History of the National, State and Okaloosa County Leagues
The national League of Women Voters began as a “mighty political experiment” in 1920. It was founded by Carrie Chapman Catt during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which was held just six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote after a 72-year struggle. Read more about this long campaign.
The League was designed to help 20 million women exercise their new responsibilities as voters. It encouraged them to use their new power to participate in shaping public policy. From the beginning, the League was an activist organization whose leaders believed that citizens should play a critical role in advocacy—and this includes all citizens, since the charter was modified in 1973 to include men.
One of League’s most important hallmarks is its strict nonpartisanship; it neither supports nor opposes candidates for office at any level of government. League founders believed that maintaining a nonpartisan stance would protect it from becoming mired in party politics, and this holds true today.
Another important hallmark is League’s reliance on study and consensus to arrive at positions and make decisions regarding member advocacy. Studies are part of League Program, and League Program includes all of the positions the League uses to affect public policy as well as the procedure for adopting these programs. Program is an integral part of League: it is the League’s reason for being. Consensus is not a vote; rather, consensus is mutual agreement of League members arrived at through discussion. During discussion, everyone has an opportunity to express their viewpoints, and the issue is examined from all sides. Consensus is reached only when all parties to the discussion come to the mutual agreement that they can accept the position under consideration. Study and consensus is the reason League can truly call itself a “grassroots” organization; no positions are imposed from the “top down.”
The League of Women Voters of Florida (LWVF) was established in 1939 in Winter Park/Orlando. The first program of work included a survey of state and county school systems, a study of state and local government, and the foreign policy of the United States.
The Florida League’s first legislative impact occurred during a special session in 1945 addressing reapportionment. In addition to lobbying the legislators, state League president Ethel Melcher actually developed an equitable plan for senatorial redistricting, which was proposed for consideration. The Legislature ultimately adopted a compromise that at least fulfilled the letter of the law requiring reapportionment, which was more than had been done previously.
Florida League members have had a profound impact on state law and policy.
- Healthcare. The Florida Mental Health Act, which provides individuals with emergency services and temporary detention for mental health evaluation and treatment, is also known as the Baker Act after its principal author, Maxine E. Baker. A prominent League member and leader for many years, Maxine Baker also served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1963-1972. Beth Johnson from Orange County was the first League member elected to the both houses of the Florida Legislature (House of Representatives 1958-62 and Senate 1963-67).
- Voting Rights. In 2006 the League—in conjunction with a number of other advocacy groups—mounted a successful court challenge to new state rules that would have severely restricted voter registration efforts, thus preserving access to the democratic process for all citizens.
- Redistricting Reform. Anti-gerrymandering was part of the Florida League’s original program in 1939, and reapportionment reform first became a legislative priority in 1945, as noted above. After decades of lobbying, League finally convinced the Legislature to accept single-member districts in 1981, and sued to force all senators to run for re-election in 1982. League re-engaged on the issue with every decennial census from 1980 forward. Fair Districts Florida was founded in 2008 with LWVF support, marking the beginning of the successful campaign to amend Florida’s Constitution to require fair redistricting. Voters approved the Fair Districts Amendments in 2010, and LWVF challenged the Legislature’s new maps in court beginning in 2012. Four years and multiple lawsuits later, the 2nd Circuit Court approved the League’s recommended Senate map in December 2015.
The Florida League continues to educate citizens and advocate on public policy issues.
Although the National League was organized in 1920, and the Florida League has been active since 1939, the local League was not organized until October 1961. It started out as the Provisional League of Women Voters of the Playground Area, as a result of efforts by then Fort Walton Beach City Council member Leah Miller. The first year was spent studying local and state government and providing voter services. In the years that followed, the Provisional League studied the Okaloosa County School system and surveyed its facilities, which resulted in changes and improvements.
During the mid-sixties, the local chapter achieved full League status and expanded League Voter Services. From its inception the local League was also deeply involved in issues related to human resources, land use, energy, water resources and the environment. Forty years ago there was a League member on every advisory board in the county, including education, Planning & Zoning, Pollution Control, Mental Heath and Day Care. Changing demographics brought major changes to the League through the eighties, as women entered the work force in greater numbers and the general population aged. Issues of concern expanded to include juvenile justice, child and domestic abuse, elder services and charter government.
Several of the Okaloosa League’s greatest contributions to the local community were made early on.
- In May 1970 the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners established a Pollution Control & Water Resources Advisory Board at the local League's request. This board was instrumental in reducing effluent discharged into the Choctawhatchee Bay, Santa Rosa Sound and local bayous by establishing the system of land percolation fields that exists on Eglin today.
- League members also formed a Child Care Center Advisory Board in 1966 that secured a grant through the Community Action Program to establish three child care centers for low income working mothers in 1971. The centers provided low cost day care for over a decade until private industry expanded sufficiently to fill the need.
- In 1985 in conjunction with local law enforcement, the League performed a needs assessment regarding domestic violence support and assistance in Okaloosa and Walton counties. The Shelter House advisory board was created as a result, and for the next six years, volunteers and Board Members worked to open a shelter in Okaloosa County that would better serve both Okaloosa and Walton county victims. On January 27, 1992, the Shelter House opened the doors to its first clients.
In the 1990s the GOP finally broke the Democrats’ stranglehold on Florida government, and the Okaloosa League began to shrink as partisanship increased. In the aughts the League started rebuilding, to include creating an on-line presence. In addition to the website, the Okaloosa League began publishing electronic candidate guides for local, state and municipal elections. In 2012 the E-Voter was expanded to cover Walton County, since it has no League presence.
While the Okaloosa League is smaller now than in its salad days, we are still active in community affairs and we are growing again. We offer monthly programs from September through May on issues of local and state interest. We help sponsor candidate forums for local and national elections, and we provide a speakers’ bureau to address referendums, ballot initiatives and other issues of interest to our citizens.
Again, any citizen—male or female—aged 18 or older is eligible for League membership, so if you are ready to get involved and make a difference in your community, please join us.