The founders of the League of Women Voters chose Valentine's Day of 1920 to form an organization committed to safeguarding democracy and ending discrimination against women. Their ardor for this cause was as strong as any lover's quest for a beloved; perhaps that is why they chose Valentine's Day. Those who started the movement, like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone, worked until their death without seeing voting rights secured for all women. Those who did see Congress pass the "Anthony Amendment" in 1919, like Alice Paul, Maud Wood Park, and Carrie Chapman Catt, were not even born when the long struggle began.Suffragists, many of whom would go on to form the League of Women Voters, had worked long and hard for over 70 years to persuade the country (and male lawmakers) that depriving women of the right to vote was wrong. At best, women who wanted to claim full citizenship were reviled and persecuted, and at worst, they were fined, imprisoned, beaten and force fed when they went on a hunger strike. Only their fervent love of democracy and justice kept them going — a love that every League member carries with them to this day.
It was this same passion that inspired Carrie Chapman Catt to propose the creation of a league of women voters to "finish the fight" after the amendment passed in Congress. So, on February 14, 1920, six months before the 19th Amendment was ratified by the states, the League of Women Voters was born. The following April, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey was organized in Newark, dedicated to working for the rights of New Jersey women.
It soon became evident that "the fight" needed to include much more than gaining the vote for women. From the beginning, the League's focus was on an informed and active electorate. In 1920, this meant helping women exercise their newly gained voting rights by educating them about voting processes and the issues of the day. Today, 90 years later, this means educating millions of people, women and men, about voting procedures, candidates' positions on the issues and ballot questions. Since our inception, the League has organized and moderated candidate debates, and they remain a staple of our public service today. We also firmly resist recurring attempts to restrict voting rights by onerous requirements and work to insure that the public registers, understands the issues, and votes in every election.
In addition to voting rights, the League has advocated for legislation to improve our system of government and our society. Over the course of 90 years, we have fought for decent working conditions, a professional civil service, open public meetings, better education for all children, a cleaner environment, and cooperation with other countries, among many others. The issues have certainly changed, but the fervor with which League members study them, educate the public, and advocate for change is still very strong.
As we enter into a new year, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey will be doing what it has been trusted to do for more than 90 years: discuss the important issues, ask the difficult questions and demand accountability from our elected officials and government. New Jerseyans join the League because they know that whatever happens to our democracy over the next 90 years very much depends on us, the people, and how passionately we defend its preservation. The League of Women Voters is the organization where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement, and this year, on our 90th Anniversary, we invite you to join the League and stand proud with us in this work.
Anne Maiese is President of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey