History of the League of Women Voters in
The League of Women Voters of Tompkins County was founded in 1920 and continues its active presence today welcoming both men and women as members. The forerunners of the Tompkins County League were the Ithaca Women’s Club, founded just prior to 1900 and then the Political Study Club, established in 1905. The Suffrage Movement was the primary focus of this latter club which had over 100 members when it became the League of Women Voters of Tompkins County in 1920.
1920s and 1930s
Records show that in the early years 1920’s and 1930’s, the League of Women Voters of Tompkins County had active study groups on Pure Food and Drug Legislation; League of Nations; Tariffs; Problems of International Cooperation; the Merit System; State Civil Service System; and Living Costs. For each topic, action in the community was documented in minutes and the press.
The LWVTC is a Legacy Organization of the City Federation of Women’s Organizations (CFWO), which was founded in 1910 by a group of women “concerned with education, recreation, philanthropy, health, safety and civic betterment.” In 1920 the CFWO purchased property on the corner of Cayuga and Seneca Streets and opened the first Women’s Community Building as a center for women and girls. By 1960 the original houses were gone and the new Women’s Community Building was opened with a community auditorium, meeting spaces for member organizations, and housing for women.
In 2012 the building was sold to make way for much needed affordable housing. The proceeds from the sale of that building and existing CFWO resources have been used to establish an endowment that will continue the legacy of the many organizations of the CFWO and community members who have supported the changing needs of women over the years. For more information about the CFWO see its website: https://womenbuildingcommunity.org
1940s and 1950s
During the 1940’s the Tompkins County League began publishing the VOTE supplement in the Ithaca Journal. They participated in the nationwide Dumbarton Oaks Campaign, 1944-1945, to educate the public on the establishment of the United Nations. In those same years, their study Advisability of Consolidation of County Welfare Services resulted in a County Welfare Unit that was put into operation in 1949. A local taxation study in 1947 drew interest from members and community. A 14-week series of radio interviews with county and city officials was hosted February through May 1947.
The first government booklets Know Your City Government, followed by Know Your County Government were published in 1948. Communication between the Tompkins County League and interested students at Cornell University for several years tried to create a Cornell branch League of Women Voters.
The 1950’s featured a very active interest and participation in local educational issues. Public Education with adequate funding and a Study of Consolidated City School District were two focus issues. The League published their first Know Your Schools that decade and created a nominating committee to search for qualified school board candidates. This nominating committee functioned for many years and led to stabilization in school policy. Several school board members throughout the following decades were League members.
In addition to educational issues, the League studied and commented on the organization and operations of Tompkins County Government. They worked to improve assessing procedures, welfare services, and city government and charter revision.
1960s – 1970s
The League’s presence in the community continued to result in various actions of noteworthy importance. Local study work focused on evaluating the Greater Ithaca Regional Planning Board proposals as well as that of planning in city, town and county governments. Another study focused on local legislative proposals to make non-property tax revenues available to public schools. Fiscal procedures of county government were evaluated and commented upon.
The League organized and led walking tours in the City of Ithaca, published an Ithaca Walking Tour Booklet, and created awareness of the buildings in the city prior to full force urban renewal. Several historic buildings were spared and continue to be used as a result of this action.
Beginning around 1968, the League led by the Natural Resources Committee, with local professors and environmental scientists, testified to prevent the building of Milliken Station Nuclear Power Plant on Cayuga Lake. Our League, likewise, was a party to the Jamesport Case proposal to build 2 nuclear plants on Long Island in the 1970’s.
Education continued as a focus with members observing school board meetings and serving as members on the board of education.
The Natural Resources Committee was very active during this time providing testimony at various municipal settings. The League advocated positions at Ithaca City School District reorganization hearings in 1975. Local government and health studies met regularly. Court Reform and Social Services studies had member participation.
A very popular December Soup and Bread Luncheon was established. An invited guest speaker and delicious lunch brought out many members and guests. This tradition continues today in late winter. Fall Membership Teas which then became Membership Dinners were popular events and are still held with guest speakers.
Voters Guides were produced by League members and printed in newspapers from the late 1940’s through the 1970’s.
1980s – 1990s
The League staffed Cornell student elections for many years. In addition to helping students vote, the League was compensated for their time and this revenue was important financial support. Likewise, the League sold UNICEF cards at various outlets in Ithaca for additional revenue and as a service to provide these sought after cards. These cards were sold until UNICEF turned such sales over to a commercial vendor.
Candidate forums for primary, general, and school board elections were organized yearly. This, too, continues today. Occasionally Voters Guides were produced when local media was willing to publish them.
Topics that saw active member involvement included local government, Tompkins County Charter, redistricting, children’s issues, financing of education K-12 and higher education, alternatives to incarceration, health, the death penalty, clean water and air, nuclear power plant, lake-source cooling, urban sprawl, waste management, and freedom of information.
The Natural Resources Committee testified before NYSDEC regarding the Environmental Impact Statement on the application of lampricides to Cayuga Lake. Comments were also submitted concerning highway environmental impact.
Health Care, Education, and Natural Resources committees met regularly. The League filed a lawsuit with Tompkins County over the siting of Social Services outside of the city. This action resulted in a change in leadership on the county level and an eventual move of the Social Services building back within the city of Ithaca. A meeting room in that facility is named for a League member who served on the Tompkins County Legislature for over 25 years.
League members taught classes at Tompkins Cortland Community College on municipal governments. New citizens were provided with voter information at naturalization ceremonies.
In February 1994 the League hosted a 75th Anniversary Party that was attended by many current and former members.
As the Tompkins County League began its eighth decade, the organization established a website to serve the community in the age of media change. A FaceBook presence was added as another means to reach the public and members.
A fund was created in the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, spearheaded by a generous member, earmarked for the League of Women Voters Education Fund. It supports the educational activities of the League of Women Voters of Tompkins County.
A local study, Condition of Children in Tompkins County, brought in several new members who moved into leadership roles and continue to sustain strong League presence in our community.
Health Care study groups continue. Members work to understand the issues and then advocate League positions locally, and at the state and national levels.
The Natural Resources committee has had a strong presence in Tompkins County for many decades. They continue researching issues, presenting testimony, writing letters, lobbying and working collaboratively with Leagues throughout the United States. Hydraulic fracturing, climate change, renewable energy options, local sustainable, and alternative energy are some of the more recent topics of action and study.
Voter Services remains very active providing leadership in candidate forums, voter registration, get out the vote activities, welcoming naturalized citizens, and answering numerous inquiries that come in via the website.
The League had representation on the most recent Tompkins County Redistricting Commission and continuing a long presence of League participation in redistricting issues.
A History Committee was established to preserve records, publications, study reports, etc. in archives at The History Center in Tompkins County and update the collection that was established at the DeWitt Historical Society many years prior to its move to The History Center. Publications archived in The History Center in Tompkins County and various libraries at Cornell University include Tompkins County Government 1960, 1990’s, Know Your City Government, Financing the Ithaca Public Schools 1961, Know Your Schools 1960, 1970’s, 1992, 1996, Facts for Voters and Voter Guides, beginning in 1940.
The League maintains an active presence in the Tompkins County area. Voter Service, Natural Resources, and Health committees meet to study issues and provide information to the public via well planned meetings with featured speakers, bulletins, website, and social media. League members have met with elected officials to advocate positions and Legislative priorities since the establishment of our League in 1920.
The League began sending students representatives from Tompkins County to the four-day Students in Albany Conference sponsored by LWVNYS each spring. This training experience immerses students in the process of learning the operations of public policy.
In October of 2006, the League of Women Voters Education Fund established VOTE411.org as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for nonpartisan information, both general and state-specific, on all aspects of the election process. The Tompkins County League has provided direct support in gathering candidate information and other related election issues for this endeavor.
Members of this League, since its inception, have taken active roles as elected members of County Legislature, Town Boards, School Boards, and numerous civic and non-profit advisory committees and boards.
The Tompkins County League of Women Voters was given the Making a Difference Award by The History Center of Tompkins County in 2017 with the following citation: ‘Founded in 1920, the group is a champion of voting, being an Informed citizen and participation in government.’ acknowledging the efforts of so many women and men in our League since 1920, we have been fortunate to enthusiastically sustain the League’s mission.
Prepared by Linda Duttweiler, November 2018, with the support of the LWV History Committee: Flo Smith, chair, Kathy Burlitch, Diane Kelleher, Kathleen Yen and recollections, records, and notes shared by League members. The History Center in Tompkins County, Rod Howe, executive director, and Donna Eschenbrenner, director of archives and research services, have been very supportive in our efforts to preserve Tompkins County League history. Information about the League’s involvement with the City Federation of Women’s Organizations was added by Ann Warde in Septermber 2022.