League Of Women Voters Celebrates 100 Years Of Accomplishments

CattCarrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters in 1920 and served as its honorary president for the rest of her life.  Library of Congress photo https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3c10995/

dsc00881Hedy Dunn, left, and Adelaide Jacobson celebrate the centennials of the adoption of the 19th Amendment and the founding of the League of Women Voters. Purple, white and gold were the colors of some American suffragists’ sashes: purple for loyalty, constancy to purpose and unswerving steadfastness to a cause; white, the emblem of purity; and gold, the color of light and life, a guide for purpose, pure and unswerving. Photo by Akkana Peck


By 1919 there were 15 states (primarily in the West) where women had full voting rights. Some additional states allowed women to vote—but only in some local elections (for example, school board elections in New Mexico). Twelve states (mainly in the South and East) prevented women from voting in any election—until the 19th Amendment became law on August 26, 1920.

Fewer than 10 weeks later, millions of women in all 48 states were finally able to vote for president as well as for state and local representation.

Becky Shankland, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Los Alamos (LWVLA), recalls hearing about her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences voting in the 1920 election. “My mother, who was 23, was very excited about voting for the first time. And my grandmother voted differently from her husband. According to my mother, he was annoyed.”

Short History of the League of Women Voters
Newly eligible voters, like Shankland’s relatives, needed to register and learn about the process, candidates and issues.  Fortunately, Carrie Chapman Catt had the foresight to establish the League of Women Voters in February 1920. Catt had succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the predecessor to the League.

Catt founded the League on the idea that a nonpartisan organization could provide the education and experience the public needed to help ensure the success of democracy. She believed that the political process should be focused on issues and steered by citizens instead of politicians.

Catt was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as vice president for legislative affairs for the League during the 1920s. Roosevelt summed up the mission of the organization by stating, “The League of Women Voters trains good citizens who have a sense of responsibility about what goes on in their locality, in their state, and in their nation.”

Barbara Calef, co-president of the LWVLA, mentioned that the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, which was initially established in 1920, “was inactive for the first few decades, but since 1950, it has been very active.” The LWVLA is one of four local leagues in New Mexico. Its members planned to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage and the founding of the LWV with an exhibit in the gallery of Mesa Public Library. But because of the pandemic, the exhibit may not open until sometime next year.  For the exhibit, Calef said she “focused on women’s suffrage in New Mexico from 1900-1920. I learned about the importance of the Hispanic suffragists and the politics of that time.”

Numerous Early Accomplishments of the LWVLA
Shankland, a member of the Los Alamos League since 1975, has been researching the early history (from 1947) of the local branch for the exhibit. She noted,  “The early accomplishments of the Los Alamos League were amazing. League members worked very hard to help make Los Alamos a county in New Mexico. They worked on the county charter, the right for county citizens to vote in New Mexico elections, and the right to have a state representative and senator.”

Initially Los Alamos was a military post on federal land, and because of the need for secrecy, many residents were not able to vote unless they were able to do so by absentee ballot based on their previous residence.

After the end of World War II, there were still issues related to voting and other civil rights for Los Alamos residents. Just as early British colonists objected to taxation without representation, Los Alamos residents felt the same way, especially after learning that they were contributing the major share of taxes to Sandoval County’s coffers. But some New Mexican politicians were concerned that there might be enough new, unpredictable voters in Los Alamos to shift control in Sandoval County. And the county clerk was advised to stop registering voters from the Hill.

The League’s first major task was to gain suffrage for all Los Alamos citizens. That wasn’t easy. After the state legislature granted Los Alamos residents the right to vote, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in September 1948, that the Los Alamos ballots could not be counted because they were cast on federal rather than state land.

Early in 1950, following the advice of the state attorney general, New Mexico Governor Mabry tried to prevent voters in the newly created county of Los Alamos from participating in the primary election because the county was not included in the 1949 constitutional amendment reapportioning the legislature. But in April of 1950 the New Mexico Supreme Court declared that Los Alamos residents had a constitutional right to participate in the election.

As early as 1947, even before Los Alamos became a county, the League worked diligently on a county charter.  In 1965 an amendment to the state constitution approved the county’s charter form of government. After shelving the work from 1947 and 1950, the League dusted off the old draft charter, helped to write a new version and presented it for a vote in 1966. It failed! But the second version passed in 1968 and still governs Los Alamos today.

According to Calef and Shankland, the exhibit will also highlight many other important issues that local League members have studied and lobbied for, from the 1950s to the 2010s, including housing, water, energy, education, and health care.

In closing, Calef encourages all eligible voters to “apply for an absentee ballot and vote!”

“Women have suffered agony of soul which you can never comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom.  That vote has been costly.  Prize it!”  Carrie Chapman Catt

For more information on The League of Women Voters of Los Alamos, see https://my.lwv.org/new-mexico/los-alamos/about-us
Voting, see https://www.vote411.org/

How Los Alamos residents gained representation, see
Chambers, Marjorie. The Battle for Civil Rights, or, How Los Alamos Became a County. Los Alamos, N.M.: Los Alamos Historical Society, 1999.