Citizen Experts: The League of Women Voters and Environmental Conservation

Article excerpt

The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 by members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) as a nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping women use their newly established right to vote to influence the public policy arena. (1) While NAWSA was primarily centered on the passage of women's suffrage, its successor, the League of Women Voters, opted to become a "good government" organization focusing on issues of interest to all citizens rather than solely embracing women's issues. (2) But women's issues certainly motivated League members' advocacy. As they transformed their concerns for their families and communities into focused policy agendas, League members contributed to a rich heritage of women's reform activities that was shaped, in part, by women who were active in clubs. Thus, by carrying on the tradition of civic activism as clubwomen, the League provides a critical lens for exploring women's activism throughout the twentieth century that illustrates a sense of continuity in women's organizing tradition. Surprisingly however, much of the League's work in environmental conservation and in restoring and protecting the environment has been largely ignored or forgotten. The League played a critical role in environmental conservation throughout the twentieth century; why did it disappear from the historical record?

This paper challenges the traditional narrative that overlooks the role of women in the development of the modern environmental movement, arguing instead that middle-class women's clubs--such as the League of Women Voters--played an integral role in fueling the rise of the environmental movement in the United States. To this end, the League employed political strategies and tactics initially used by their predecessors in the Progressive-era municipal housekeeping movement. According to Maureen Flanagan, municipal housekeeping gave women an opportunity "to become involved in every facet of urban affairs" in the early twentieth century by arguing that the community was an extension of the home, thereby curbing any gendered challenges to their public activities. (3) Municipal housekeepers' concern for the health and safety of the family translated into a broader concern for public health and safety in the urban industrial environment. Middle-class women reformers sought to clean up their cities by focusing on issues such as garbage removal and street cleaning, as well as smoke abatement, water pollution, and food safety. (4) Similarly, during the Cold War era, the League of Women Voters could use municipal housekeeping strategies to mobilize citizens to lobby public officials on the need to eradicate water pollution without generating suspicion or arousing any structured opposition to their activities.

Focusing on the League's work in environmental conservation, and in particular, water resources, this paper argues that the League of Women Voters represents an important bridge linking women's social activism in Progressive-era reform movements of the early twentieth century--specifically, municipal housekeeping and conservation--to the rise of the modern environmental movement in the post-World War II era. In doing this, it carved out a role that I refer to as "citizen experts," promoting civic activism and education while acting as a communication and information bridge between government officials and concerned citizens. To this end, the League acted as guardians of the public interest in the policymaking process. Emphasizing research and education, it sought to create a base of informed and active citizens who could be mobilized to lobby public officials to create new antipollution laws and demand enforcement of existing pollution control regulations when necessary. Negotiating the confluence of gender, politics, and environmentalism in the postwar era, the League represents an important link in the chain of women's reform activism throughout the twentieth century. …