The League of Women Voters (LWV) began in 1920 at the recommendation of Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association as a means of educating white women to vote. When the Nineteenth Amendment went into effect despite Mississippi’s rejection of it, the same women who had lobbied the Mississippi legislature on behalf of woman suffrage organized the state LWV and then began working to form local chapters. By the first state convention in 1921, the group had more than one thousand members, with chapters in Greenwood, Hattiesburg, Laurel, Columbus, Brookhaven, Jackson, and other towns; by the following year 2,080 members had joined twenty-eight official state chapters.
Early efforts of the Mississippi LWV included support for legislation benefiting children and women, such as the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Maternal and Infancy Act, which made federal funds available for pre- and postnatal care. The LWV’s national president, Maud Wood Park, addressed a 1921 joint session of the Mississippi legislature, advocating on behalf of the Sheppard-Towner Act as well as denouncing national efforts to introduce an equal rights bill on the grounds that it would threaten existing laws protecting women’s interests, such as the right to alimony. The league also supported an equal guardianship law that passed during this legislative session.
League organizers in Mississippi faced resistance from women suspicious of the national organization’s aims. National LWV representative Liba Peshakova first found that Mississippians believed that the organization was “militant, aggressive and a political party,” but recruitment efforts improved when civic leaders such as Helen G. Yerger, women’s editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, threw their support behind the group. The Mississippi LWV nevertheless continued to struggle to gain members and faced a dearth of leadership.
According to a 1931 report, the Mississippi LWV’s priorities included prevention of war, child-labor reform, maternal and infant hygiene, women’s representation on the state textbook committee, and public employment opportunities for women. By the following year, however, the records of the national LWV show no evidence of any activity in Mississippi, and the state organization remained defunct until 1950, though activity in local chapters might have continued. In one-party Mississippi, the group struggled to gain a following as a nonpartisan voter education organization.
In 1946 a group of Jackson women invited representatives from the national office to help restart a unit, and by 1956 the LWV again had active chapters in Bay St. Louis, Greenville, Jackson, Meridian, and Natchez, with a total of 568 members. However, many Mississippians remained suspicious of the national organization’s engagement with international relations and civil rights, areas perceived as having ties to communism. League leaders in the state tried desperately to provide reassurance, emphasizing noncontroversial programs and the LWV’s nonpartisan stance and remaining silent on controversial topics. In addition to focusing on basic voter education, water resource management, fire prevention, and city planning, the league worked on behalf of children’s issues, such as poor conditions in juvenile detention centers.
The LWV’s avoidance of civil rights issues created a curious situation for an organization ostensibly devoted to voters’ rights and political engagement. Feminist Lucy Somerville Howorth left the LWV because she found it a “studious, lady-like group that wouldn’t really tangle.” And indeed, league minutes show repeated calls for extensive “study” of contentious issues rather than action. Perhaps because of such silence or because of the national LWV’s reputation, the statewide membership dropped to 347 in 1959. The group’s failure to publicly support segregation resulted in a “loss of prestige” as many white southerners perceived the organization as integrationist. Following the 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi, the founding of conservative groups such as Women for Constitutional Government siphoned off women uncomfortable with the LWV’s public perception.
Through the early 1960s, Mississippi LWV meetings continued to avoid the topics of voting rights, segregation, and violence. The 1963 annual meeting, for example, made no mention of the bloody September 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi or its political implications for the Oxford chapter or Mississippi more broadly. Despite violent reprisals against boycotts in Jackson and the assassination of Medgar Evers, the minutes of another meeting later in 1963 merely noted that “members . . . expressed opinions that certain subjects were not as they should be.” Such studied disengagement made it difficult for the organization to demonstrate its relevance at a time when voting rights was a central national concern and Mississippi the key battleground. For much of its history, the LWV supported the poll tax and literacy tests, the most prominent methods of disfranchising African Americans, if those practices were “uniformly administered.” As activists risked and gave their lives to register black voters, the league instructed members to go about their voter registration work by “talk[ing] quietly with your acquaintances” lest their efforts be confused with those of the civil rights groups.
By 1964, however, the Mississippi LWV could no longer avoid civil rights, and many did not expect the league to survive the civil rights movement. The state league president during the 1960s, Betty Rall, corresponded frequently with June Morgan of the national office, describing the loss of twenty-five Jackson members amid fears about the planned Freedom Schools and voter registration efforts by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. When she received letters from league women in other states whose children were planning to be Freedom Summer volunteers, Rall responded with ambivalence. She applauded the voters’ basic educational mission but warned of Mississippians’ violent mistrust of activists from outside the state. The League of Women Voters in Mississippi remained all-white until the 1960s.
In the mid-1960s a shift occurred as more conservative members left the league. The Oxford chapter, founded in 1962 and including a number of women professors and others affiliated with the University of Mississippi, remained quite active. The state league advocated on behalf of public education as legislators began exploring the diversion of funds to private schools to avoid integration. League women worked with public schools and Head Start programs and began interacting with black and interracial civic groups, an activity that chased off additional conservative women. In 1969 the Mississippi LWV had 238 members divided among chapters in Jackson, Meridian, Vicksburg, Long Beach, and Oxford.
In the late 1960s the league began to collaborate with the American Association of University Women to sponsor Legislative Days on which women attended sessions of the state legislature. In 1968 the league finally saw the success of its four-decade-long effort to gain Mississippi’s women the right to serve on juries. The LWV began to support the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s and adopted a pro-choice stance in 1990, positions that alienated some members. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the state had only two local LWV groups, the Mississippi Gulf Coast League of Women Voters and the League of Women Voters of the Jackson Area.
- League of Women Voters of Mississippi Collection, Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi; League of Women Voters of Mississippi website, www.lwv-ms.org
- Debra Lynne Northart, The League of Women Voters in Mississippi: The Civil Rights Years, 1954–1964 (1997)
- Martha H. Swain, in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, vol. 2, ed. Elizabeth Anne Payne, Martha H. Swain, and Marjorie Julian Spruill (2010)
- Martha H. Swain, in Southern Studies: Interdisciplinary Journal of the South, 23, no. 1 (1984)