March is Women’s History Month, and the next two years mark important anniversaries in the struggle for women’s equality in the United States. This year is the centennial of Congress’ approval of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing American women the right to vote. This effort was passed on June 4, 1919. Next year will mark the centennial of the ratification of that legislation as the 19th Amendment, on August 18, 1920. These two major dates fit comfortably into the historical line up of amendments, laws, and political changes we are taught in school, and that we may (or may not) remember into adulthood. The long road of women’s suffrage is often overlooked, and perhaps even less understood is the local importance of these big, national changes.
The women’s suffrage movement began early in the 19th century. The movement catalyzed when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized a meeting at the Wesleyan chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Three hundred attendees met to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women. Women’s suffrage—seeking the right to vote—became the major issue as women’s organizations began to challenge the social and cultural mores of conservative politicians and anti-suffragists who believed that if women were allowed to vote they would destroy the American family. Some who opposed women’s suffrage felt that women who wanted to change the social order were a threat to society and to themselves! By 1890, several women’s suffrage organizations combined to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with President Susan B. Anthony choosing Carrie Chapman Catt as her successor.
With the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, over half the population of the United States gained the right to vote. The National American Woman Suffrage Association held one last convention in 1919, where Catt proposed a “league of women voters.” She challenged women to remain on the battlefield and “finish the fight” for changes in “custom, laws and education.” While a descendant of the women’s suffrage fight, the League of Women Voters was organized to address these issues more directly. Jane Brooks of Wichita was elected as the chairwoman of the League, having previously served as the president of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association.
At the local level, the League’s purpose was to establish positions on public policy through member participation, take action that secured public policy consistent with their positions, encourage citizens to be involved at all levels of government, and to increase citizen participation in the electoral process. The League adhered to a strict non-partisanship stance, emphasizing the fact that it did not support political candidates but rather issues. Women involved in the League were encouraged to work for candidates or parties of their choice, and to run for offices themselves.
How did all of this ripple down to Johnson County? Early on, the League of Women Voters’ activities were primarily limited to Wichita, Topeka, and Lawrence. Kansas City, Kansas, organized a chapter in 1947, and Mrs. Margaret Holditch of Mission, Kansas, began attending meetings there. Wanting to discuss issues more in line with the community in which she lived, Holditch placed an advertisement in the Johnson County Herald. In November 1951, twenty-five women attended a Johnson County Provisional League meeting. They named themselves the League of Women Voters of Shawnee Mission, as the Shawnee Mission High School was the only clear unifying organization in northeast Johnson County at the time.
The Shawnee Mission League was unique in the fact that it represented thirteen second- and third-class cities and two townships. For this reason, the national office hesitated to charter the group. It finally granted permission in February 1952, with a total membership of 55 women. The Shawnee Mission League undertook studies of county school districts, collaborated with the Prairie School PTA to develop a Johnson County Library district, developed a “Guide to Johnson County Government” for new citizens, advised on the necessity of a community college in Johnson County and led the effort to develop one, published a report on land use in the county, and studied and supported the need for unification of the Shawnee Mission School District.
In 1972, the League of Women Voters of Shawnee Mission decided they should incorporate all of Johnson County and not just the northeastern corner. Subsequently, their name was changed to the League of Women Voters of Johnson County. Two years later, in keeping with the Equal Rights Amendment, the National League made provisions to allow men the opportunity to join the organization. The League continues to be very active in studying county issues, supporting initiatives on various political, social, and economic topics, and working on behalf of Johnson County residents. In January 2019, the League released a position paper on the lack of affordable housing in Johnson County (read the report here), and held a public presentation on the issue. A future program will address inclusion, equity, and diversity in the county, and the League remains a strong advocate and resource for voter empowerment.
Note: The League of Women Voters of Johnson County archive their records at the Johnson County Museum. The records are available for research with an advance appointment.
The Johnson County Museum is planning an interactive digital exhibit in 2020, to mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. The Museum’s signature exhibit, “Becoming Johnson County,” highlights many strong women and women-led organizations who helped shape the Johnson County we see today. Tours of the exhibit are available Monday through Saturday at 11am and 2pm.
For more information about the history of women’s suffrage, see the Our Documents website, a collaboration between National History Day, the National Archives & Record Administration (NARA), and USA Freedom Corps. For more information on the League of Women Voters of Johnson County, read the Museum’s newsletter from Spring 1999, available on the JoCoHistory website.