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Omaha Magazine

Women's Suffrage Empowered Voters, Defended Democracy: Out of Grandma’s League

Sep 01, 2020 08:23AM ● By Kara Schweiss
Women marching in street for suffrage

Photo contributed by The Durham Museum 

It has been a century since Aug. 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by Tennessee, guaranteeing women the right to vote. 

The Omaha area had support for suffrage before Nebraska became a state. Notable suffragist Amelia Jenks Bloomer lived in Council Bluffs from 1855 until her death in 1894 (she is buried in Fairview Cemetery) and spoke in favor of suffrage at the Douglas House hotel in Omaha on July 4, 1855. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton first came to speak on behalf of suffrage in 1867, and spoke in the area several more times afterwards. The National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association held conventions in Omaha in 1882.

Nebraska became the 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment in July 1919. The League of Women Voters was founded by Carrie Chapman Catt on Feb. 14, 1920, under the expectation of imminent passage of the 19th Amendment. The new organization was born from the membership of the National American Woman Suffrage Association with an objective to support women’s new voting rights and advocate for their involvement in the political system. A Nebraska chapter soon afterwards formed from the Nebraska Women’s Suffrage Association during its final convention (June 13-15, 1920) at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha. National LWV chairman Maude Wood Park, and most of the board, who were traveling between political conventions, attended this conference. 

The Omaha league was officially created on Aug. 16, 1920, after a council meeting of the new Nebraska LWV. The first chairwoman was Mrs. Charles J. Hubbard, as she was named in historical documents according to the custom of the time; her first name is lost to history. 

One hundred years later, at a time when all women who are U.S. citizens have grown up with the right to vote, LWV continues to be relevant with a simple mission: “Empowering voters. Defending democracy.” 

“We’ve stood the test of time,” said Krystal Fox, copresident of LWV of Greater Omaha. “I think you can see the need for a focused organization that is nonpartisan and really just cares about the bigger picture of democracy. It’s very important, especially now when everybody is taking sides.”

Vice president MaryLee Moulton agreed. “‘Defending democracy,’ generally—for us—has always been making sure they don’t have restrictive voter laws and things like that. But ‘defending democracy’ has taken on a whole new context for us [lately] because democracy is truly under attack. We really have to be out there defending the democratic system of government and how democracy works and getting the facts out there, because there is a lot of misinformation. That’s one of the things the league really stands for as a nonpartisan organization; we have so much kind of gravitas in this area, we really hope that we can build a bridge with education.” 

Locally, the LWV of Greater Omaha focuses on activities such as voter registration, hosting candidate forums and educational presentations, and publishing nonpartisan voter guides near election times. 

LWV does not support or oppose political candidates, appointed or elected officeholders, or political parties at any level of government. However, through lobbying and other activism, LWV does support public policy positions in areas like criminal justice, education, human rights, health care, immigration, juvenile justice, sex trafficking, and natural resources. 

“Even though the league is nonpartisan, we’re still political, because we do have carefully developed policy positions,” Moulton said. “We study issues on the state, local, and national level and we vote on policy issues.” 

LWV has around 450 members in Nebraska and 280 in the greater Omaha area. Men have been able to join since 1973, and membership can begin as young as 16 with full organization voting rights at 18. 

“Most volunteers come to us because they want to help with voter registration,” Fox said, adding that individuals can support the volunteer-driven organization through a variety of ways. 

Fox emphasized that an intense time commitment is not necessary to be involved with LWV. “We have so many different levels…Enter and exit at will, always stay connected.” 

Fox and Moulton said LWV works to overcome a longstanding stereotype of a homogenous membership of older, Caucasian, affluent homemakers—an image that doesn’t reflect the organization’s current makeup. 

“We’re not your grandmother’s League of Women Voters,” Moulton said. 

“That [traditional] voice is still appreciated and valued but we also want to add additional voices,” Fox said. “All voices are valued…We’re really trying to focus on and improve our diversity…women and men as well can come from any walk of life and really coalesce around an idea that equalizes and tries to raise all voices.”

Moulton said LWV makes a special effort to reach youth, people of color, people of limited economic means, and anyone who may have barriers to registering or voting. 

“Our target really is the underrepresented,” she said. 

Fox said the organization’s evolution over time includes adding more channels like lwvnebraska.org, lwvgo.org (greater Omaha) and social media to reach more citizens. VOTE411.org launched in 2006 as a comprehensive election resource.

“The league is always willing to look around and say, what’s best for democracy?” Fox said. 

Visit lwvgo.org for more information.

This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.