History of the League in Montana
LWV-MONTANA REFLECTS ON ITS 100th ANNIVERSARY
Statement adopted by the Board March 2020
In this year of our 100th Anniversary, the League of Women Voters of Montana is taking time to reflect on its founding in 1920. This is a year of celebration for all the good work that LWV-MT has accomplished. This is also a year of truth-telling, and taking ownership of the ways in which we fell short during this one hundred year journey.
In 1920, we organized with the mission of assisting our newest voters—women!--in appreciating the importance of our democratic system generally and participating in our elections in particular. We hoped to empower women to be confident voters. One hundred years ago, there were many who believed that women were not smart enough to vote. Not rational enough. Not educated enough. Not well informed enough. They were proven wrong, and ever since the 1920 founding LWV-MT has been encouraging Montana women to participate in the democratic process.
But not all women. This is the unhappy truth. We did not promote the voting rights of our indigenous sisters. We failed, abysmally, to stand up for the voting rights of Montana’s Native American women and men. When Montana law forbade voting precincts on reservations, we said nothing. When native women could not vote in school district elections because they did not pay property taxes, we said nothing. Indeed, and until 1971, a taxpayer voting requirement in the Montana Constitution prevented many Native Americans from voting in Montana elections, and we said nothing. For decades, and still today, there are fewer convenient polling places on reservations than elsewhere in Montana, and we have said nothing.
We take no pride in this history. We want to do better. Fortunately, for us, the League of Women Voters of the United States is leading the way, asking all the League chapters across the nation to have these uncomfortable conversations and to include underrepresented communities. In 2019, we adopted our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policy, and we are still in the process of learning about the privileges of our past and present, as well as our responsibilities to the future.
Today, we acknowledge that we have failed to bring the diversity of Montana communities to League’s table. As usual, actions speak louder than words. But we begin here: We ask all Montanans, regardless of gender, gender identity, ethnicity, or race, to help us in creating a more welcoming organization for all people so that we may build together a stronger, more inclusive democracy.
History of the League Nationally
The roots of the League of Women Voters go back to 1840, when Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and made a pact to start a women's rights movement in the United States.
Eighty years later, on February 14, 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, spearheaded the founding of the League of Women Voters in anticipation of ratification of the 19th Amendment. Mrs. Catt saw the League as a way to educate newly franchised voters. She said women must keep informed "...human affairs, with their eternal change, move on without pause. Progress is calling you to make no pause. Act!"
At the National Convention in San Francisco in May 1974, full membership in LWVUS was opened to men. At the National Convention in New York City in May 1976, a move to change the name to League of Voters was rejected because the LWV name would have been in the public domain, open to expropriation by any group.
Early League in Montana
The first Montana League organizational meeting was held in Great Falls on April 26, 1920, and the groups made plans to establish by-laws for the Regional Convention, which was held in Butte on May 25, 1921. Mrs. A. F. Rice of Butte was elected president.
The first convention established Montana League goals to work toward efficient government, the good of public welfare in government, and international cooperation to prevent war. The League adopted non-alignment with any political party, but possible support for legislation and policy. Another objective was to urge every woman to register to vote. Montana counted Jeanette Rankin, Maggie Smith Hathaway, Frieda Flegelman, Belle Flegelman Winestine, and Dr. Mary B. Atwater among its citizens who had been involved in the suffrage movement from the beginning.
By 1952 local Leagues were active in Billings, Butte, Havre, Helena, Great Falls and Missoula, with a membership of approximately 300. On October 23, 1953, Irene C. Sweeny, National Organizer, met with 29 delegates from the six city Leagues to coordinate the local Leagues. Laura Nicholson was named State Chair of the Executive Committee. LWVUS required a State League to conduct a State Government study, with each local League investigating some phase of government. The study culminated in publication of Know Your State, used for many years in Montana classrooms as a text. On April 20, 1957, the first State Convention was held in Butte. The State League celebrated its 40th anniversary at Council in Hamilton in May 1994.
Montana's 1972 Constitutional Convention
In the early 1970s, the League of Women Voters Montana was very influential in convening a Constitutional Convention to rewrite Montana's constitution. Nine members of the League in Montana were subsequently elected as delegates to the convention. The League was also very influential in obtaining approval of the new constitution by the Montana electorate. The whole story is contained in the article written as part of the Montana Women History project, and can be found at the link below:
Current Leagues in Montana
Any individual may become a member of the League by joining a local League, or by becoming a Member-at-Large of the State League. Membership is open to all residents 16 years or older who subscribe to the purpose and policy of the LWVUS. Montana has four local Leagues: Billings; Bozeman; Helena; and Missoula. Click on these titles on the homepage under Local Leagues to find out more about each one.
The League of Women Voters Montana has adopted Bylaws and Policies and Procedures for conducting the business of the state League.
The Bylaws can be found here: