Early League History and Mission
League Historyfrom the Rutgers Library Web site
by Dr. Fernanda Perrone, assisted by Luis C. Franco and Michele Gisbert, as part of the
"Women in Public Life Project," July 1996-December 1998, funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission
The League of Women Voters was founded in 1919 as an auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The League was designed as a non-partisan organization dedicated to educating women for their new political role. As was anticipated, the League of Women Voters replaced NAWSA after women were granted the right to vote in 1920. In the same year, state suffrage associations throughout the country reorganized themselves as state Leagues of Women Voters. The state Leagues had particular importance in that one of the League's goals, as outlined by NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt, was removal of legal discrimination against women at the state level.
The League of Women Voters of New Jersey, originally known as the New Jersey League of Women Voters, was founded in Newark in April 1920 as a successor to the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association. Its broad objectives were the advancement and clarification of women's political and legal status, promotion of legislation to protect women workers, reform of state governmental structure and institutions, social reform and support of world peace.
The New Jersey League of Women Voters was directed and controlled by the Executive or State Board, which consisted of elected officers (the president, one or more vice-presidents, the recording secretary, corresponding secretary, treasurer and eight directors), the county chairmen elected by local leagues in each county, departmental chairmen, and presidents of local leagues. Local Leagues applied for membership to the State Board, or individuals could be members-at-large of the state league. The state league had several standing committees--Child Welfare, Education, Efficiency in Government, International Cooperation, Legal Status of Women, New Voters, Organization, Social Hygiene and Women in Industry--as well as special committees including Legislation, Finance and Program. (1) These committees had parallels at the national and local levels. The State Board was empowered to draw up a program of study items to be submitted for approval at the annual convention, which, along with the national program, would then go to the local Leagues for study. After reports from the local Leagues and careful consideration by the appropriate committees, the state League arrived at consensus and a final program of recommended legislation would be adopted.
In New Jersey during the 1920s, the League advocated legislation to shorten the work day, establish a minimum wage commission, outlaw night work for women in factories, and regulate sweatshop industries. (2) The League also supported a broad spectrum of social legislation including improved enforcement of prohibition, a venereal disease control bill, and from 1924 a bill to sterilize "the chronic feeble-minded, chronic insane or habitual criminals who are mentally defective." (3) Finally, the League advocated internationalist measures such as U.S. participation in the World Court and the limitation of armaments.
In addition to its legislative work, the state League played an active educational role after suffrage was granted. Its first project was to educate the new women voters in time for the 1920 election. These "citizenship schools" were maintained through the 1920s. Through its Get Out the Vote and Efficiency in Government Committees, the League sponsored registration drives, conducted house-to-house canvassing, and distributed information to election workers and citizens.
Another important function of the League was to influence public opinion in favor of legislation it supported. During the late 1920s, reform of state governmental structure and institutions emerged as an important item on the League's legislative agenda. In 1929, the League supported the establishment of the Bureau of Women and Children, with a woman head, as part of the State Department of Labor. The League also worked for the revision and consolidation of the New Jersey statutes (1925), began an educational campaign for permanent registration for elections in 1926, and in 1929 began a campaign for the optional use of mechanical voting machines, which became law in 1935. In the late 1920s, the League also initiated the program "Know Your Towns and Counties," where local leagues surveyed their communities and often published their findings.
With the onset of the Depression, some of the League's earlier gains were challenged. In 1932, the Bureau for Women and Children suspended operations. In 1933, the League opposed a clause in the State Economy Act which called for the dismissal of married women from state employment if their husbands were also employed by the state. During this period, however, several of the League's earlier legislative efforts reached fruition. A minimum wage for women and minors was established in 1933, and a bill enforcing the Night Work Bill of 1923 was passed in 1937. In 1940, mandatory orders regulating industrial home work were issued. (4) The League also undertook several new initiatives during the 1930s. In response to the economic crisis, improving economic welfare was added to the League's agenda. In 1937, the League studied slum clearance and low-cost housing and supported the federal Wagner-Ellenbogen Housing Bill. The League also worked for state legislation conforming to the National Social Security Bill (1935) which mandated unemployment compensation and old age benefit. Another important initiative of the 1930s was legislative and civil service reform. In the mid-1930s, the League launched an anti-patronage campaign and promoted a referendum which set up a Civil Service Commission in 1937. It also supported establishing a Bill Drafting Bureau (1938-1941), the registration of lobbyists (1936-1938), and the creation of a commission to study legislative procedures.
During the 1930s, the League started publishing the Date Book (1933), and the Legislative Newsletter (1936), and began compiling and distributing non-partisan election information such as the flyers "Ask Me Another About Voting" and "The New and Old of Voting." (5)
New Jersey Constitutional Reform
The League's various campaigns culminated in a movement to revise the New Jersey Constitution. In late 1940, because of its non-partisan status and expertise in the workings of government, the League was approached by several individuals and organizations to begin a campaign for a new state constitution. In January 1941, the State Board voted to take responsibility for initiating and maintaining this campaign. The League organized the New Jersey Committee for Constitutional Convention, of which League President Lena Anthony Robbins was elected chairman. The educational campaign which ensued was initially run from the League's office. The movement bore fruit in the approval of a joint resolution in the state legislature setting up a commission on constitutional revision, headed by Senator Robert C. Henderson. In response to his appeal for suggestions from citizens, the League board submitted extensive proposals. Some of their more important recommendations included strengthening the office of governor, extending the terms served by legislators, and reorganizing the justice system. The League testified at hearings in front of the legislature in 1942 and carried out an educational campaign both independently and as a member of the Committee for Constitutional Convention. The campaign was successful in that a referendum empowering the legislature to draw up a revised constitution was passed in November 1943. (6)
Veterans, farmers, and labor groups, as well as Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, however, opposed the draft constitution. Various women's groups also opposed it because it did not include an equal rights amendment. The League's position, however, was that the draft constitution was much better than the old and it did not impair women's status in any way. Nevertheless, the referendum was ultimately defeated in November 1944.
The question did not come up again until January 1947 when the new Republican Governor Alfred E. Driscoll called for constitutional revision by the convention method. This time matters moved quickly: the Legislature endorsed the convention and delegates were elected. The League appeared at all the public hearings of the sub-committees of the convention, which opened at Rutgers University in New Brunswick in June 1947. In November the new constitution was approved by the voters. The dispute over an equal rights amendment was resolved by substituting "person" for men in the Constitution. (7)
World War II and Its Aftermath
The campaign for revision of the New Jersey Constitution was only one of the many activities undertaken by the New Jersey League during the 1940s. In June 1941, six months before the declaration of war, the National League launched its Battle of Production campaign to educated the public about wartime needs. In New Jersey, the League organized a "Battle of Production" motorcade which retraced the route of George Washington's march from Trenton to the Revolutionary Army's headquarters in Morristown. The state League also distributed literature and used radio to promote austerity measures and raise morale. Its Leaguesboro radio program included skits about collecting scrap metal, saving tires and gas, and dealing with rumors. In fact, because of the shortage of gasoline during this period, the League developed the unit plan, in which more frequent local League meetings were held to save members from having to travel.
As early as 1940, the National League came out in favor of a post-war peace organization. In 1945, the New Jersey League joined other state leagues in a major education, publicity, and lobbying campaign to win support for the United Nations. With the end of the war in sight, the League also focussed on the economic dislocations anticipated from demobilization and industrial conversion. (8) The State Program for 1945-1946 advocated equal opportunity in education, protection of the rights of labor, protection of consumer interests, improvement of housing and living standards, and health care. The Program also included what would become a long-term item: equalization of the tax burden.
In 1944, the League began to support legislation to enforce New Jersey's civil rights laws. They sought to incorporate civil rights into the New Jersey Constitution through what became Article 1, Section 5: "No person shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil or military right . . . nor be segregated in the militia or in the public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin." (9) After the ratification of the Constitution, the League continued to support legislation to enforce this principle, particularly as applied to public housing and education. In 1944, the League also reorganized and strengthened its Voters Service program. From this year dates the systematic administration of candidate questionnaires and organization of debates.
In the mid 1940s, the League's own structure was reorganized. In 1942, National League President Marguerite Wells and the National Board, impatient with the unwieldiness of the League's structure in the face of national emergency, sought sweeping changes in the bylaws, eliminating the state leagues and standing committees. At the 1944 national convention, the delegates from New Jersey and other state leagues, who opposed the reforms, organized to nominate an alternative slate of candidates to that proposed by Wells. The new slate, with Anna Lord Strauss as president, was elected. (10) The National League did carry through a modified program of reforms, however. (11) The entrenched standing committees which had formulated the program were eliminated, to be replaced by committees which were appointed as needed. Local leagues reported directly to the National League as well as to the state league and assumed a more direct role in choosing program items. In this spirit, the National League was renamed the League of Women Voters of the United States, and the New Jersey League of Women Voters was rechristened the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.
During the 1950s, the League became concerned with the implication of the population growth or "baby boom" which began in 1945. Membership in the state League itself grew during this period, as Leagues were organized in the new suburban communities which were springing up in former farmland. In 1955, concerned with the effects of low rainfall combined with the growth of population and industry in the state, the League began to study how to develop an adequate water supply for all New Jersey residents. In 1958, the League worked for the passage of the Water Bond Referendum, and the following year published a study, Man and the River. The Inter-League Council on the Delaware, in which New Jersey played an important role, was established in 1958 as well. The League was also concerned with the impact of growing population on the state's education infrastructure. In 1952, it supported a bond issue for expansion of the state colleges, and in 1956, supported the Capital Foundation Program for the state-local sharing of the cost of school construction.
Probably the most important program area during this period was the reform of state and local governmental structures and procedures. The League continued to endorse a broad-based tax system, while opposing piecemeal taxation and excessive property taxes. The 1953-1955 program called for revision and improved administration of New Jersey's election laws, including school election laws, and was in favor of lowering the voting age to eighteen. At the local level, the League endorsed Optional Charter bills which provided a basic charter and a procedure by which a municipality could choose a new charter.
At the national level, the League continued its education campaign in support of the United Nations, as well as supporting foreign economic assistance and a liberal trade policy. In 1954, local Leagues conducted studies of how foreign trade affected their communities. (12) The League's commitment to internationalism was further demonstrated in 1947 by the foundation of the Carrie Chapman Catt Memorial Fund (later known as the Overseas Education Fund) "established to encourage and assist the development of citizen initiative, participation, and action" within the cultural framework of other countries. (13) In 1957, the League of Women Voters Education Fund, which sponsored educational programs, was established as a separate legal entity in order to accept tax-deductible contributions. (The League of Women Voters Education Fund of New Jersey was established in 1983.) Led a nationwide discussion program on individual liberties, known as the Freedom Agenda, which was funded by the Carrie Chapman Catt Memorial Fund. As part of the program, local Leagues prepared pamphlets on the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech and other topics. The League conceived this program as a response to the Congressional investigations of the period, which it feared were compromising the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of education. The Freedom Agenda itself was attacked by the Un-American Activities Committee of the Westchester, New York, American Legion, and the League was accused of attempting to show that communism was non-existent. (14) State and local Leagues in New Jersey were also attacked during this period. In 1949, Felix Wittmer, a history professor at Montclair State College, suggested that the League was being infiltrated by communists. Various other groups and individuals, such as the New Jersey Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) attacked the League as partisan and ultra-liberal. As had been the case with similar attacks by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1920s, these accusations seemed to have little impact. (15)
In the 1960s, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey continued to work for a graduated personal net income tax and for the expansion of educational opportunities. At the 1963 state convention, the League endorsed state financial measures to improve and equalize opportunities for public elementary and secondary education. The membership also pledged to work for the establishment of a citizen's commission to study higher education in New Jersey, endorsed the provision of adequate facilities and space for all qualified students, and faculty salary levels to attract and hold superior staffs.
The New Jersey League also continued to support a long-range water resources plan, specifically the acquisition of reservoir sites and the protection of existing water supplies. The League's interest in water eventually developed into a new national program item, Environment Quality, which was adopted in 1969.
The state League also adopted several new program areas during the 1960s. The rapid suburban growth of this period led the League to adopt regional planning as a study area in 1961. In 1963, it supported the establishment of regional planning boards to address problems, such as traffic congestion, which were the result of uncoordinated growth. This rapid growth also led the League to study Title 40, the state law which delegated power to county and municipal governments, enabling them to plan and zone, administer services, and otherwise govern themselves. In 1967, the League began an evaluation of the structure and operations of the New Jersey legislature, which culminated in 1969 in a consensus to support measures designed to make the legislature more efficient, open, and responsible.
Although the suburban local Leagues continued to expand during the 1960s, it was at the expense of the older, urban Leagues, whose membership, diminished by the flight to the suburbs, faced worsening social problems. In 1960, the national League sponsored the Industrial City Conference to address problems specific to city Leagues: representatives from the leagues of Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, New Brunswick, Passaic, Perth Amboy, and Trenton, as well as from the State Board attended. In 1966, New Jersey city Leagues took part in the Core City Project, "which aimed to increase membership, achieve greater financial independence, implement Voters Service programs, and educate the communities about the League's purpose." (16)
Indeed the 1960s were characterized by increased attention to urban problems both at the national and state levels. For many years, it had been apparent that urban areas were under-represented in state legislatures. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court, in two landmark decisions, supported the principle of reapportioning state legislatures to make them more representative of where people actually lived. These decisions had implications for New Jersey, where the revised Constitution of 1947 had addressed every issue except apportionment. In November 1964, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in Jackson vs. Bodine, ruled that the New Jersey legislature was not representative of the state's population distribution. Following the lead of the national league, in 1965, the state League adopted reapportionment as a study item, reaching consensus in 1966. In this year, a Constitutional Convention was called to draft an amendment reapportioning the state legislature. The League sent observers to the Convention and President Mary Louise Nuelsen testified. Although the amendment was approved by referendum in November 1966, the League did not agree on how some districts were redrawn. In fact, once the redistricting process was underway, the League was called on to participate in several law suits before the State Supreme Court which challenged the way districts had been reconfigured.
During the 1960s, the national League also pledged itself to support government action to alleviate the deepening social problems of the era. The League had actually been advocating various social welfare measures since the 1920s, but the riots and general unrest of the mid-1960s leant greater urgency to these efforts. In 1964, the national League convention added a new area, Human Resources, to its program. Following the national League's lead, the New Jersey League worked at the local and state levels to support the programs of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the creation of the State Division on Civil Rights. In 1968, Human Resources was enlarged to encompass support for equal access to housing. The New Jersey League reached consensus on housing in 1971. (17) In the following years, it worked for measures which would mandate municipalities to zone for low-income housing.
By the 1970s, membership in the suburban Leagues had also begun to decline. The New Jersey League had about 10,000 members in 1972, 7249 in 1978, and about 7000 in 1979. (18) The decline in membership reflected increased numbers of women working outside the home or going back to school, society valuing volunteers less, and inflation putting pressure on middle-class families. In 1978, the League moved meetings to nights and weekends to try to accommodate working members and expanded the New Jersey Voter to give in-depth program coverage for those who could not come to meetings, as well as giving more emphasis to the contributions of individual board members. (19) The decline in membership also forced the League to find new ways of raising money, as shown by the appointment of a full-time Development Director.
In spite of the pressures of finances and loss of members, the League entered several new program areas during the 1970s. In 1970, the national League committed itself to protecting the right to vote of every citizen. In response to this resolution, the New Jersey League concerned itself with disparities between counties in handling student registration and voting, the storage, counting, and challenging of absentee ballots, and the inadequate training of election officials among other issues. In 1973, the State Board adopted the evaluation of the state judicial system as a study item, and in 1975 came out in favor of the standardization of municipal courts, support for rehabilitative programs, equality of treatment and adequate facilities for juvenile offenders.
The year 1975 also saw the addition of two other new items to the State Program. "Land use" referred to supporting an increased state role in establishing standards and goals in the use of land, including goals for adequate energy supply, industrial development, and preserving open space and farmland. The League also pledged itself to work for a master plan for mass transportation in New Jersey with an emphasis on methods of financing, energy conservation, and housing/job relationships.
During this period, the New Jersey League continued to work for the implementation of national program goals at the state governmental level. In the Environmental Quality area, the New Jersey League, as part of the Inter-League Council on the Delaware, supported the establishment of the Tocks Island National Recreation Area in Sussex County, while opposing the construction of the Tocks Island Dam. The State League also supported the Wetlands Bill, which protected the marshy land bordering estuaries. In 1969-1971, the League studied air pollution, and in 1971, came out in favor of new regulations incorporating highway and inspection standards in the New Jersey air pollution codes. The New Jersey League also participated in the national consensus on solid waste management which was reached in 1972, advocating the development of state and local recycling facilities with federal help. (20) During the 1970s, the State League continued to support legislative action to achieve equal rights for all, combat discrimination and poverty, and provide equal access to housing, employment, and quality education. In 1975, in response to a resolution adopted at the State Convention requesting more attention to women's issues, the State Board created an Advisor on Women's Issues position. In 1977, the Legal Status of Women was added to the State Program as a study item. The League addressed in particular women's rights in the dissolution of marriage, including property division, maintenance, child support, child custody, and enforcement of support decrees. The League had dropped its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1952, and in the 1970s began to campaign actively for ratification. Although efforts to adopt an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution failed, the state league joined in the campaign for the ratification of the federal ERA.
The 1980s and Beyond
In the 1980s, the state League continued to advocate and promote reform in the administration of justice, and to support a progressive and equitable tax structure, mass transportation planning, and the conservation of energy. It also supported school district regionalization, campaign finance reform, and struggled to come to consensus on reproductive rights. The League also continued its Voters Service activities, including providing a toll-free number for election information. The decline in membership continued; total membership in New Jersey was estimated at 5000 in 1990 and continues to drop. (21) Nevertheless, the League of Women Voters remains one of the most important citizen advocacy groups in the state.
(2) See Felice Gordon, After Winning: the Legacy of the New Jersey Suffragists (New Brunswick, N.J., 1986), p. 43.
(3) Quoted in Gordon, p. 44.
(4) Philip Charles Newman, The Labor Legislation of New Jersey (Washington, 1943), p. 95-96, 110.
(5) Some of the Achivevements of the New Jersey League of Women Voters (1939), Box 25, Folder 43.
(6) "History of the Movement for Revision of the New Jersey Constitution," The Bulletin of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey (December 1943).
(7) Gordon, p. 177-187.
(8) Louise M. Young, In the Public Interest: The League of Women Voters, 1920-1970 (New York, 1989), p. 145-146.
(9) Gene Griffith, "Statement on Assembly No. 512 for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey" (August 24, 1948), Box 49, Folder 36.
(10) Young, p. 137-138.
(11) Young, p. 145-147.
(12) Young, p. 163-165.
(13) Young, p. 155.
(14) Young, p. 168-169.
(15) Gordon, p. 51.
(16) Memorandum (January 13, 1966), Box 57, Folder 14.
(17) State Program, 1975-1977, p. 18, Box 7, Folder 24.
(18) President's Letter (April 1979), Box 6, Folder 13.
(19) President's Letter (October 1978), Box 6, Folder 11.
(20) State Program, 1975-1977, Box 7, Folder 24.
(21) Patrick Hill, "Finishing the Fight: Has Politics Left the League of Women Voters Behind?" New Jersey Reporter (October 1990), p. 17.