History of the League of Women Voters

The League of Women Voters

On February 14, 1920, the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association became the League of Women Voters. In 1919 Carrie Chapman Catt first proposed founding the League to empower women voters who would be newly enfranchised by ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

The League of Women Voters has a long and distinguished history. It was born out of a 72-year struggle to gain women the right to vote. Both the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association at the national level and the Cuyahoga County Woman’s Suffrage Association at the local level faced tremendous obstacles in their quest for women’s enfranchisement. History has documented the ridicule, criticism, imprisonment and other barriers that the dedicated suffragettes ultimately overcame. Their goal was finally reached with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Voting rights for women became the law of the land in August 1920.

Having achieved their ultimate goal, the leaders of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association recognized a new challenge ahead. Efforts were needed immediately to educate women in their newly gained privilege and responsibility.

The League of Women Voters was conceived as the vehicle needed to accomplish this new mission. 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. The League immediately identified citizen education of women voters as its prime objective. Additional objectives included supporting and encouraging legislation on behalf of women, promoting active interest among women in all aspects of government and public policy and encouraging women to enter politics.

Cleveland League

On the national level, Carrie Chapman Catt is credited with conceiving the ideals and purposes of the League. Belle Sherwin, also 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.

Seventy-seven years since their introduction, 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

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. That meant there were three Leagues in the county: Cleveland Area, Cuyahoga Area and Shaker Heights.

League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland

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 membership 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; a new chapter for East Cleveland was established January 2016, so there are ten current chapters of the LWV of Greater Cleveland: Bay Village, Cleveland, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, East Cleveland, Fairview Park, Hillcrest, Lakewood, Rocky River, Shaker Heights and Westlake-North Olmsted. Histories of each of these chapters and the independent Leagues that preceded them may be found on the chapter pages on this website.