May 30, 2013

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A League of Their Own

Can the local League of Women Voters make a comeback?

Did you know it was Tennessee, in 1920, which became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment—thus becoming the tipping point for women’s right to vote? I didn’t, until I began to research the history of the League of Women Voters, which, not coincidentally, was chartered Feb. 14, 1920, a full six months and change before the amendment became federal law. Having waited so long, those ladies were not about to waste any more time

Research shows that Chattanoogan women did not waste much time either. A document from the National Council of Jewish Women, reporting on its “Ninth Triennial Convention, 1920-1923,” links the activities of that organization with that of the League of Women Voters, stating “Chattanooga has assisted on having teachers’ salaries raised.”

It’s possible to find an ebook version of a 1935 publication of eight scrapbooks, appropriately titled “Chattanooga League of Women Voters Scrapbooks.”

The book “Tennessee Women: Their Lives and Times” devotes several pages to Martha Ragland, who became president of the local LWV chapter in 1941. The book notes under her leadership, the chapter took action on issues ranging from “public tuberculosis hospitals” and milk pasteurization to the TVA and “the need for a United Nations.”

In 1961, the local chapter published an 18-page pamphlet titled “Metro: A Study of the Metropolitan Problems of Hamilton County.”

And a state of Tennessee official document shows archived materials for the Chattanooga chapter up through 1989. Even now, if you Google “League of Women Voters, Chattanooga,” some addresses come up, one as recent as 2007.

But the local chapter, clearly once so active, fell victim to declining membership and participation, according to its last past president Martha Butterfield, and the decision was reluctantly made to dissolve it. It’s been quite a few years since Chattanooga had an active chapter of the League. 

That may soon change. A group of local women (including, in full disclosure, this writer) is moving to reinvigorate the League of Women Voters in Chattanooga, and a recent meeting, spearheaded by 2012 Congressional candidate Dr. Mary Headrick, pointed out some reasons why.

Asked, “What issues do you feel most passionate about?” attendees identified public education, (“including,” stated Butterfield, “qualifications for administrators and added emphasis on reading proficiency for all students at all levels”), voters’ rights, healthcare (including expansion of TennCare), workshops to help women run campaigns for public office, and having the local chapter sponsor actual candidate debates, as opposed to the “forums” that have come to dominate Chattanooga politics.

This meeting reached “consensus” (a hallmark of the League of Women Voters process), that a chapter should be re-established, that it should be a Members-at-Large chapter until such time as membership increases merit applying to renew the Chattanooga-Hamilton County chapter, and that efforts should be made to reach out to women voters of all political views—Democrat, Republican and independent.

The LWV’s position has been nonpartisan from its founding. It does not support or oppose candidates. But it can and does take stands on many political issues after lengthy study and a time-consuming effort to reach consensus. Dr. Headrick noted that the national organization has recently taken a position against school vouchers, but that this was after extensive research proved to the membership’s satisfaction that vouchers have an adverse effect on the quality of public education, particularly in poorer districts and schools.

It remains to be seen if the good intentions expressed in the recent meeting come to fruition. One suggestion for a first effort at reinvigoration was to sponsor a forum on public education; another was to sponsor a “citizens’ academy,” as the Knoxville chapter has successfully done. In the meantime, anyone wishing to be kept abreast of future organizational meetings should contact Dr. Headrick at


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