League of Women Voters of Iowa
What was the League of Women Voters position on equal rights in the 1940s and 1950s?
This collection of documents on the Iowa League of Women Voters in the 1940s and 1950s challenges two commonly held assumptions: first, that in the Cold War years, when American culture was so hostile to feminism, the League of Women Voters confined itself to safe civic issues and avoided issues of womens rights and, second, that Iowa is a political backwater, isolated from larger national debates. The materials presented here not only focus on a group of people who have been largely unrecognized, in a state that has been traditionally ignored, but also introduce new information to challenge the traditional historiography regarding the League of Women Voters involvement with womens rights issues in the 1940s and 1950s. [i]
Formed in 1920, immediately following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the League of Women Voters was designed as a nonpartisan, voluntary organization intended to educate women to exercise their new duties as voting citizens. At its inception, the League was composed of many former members of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), an organization that disbanded after passage of the amendment for which they had fought. Over the years, the Leagues goal grew beyond the education of its members to include educating the American citizenry on political issues. The League, though nonpartisan, has always taken specific positions on political issues through a process of study and debate leading to a decision made by consensus and not based upon party affiliation. In the 1940s and 50s, League members studied a range of civic, state, national, and international issues, among which the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was frequently discussed and debated.
The National Womans Party (NWP), led by the suffragist Alice Paul, sponsored the ERA in every session of Congress, starting in 1923. The text of the amendment then read: Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. The ERA reflected the NWPs single-minded focus on gaining equality for women. The League of Women Voters, by contrast, was much more broadly concerned with a variety of social reform issues. This difference between the two post-suffrage organizations was rooted in differences between Pauls militant suffragist organization, the Congressional Union, and NAWSA, the Leagues more mainstream predecessor. The tension between the two organizations grew out of their different approaches in the suffrage campaign and fueled their differences over the ERA. The NWP aimed at ending all sex discrimination with a single constitutional amendment; the League favored a more gradual approach fashioned to meet differing needs of different groups of women.
The League of Women Voters, both nationally and in Iowa, opposed the ERA for four main reasons. First of all, the League believed a blanket federal amendment intended to end all sex-based discrimination would be too easy to evade at the state and local levels. Secondly, the League feared that passage of the ERA would severely damage much of the hard-won protective labor legislation that had been gained for working women. [ii] Third, the League favored step-by-step legal revision of discriminatory laws or practices, arguing that this process would provide a more permanent and enforceable solution to the problem of sex discrimination. Last, the League viewed the language of the ERA as ambiguous; it regarded the undefined term equal rights as a potential source of complication in legal interpretation.
In making these arguments, the League aligned itself with its own Progressive era roots in social and economic reform. League members viewed the ERA as a liberal, elitist legal construction that ignored social realities by privileging the abstract individual woman over the concrete needs of either working women or women who were economically dependent on their husbands. In all of these positions, the Iowa League of Women Voters was in agreement with the national League and its sister state affiliates.
The League of Women Voters of Iowa was founded in the Fall of 1919 at the encouragement of NAWSAs president, Carrie Chapman Catt, an Iowa native. The Iowa League was launched at the final meeting of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association in Boone, Iowa. Though woman suffrage had not yet been passed at the federal level, Iowa ratified the 19th amendment on March 28,1919, making it the tenth state to do so. [iii] In Iowa, as well as in all other states, one of the requirements for beginning a local chapter of the League was that members conduct a Know Your Government study, the findings of which were released to voters in order to better inform them about the workings of their municipal governments. The process of compiling the information for this initial study not only put League members in close contact with their local politicians but also familiarized them with the details of government and equipped them to educate their fellow citizens.
During the 1940s and 1950s, League chapters served their states and local communities by providing civic education on issues ranging from clean water and child welfare to the city manager form of government and public school reform. This aspect of League activism is widely acknowledged; in fact, historians of women tend to characterize the League as an organization that, explicitly disavowed feminism and even denied any particular concern with womens issues. [iv] The papers of the Iowa League of Women Voters make clear, however, that the local, state, and national League were also dedicated to more controversial issues, including racial justice and sexual equality. One example of the Leagues participation in gaining racial justice was its involvement in reforming housing codes in the 1950s in Des Moines that pertained specifically to families of color. As part of its public discussion of sexual equality, the League actively lobbied against the ERA and in favor of a National Committee on the Status of Women. It also fostered public discussion of the Iowa Married Persons Bill, which it described as a vicious measure that threatened to deprive married women --- and eventually ALL women --- of the right to work. [v]
The Leagues opposition to the ERA did not arise out of avoidance or disavowal of womens rights issues but, rather, out of a belief that sex discrimination had to be attacked from the bottom up, not the top down. The League thought that specific legislation that addressed specific aspects of sex discrimination would be a more effective approach than a federal amendment. This stance did not make the League anti-feminist, but it did make it less threatening than the National Womans Party.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the League of Women Voters of Iowa quadrupled its membership, jumping from around 500 in 1943 to just over 2,000 by March of 1955. This rate of growth was about twice as strong as national growth in membership during the same time period. The members of the Iowa League were not, however, entirely representative of the women in their state. A 1958 membership survey revealed that the typical League member in Iowa was a white college graduate who was both married and employed in a white-collar job that paid her between $4,000 and $8,000 a year. [vi] During this period in Iowas history, the typical white, married woman was not a college graduate and not working outside the home, especially not in a well-paid white-collar job. [vii]
The Iowa Leagues records in regard to womens rights in the 1940s and 1950s make clear that the Iowa chapter was politically sophisticated in the way it joined the Leagues national agenda with the state agenda. For example, in 1943, in the midst of World War II, when womens importance to wage-earning industrial productivity was most evident, the ERA was approved by both U.S. Senate and House Judiciary committees for the first time in twenty years. That year, the lead sponsor for the ERA in the Senate was actually Senator Guy M. Gillette, an Iowa Democrat. In response to Gillettes role and the ERAs increased chances of passage, the Iowa League swung into action, utilizing its networks at every level of politics to lobby against the amendment. League lobbying efforts on womens rights continued through the 1940s and into the 1950s.
By 1955, instead of using its energy to continue opposing the ERA, the League had decided to redirect its efforts toward the alternative it had always favored: step-by-step reform of specific discriminatory practices. Opposition to the ERA still appeared on the Leagues national program in 1955, but only because it had become a standard element of League rhetoric. The defeat of the ERA was no longer the goal toward which the League directed its efforts. However, ignoring the ERA debate did not mean that the League pushed womens issues to the back burner. In fact, the 1955 national League program included Removal of legal and administrative discriminations against women. [viii] The wording was similar to the text of the ERA, but would be achieved in a radically different manner. After twenty-two years of consistent opposition, the League finally decided that, instead of expending energy on debating with the NWP, it would shift its focus from the debate over the ERA to its own program and its own goals.
All of this activity, as significant as it was in the debate over the ERA, also challenges the stereotyped image of Cold War women. League records show that women were not only active outside of their homes, they were active in ways that specifically addressed the issues of equal rights that are associated with the Second Wave womens movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, as some historians argue that the strategies and ideals of womens activism in the 1920s were a foundation for the womens movement of the 60s and 70s. [ix] The documents of the League of Women Voters show that womens activism did not disappear in the 1940s and 50s and suggest that their activity during those years provided a base for the womens movement.
As you look through the following documents, you may notice that one type of material is conspicuously absent. There are no articles or publications from the popular magazines and newspapers of the time included in this set of sources. This gap reflects the fact that there was very little coverage of womens extra-domestic activities in the public press. Membership statistics and internal records prove that activity was consistent and significant, but magazines like The Ladies Home Journal, Newsweek, and Time typically neglected womens political activities. Not even local newspapers emphasized the Leagues political role. Articles from local newspapers, including The Des Moines Register and The Cedar Rapids Gazette, written in the 40s and 50s tended to focus on League-sponsored social activities, such as teas and luncheons, and neglected to cover the political aspects of League work.
The publications that did cover womens political and professional endeavors tended to be academic and lacked a wide readership. For instance, Congressional Digest devoted its entire April 1943 issue to articles covering the ERA and its proponents, opponents, and legislative history, but no popular magazines even addressed the subject. [x] The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science devoted three issues one in 1914, one in 1929, and the third in May of 1947 to discussions of womens rights, status, and pursuits. However, neither Congressional Digest nor The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science was particularly representative of general knowledge about prominent issues in the country.
Despite the lack of popular press coverage of womens activities outside of their homes, there was persistent and effective political involvement among League members, both in Iowa and throughout the country. However, the lack of coverage of womens political activity structured the story that was told about women in the 40s and 50s for years to come. The following documents show that one of the best ways to understand history that was ignored in the press is to look at the internal publications, records, and correspondence of specific organizations.