimes brushed over as a sign of the times or a political strategy. But actions speak louder than words, and our organization was not welcoming to women of color through most of our existence.

Even during the Civil Rights movement, the League was not as present as we should have been. While activists risked life and limb to register black voters in the South, the League’s work and our leaders were late in joining to help protect all voters at the polls. It wasn’t until 1966 that we reached our first position to combat discrimination. Still, our focus on social policy was from afar—not on the front lines.

Below is a list of further reading on the past and on present opportunities for white women to do better in supporting the voting rights of all women (source – LWV Seattle):