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The Voice of New Rochelle: A League of Their Own

This city of New Rochelle is filled with rich history, much of it generally known. What came as a surprise to the author is that the League of Women Voters also had its beginnings in the Queen City on the Sound.

I was, at once, impressed and appalled. Almost five years ago I felt privileged to cover my first live League of Woman Voters sponsored debate right here in New Rochelle in the City Council's chambers. The care and rigor taken by league members to ensure a fair and robust exchange was extraordinary. It was also, however, the first time I understood the contempt which a vocal minority has for the current Bramson—and earlier, Idoni—administration.    

One resident refused to recognize the time honored and orderly procedure which grants each person a set number of minutes to make his point. The tension in the hall grew as the volunteers from the New Rochelle LoWV held their ground, and the speaker refused to yield the podium citing freedom of speech. He appeared more like a troubled bully than an advocate, and most certainly hurt the chances of his preferred candidate. 

What a thankless job, I thought. All that work and, most importantly, the fruit of that work allowing for the very essence of democracy to hold forth, going not only unappreciated, but mocked. The confrontation had me scratching my head. Soon, after the threatened intervention by a police officer, the man at the podium moved on; sadly, much to the chagrin of sympathizers in the audience.  The incident was reminder that democracy done right is not always pretty. 

Maintaining democratic institutions requires a citizenship willing to stand up for its core principle, even in the face of bullies—or worse. The league did it that night, and so I was honored to be invited to speak at their annual dinner just over a week ago. In preparation for my little missive, I learned just where they got their spine from. It is yet another New Rochelle story. 

On Nov. 6, 1917, women in New York State were allowed to vote in state elections for the first time, a right that followed 50 years of marching, fund raising and rallies. The New York Times reported on the 70th anniversary of the vote, that the triumph was achieved despite the fears of antisuffragists that when women received the right to vote “political gossip would cause her to neglect the home, forget to mend our clothes and butter the biscuits.”  

It was here, in New Rochelle, that the first league was formed. Carrie Chapman Catt founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which offically became known as The New York State League of Women Voters, when the national organization was formed in Chicago Feb. 14, 1920. Upon finally winning the right to vote, she said, “What are we going to do? We know nothing about politics. We’ve got the vote. Now we must learn to use it.” And use it they did. 

Westchester County enrolled 20,000 women, in 102 suffragette clubs, according to the files of the Westchester County Historical Society. 

The 19th amendment was passed on Aug. 20, 1920.

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