Making Democracy Work

League History: 1940's Narrated by Lea Young

The Story of the 1940's

LWVNO HISTORY - 1940s by Lea Young

The year is 1942 and America has just entered World War II. Women in New Orleans were asked to take over the jobs that men had taken before they went off to war. O the women in New Orleans took off their lace gloves, put on their working gloves, and off they went to do the jobs that men had done before.

It had been 22 years since women got the right to vote. That was the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, known as the Suffrage Amendment. Women were confident in their ability to vote, but they were a little concerned because of one thing, and that was the location of the polling places in New Orleans. They were located in brothels; bar rooms, and in politician's homes. That was very intimidating for nice ladies in the 1940s with their little hat and gloves, to go actually to a bar room to vote.

So along came a local socialite and activist, her name was Martha Gilmore Robinson. She had with her 100 active women in the group that was called The Women's Citizen Union. This group had been active in a variety of things in the city. They came to her with the idea that, yes, they needed to do something about the polling places. What they did is they contacted 21 different cultural and civic organizations and they had a meeting in which they came up with a plan on how to deal with these polling places.

The women had actually two ideas. One was to have a member of this group be at every polling place and escort and help women go into the bar room, hopefully not the brothel, and to the politician's home to help them vote so that they didn't feel so intimidated. The second idea, which they carried out, was to actually picket City Hall.

So they put together their signs and they marched around City Hall, just like the Suffragists had done when they marched at the White House asking for the right to vote. Mayor Maestri asked them what they were doing, why were they were picketing City Hall? And they said, we're really offended at the idea of having a polling place in these locations. We think it should be someplace that's very neutral, like perhaps, the public schools. He actually agreed and arranged to have them changed.

The women were so empowered by this that they decided they needed to maybe join a national organization. So, on October the 30th, 1942, they formed the League of Women Voters of New Orleans, and Martha Robinson became its first president.

The members started meeting at Howard-Tilton Library at Tulane University. They charged 5 dollars a year for dues, which, in 1940s money, was probably similar to the dues that are paid in the year 2000. They got together and started organizing themselves. They were upset with the corrupt government in New Orleans. So they decided they would do something very symbolic, and that was to march down Canal Street with a broom, and it was called the Broomstick Brigade, and they would be sweeping out bad government.

Following that, on January 22, 1946, a new mayor deLesseps Morrison, was elected. He had run as a reformist who promised good government and was really impressed with all the people who had helped elect him. And he was particularly impressed with the women who had done such a symbolic thing as to actually gather hundreds of women to march down Canal Street.

As a reward, for the first time in history, women were now appointed to New Orleans' boards and commissions. This was really a move forward. In 1948, Martha Gilmore Robinson was reelected president of the League of Women Voters of New Orleans and she thought, we really need to organize. Women should not just be a reflection of their husband's vote. They should actually have studied issues so that they understood them and did not just cast an off the cuff vote.

So she organized the new League of Women Voters into seven different unit meetings. They would meet in seven different locations each month, at different times so there was no excuse why a woman should not be able to go to a meeting, and find out about the subject of the month. The subjects that came up were local education; the economy, government, politics, but also something that was really critical: permanent voter registration.

Up until that point every four years you would have to go register again to vote. But you know, people forget to do that. People seem to forget to vote period. It actually took 12 more years to get permanent voter registration through.

Another important thing that happened during that period was that women for the first time were allowed to be on juries. Now, they didn't have to be on Jury, but they could select to be in a Jury. And it was amazing that women were actually interested in this. Men thought, I suppose, that we were all just fragile flowers and that we didn't need to know all the horrors of jury work.

So that pretty much takes us through the 1940's. Martha stayed as president until 1952 and New Orleans women, I think, felt very empowered through the League of Women Voters.