I was asked to present at a “Women and Voting” panel as part of the Gender, Sex and Sexuality Conference held (this year) at SUNY Potsdam on Feb. 10-11. What follows is my presentation paper, in two parts. The Conference is a collaborative effort between the faulty, staff, student and larger community of the four colleges in the St. Lawrence Valley. Learn more at their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GSSConference
The American Association of University Women,
The League of Women Voters,
and Voting Efforts in New York State, Part 1
The (Dis)Enfranchisement Conference 2017
February 11, 2017
There are, in my view, three critical documents in American History that focus on suffrage as it relates to voting. The first is the Declaration of Independence, which says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And of course, in that day and age, men were exactly who they meant. Only, in fact, those men who were rich and white and landowners. (Which looks like the Trump Cabinet.)
The next is the Preamble to the US Constitution, which starts, “We the People.” Which certainly broadens the pool, although would take about 200 years to fully open the doors. In 1789 when George Washington was elected the first time, only 6% of the population could vote.
The third document is the Declaration of Sentiments, written in 1848 in Seneca Falls, which declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” Now we were getting somewhere in terms of expanding the idea of equality.
Publication of the Declaration of Sentiments is generally recognized as the start of the women’s suffrage efforts in America. Like all revolutionary social movements, people organized around the idea. By 1890, these groups had sorted themselves out, settled their philosophical differences, their leadership conflicts, and consolidated tactics and goals.
A mere 72 years after those persistent Seneca Falls upstarts began their work, the 19th Amendment expanding the franchise to women, was ratified and passed in the fall of 1920. But by early 1920, when it was obvious that their efforts would be successful, they began to turn their attention to how to use the vote.
The League of Women Voters was founded by Carrie Chapman Catt on Feb. 14, 1920 during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. That convention was held just six months before the 19th amendment was ratified. (She was the daughter of Lucius Lane and Maria Clinton Lane. Both of her parents had graduated from Potsdam Academy and several generations of the Lane family had farmed the family homestead in West Potsdam, NY for many years.)
These early League members were determined that with women voting they would be able to right all the things that were wrong with American Society. They reasoned that “with how much was accomplished without the vote - how much more would be accomplished with the vote.” They thought this might take five years. It is, however, still a work in progress, 96 years later.
Locally, the League started in 1920 in St. Lawrence County with local chapters in Canton, Potsdam and Ogdensburg. From the beginning its purpose was to educate all voters - men and women alike. That is, in fact, still our goal in St. Lawrence County!
The 1922 local League convention was held at the County Courthouse, The delegates directed the National League to:
· Promote entrance of the US into the League of Nations,
· Promote better rural schools,
· Extend public health work,
· Raise the age of marriage,
· Offer direct citizenship for married women, and they
· Wanted a 75% turn out of voters in the next election.
Although many people associate the League with Voter Service, it has been a moderate, multi-faceted organization since its beginning. The League supports the concept that every issue is a women's issue and that we reflect America's pluralism, rather than the narrow focus on single or limited issues.
AAUW, the American Association of University Women, was founded in 1881 in Boston, Massachusetts. The purpose was to create an organization for women college graduates to find greater opportunities to use their education and to open the doors for other women to attend college. Access to education was one of the issues raised in the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments.
In 1885, as one of its first major projects, these educated women set out to disprove the myth that a college education would harm a woman’s health and result in infertility. The theory was that education of the female brain would deflect vigor from the uterus. The medical “experts” of the day did not understand women’s ability to multi-task.
Locally, The St. Lawrence County Branch of AAUW was chartered in 1927 when a group of women on the St. Lawrence University campus came together. We celebrate 90 years in 2017.
Beginning in the 1960s, AAUW started to expand its focus beyond education to include economic equity. The number of women in the workforce was increasing. By the end of that decade, women made up 38% of workers. The increasing numbers of women graduating from college were looking for employment.
AAUW and the League are nonpartisan political organizations; they do not support political parties or endorse candidates, but do take positions on issues, endorse good governance practices, and work hard to register and educate voters.
Both organizations have been accused of supporting one party or another based on the positions we take on issues. But the truth is, it is the parties who have changed their positions over time, while AAUW and the League have stayed true to our ideals.
For example, AAUW has supported Title IX, which was signed into law in 1972 by Republican president Richard Nixon. Under President Trump and his newly confirmed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, Title IX is very much under the gun.
Both AAUW and the League support the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet at the Democratic National Convention in 1960, a proposal to endorse the ERA was rejected after it met explicit opposition from liberal groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the AFL–CIO, labor unions such as the American Federation of Teachers. By 1971, Republican President Nixon immediately endorsed the ERA's approval upon its passage by the 92nd Congress. We will be hard pressed to find support for the ERA in the 115th Congress currently sitting.
So what we have in AAUW and the League are two organizations whose roots go back at least 160 years who focus on expanding opportunity and civic participation for women. They have literally decades of experience in organizing, mobilizing, educating and empowering women, both as voters and as citizens.
Read Part 2 at https://myword69.blogspot.com/2017/02/aauw-lwv-and-voting-efforts-in-nys-part.html