The following is a Woman of Courage profile produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
The League of Women Voters was founded by Carrie Chapman Catt in 1920 during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The convention was held just six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote after a 72-year struggle.
Those early suffragists were determined that with women voting they would be able to right all the things that were wrong with our American Society. They reasoned that “with how much was accomplished without the vote - how much more would be accomplished with the vote.” They though this might take five years.
As an example of how wrong they were, the original Leaguers worked on Child Welfare Reform for 18 years. Currently the League has been working on court reform in NYS for 40 years.
The League started in 1920 in St. Lawrence County with local leagues in Canton, Potsdam and Ogdensburg. From the beginning its purpose was to educate all voters - men and women alike.
In a letter written on Dec. 20, 1920 to Mrs. Raymond Brown in NYS from Bernice Seavey concerning the League here in St. Lawrence County, “The Republican machine has a very strong hold here, the League is not popular with the leaders which make it doubly hard for women to come in, the experience some of the women had in the last election has started them thinking for themselves, no knowing where such a state will lead them.” The letter goes on to describe Mrs. Robert Ford (Elizabeth Best Ford), “...she is a fearless fighter and has access to the right people. The Republican County Committee just hated her work last fall, at the same time they would have given any price and a ground tour if she would work for them.”
Elizabeth Best Ford was truly the founding mother of the St. Lawrence County League. She was the chair for several years, the regional chair for the area, and one of the letters in the League archive describes being motored to Ogdensburg by Mrs. Ford, to call upon each of the members to rejoin and to recruit new members. She lived part of her life at 35 E. Main Street in Canton, NY.
Referring back to the letter, Ms. Seavey told Ms. Brown that they couldn’t do much till Spring, “the little towns are so far apart, snow, bad roads, and cold - the women will not get out.”
Mrs. Julius Frank (Marion Sanger Frank) in Ogdensburg was listed as a club (sic) the League should be affiliated with. Also in the archives there is mention of not wanting the state League to remove the county for being a hopeless case - “these people are slow to accept new things.”
On Aug. 15, 1922, a convention was held for the League in the County Courthouse. A printed program listed Mrs. Robert Ford as Chairman. Other name mentioned included: Mrs. Fred Mason, Miss Elizabeth McFalls, Mrs. Rhode Dunham, Mrs. Fred Harris, Mrs. Edward Park, and Mrs. E. P. Harris.
Richard Eddy Sykes gave the invocation. Ceylon Chaney, Supervisor, Welby Haile, County Clerk, and R. Porter Johnson, County Treasurer, presented a program on “Know Your County.” Bertram Snell (local member of Congress) presented a program on “The Year in Congress,” and James Dolan presented a program on the “Children’s Court.” H. B. Chase spoke on joining a political party, and W. D. Ingram spoke about “How Women Can Assist the District Attorney.” The convention featured a session on the independent voter and finished with Narcissa Cox Vanderlip talking about the League of Women Voters. Mrs. Vanderlip was the chair of the NYS League for many years.
Among the issues adopted at the convention:
The convention directed the National League to:
Dues to join in that year were $1 and at that meeting it was voted to set aside 10 cents of each dollar to promote a regional League, to include Franklin and Clinton Counties.
At another early League convention they held a tea for Jeanette Rankin, the first women to sit in the House of Representatives who was elected from Montana. Other letters and minutes mention that 17 towns has League members.
Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s topics such as Women’s Place in Politics, her duties as citizen, and wining the peace predominated the topics studied. In 1938, “Know Your County” and a radio broadcast were mentioned. In 1939, the Milk Situation, the Life of Adolph Hitler, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and a discussion of venereal disease were on the agenda. In 1940, the League held a Voter’s Forum on the radio, the County Budget, and the European Situation were part of their “outlook for work.”
The League of Women Voters was a federation of separate organizations, linked by a national League, and governed by state Leagues. Each member who joined a local league was also a state and nation member. Each league would hold conventions, each would have elected officers, and be able to send members to the conventions of the higher level League.
Each League was also entitled to make recommendations for programs at the next level of League. At one time the LWVUS had 69 distinct programs that it was actively studying and taking action on - a program so unmanageable it was nicknamed the “Can of Eels.” Out of this the League adopted the “Principals” that guide the organization to this day.
Though most people associate the League with Voter Service, it has been a moderate, multi-faceted organization since its inception. 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 of single or limited issues. The League is slow to support issues, using the consensus method of agreement. For example, Alice Paul proposed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, but it took over 50 years for the League to support that first wave of social reformers. The League is a nonpartisan political organization; it does not support political parties or candidates only issues. Many League members have gone on to hold elective office, many hold appointed office, and some organizations even have a League seat on their boards.
Over the course of its life the county League has undergone many title changes as membership ebbed and flowed. In 1970 it was called the Canton-Potsdam League. In the past it had many different names, such as the Ogdensburg League, the Canton League, and the Potsdam League. Finally in the 1980's, in order to reflect the diversity of our membership, the name was changed back to the St. Lawrence County League, and in the 1990's we joined with Jefferson County.
Many thanks to Millie Whalen, President of the St. Lawrence-Jefferson County League of Women Voters for the information in this Profile.
For more information on the League of Women Voters:
In 2009, a group of LWV's local members began the process of reviving the League in St. Lawrence County. More information available from Kathleen Stein.
Return to the Women of Courage page.
Return to the St. Lawrence County Branch homepage.