By Chris Welch
WHITEWATER — The Whitewater Area League of Women Voters celebrated its 50th anniversary Saturday during a special event co-hosted by the Whitewater Historical Society inside the Depot Museum.
While the day included such events as face-painting, readings for children and a voter registration drive — along with a display of the history of women’s suffrage in Whitewater — the highlight of the event was the four speakers who kicked-off the celebration.
Speaking were Ellen Penwell, who serves the dual capacity as president of the Whitewater League of Women Voters chapter and president of the Historical Society; Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the state-level League of Women Voters organization; Emma Lou Sederholm, a founding member of Whitewater’s League of Women Voters in 1964; and Stephanie Abbott, Whitewater Common Council member.
Abbott read a proclamation on behalf of city manager Cameron Clapper (who was unable to attend Saturday’s event due to a conflicting obligation) that designated Oct. 11 as League of Women Voters Day in Whitewater.
The proclamation from the city noted the contributions made by the League of Women Voters and declared the 50th anniversary “a day of celebration of informed and active citizen participation in government.”
Kaminski congratulated the Whitewater Area League of Women Voters for its 50th anniversary. She also discussed the history of the League of Women Voters, noting that the League both nationally and in Wisconsin formally replaced its predecessor organization, the Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage Organization, on Feb. 14, 1920.
“Women had finally won the right to vote with passage of the 19th Amendment,” the state-level league executive director said. “This was after a 75-year struggle. Next up was the task of informing and motivating the 20 million new voters in the country.”
She noted that within a few years, there were as many as 20 local leagues in Wisconsin. In 2020, at both the state and national levels, the League of Women Voters will be celebrating its centennial.
“The League of Women Voters back then and now is a nonpartisan organization,” Kaminski said. “League officials, in 1920, felt that maintaining a nonpartisan status would protect the fledgling organization from getting mired in the politics of its day.”
However, league members were from the start encouraged to join the parties. “The league held that, and I quote, ‘a citizen’s duty is to the country first, and to the party second, and that a party is only a means to an end, and the end should be kept in constant view,” Kaminski said.
Continuing, she said, in Wisconsin and nationally, the league has been a vital force for reform in such things as child labor laws, healthcare accessibility, Medicare, marital properties and divorce reform laws.
“In the 1970s, the Wisconsin league was the leading advocacy agency in those marital properties and divorce reforms,” Kaminski said.
Also, in Whitewater and elsewhere, the league is viewed as a trusted convener of candidate forums and public issues of the day.
“You can be sure when you attend a League of Women Voters’ candidate forum, or read candidates’ answers to policy questions on the league’s online voter guides, that the league never supports or opposes any one political candidate or party,” Kaminski said.
While maintaining a nonpartisan status, she said, the league does take positions on policy issues.
“After our members have had the opportunity to study the issue from all sides, it comes to a consensus position,” Kaminski said.
While the positions might align with one political party or another, it has varied over the decades, primarily because both parties also have shifted their respective positions.
“The League of Women Voters does not consult with parties before taking a position,” Kaminski said. “We look at all sides, come to agreement, and then advocate vigorously for what we believe. “
She said the League of Women Voters has held for almost 95 years now that voting is a fundamental citizen’s right which must be guaranteed.
“We urge every eligible citizen in Wisconsin to exercise that right in November,” the state executive director concluded.
Meanwhile, Penwell and Sederholm each shared some of the history of women’s suffrage and specifically of the Whitewater league.
Penwell credited the research done by University of Wisconsin history major and former Depot Museum intern Leah Penzkover into women’s suffrage in Whitewater as critical.
“The League of Women Voters, since its national founding in 1920, is league of all voters — of women and men — dedicated to serving active and informed participation in government, voter registration, voter education, and the study and advocacy of policy issues,” Penwell said.
She said the league’s 50-year presence in 20th century Whitewater has its roots in progressive 19th century Whitewater.
“Leah learned that several Whitewater women, including Henrietta Partridge and Lucy Winchester, wives of prominent Whitewater industrialists, were busy in the 1880s and 1890s hosting meetings of the Whitewater Suffrage Club in their homes,” Penwell said. “These were well-educated Yankee women living their lives in lines with social expectations of their day.”
Among the expectations of the day as defined by social historians is the “cult of domesticity,” which valued women for what appeared to be the natural characteristics of purity, piety, submissiveness and domesticity.
“While this was an oppressive value system, many women — and I imagine Partridge and Winchester were among them — viewed their ‘superior virtues’ that were laid on them, as reason to engage in domestic reform and suffrage, or otherwise exert their influence in the public sphere,” Penwell said. “This is a theme in the 19th century, of women assuming the role of social-housekeeper. This is also a theme of the museum’s current exhibit.”
In October 1920, two months after women won the right to vote, she said an article in the Whitewater Register headline read: “Women voters organize to learn the game.”
“And we did,” Penwell stated. “The national League of Women Voters organized in 1920 precisely to have women learn the game, to learn the responsibilities of voting from primaries to general elections.”
As a founding member, Sederholm then recalled the early days of organizing Whitewater’s League of Women Voters. The first meeting of the provisional organization was Oct. 29, 1964.
“Needless to say, I am pleased and proud to be here this morning to celebrate our 50 years of existence,” Sederholm said. “It has been a wonderful 50 years, and we will be here 50 years hence.”
She was among a group that decided to form in 1964. And organizers from the state League of Women Voters office were assigned to assist in the process and provide training.
“By the time of our formal organization meeting, we had 35 paid members, a set of bylaws and a budget, and, perhaps, most importantly, a nonpartisan policy in place,” Sederholm said, noting that dues only were $5.
“We had to have a finance drive to prove we could get local support for our organization,” she said.
In April 1966, the Whitewater Area League of Women Voters was granted full league status by the state, and applied for recognition from the national office.
The founding member said that in 1966, the league began a “know your town study” which consisted of many city and school officials. Material was reviewed at the monthly study meeting and printed.
“We had several study units that mostly met during the day, then a general meeting with topic speakers on both local and state-level issues,” Sederholm continued. “In 1968 and 1969, we did the ground work to prepare the fair housing ordinance for the City of Whitewater.”
She said the group did many surveys and interviews with area businesses and organizations to gather information. At that time, study issues included water resources, reapportionment, migrant workers and schools.
“We prepared a booklet on our school system in 1972-73,” Sederholm said, noting that they had an active observer corps for the city, school and county government meetings, and had a dedicated letter-writing activity and action alerts.
Skipping ahead by 40 years, she said, the League of Women Voters was studying smart growth for the City of Whitewater, and participated in a silent auction and benefit to raise funds for the downtown Whitewater revitalization effort.
“I have been honored to serve as president from 1968 to 1970 and again from 1992-94, and I served on the board for many years in between,” Sederholm said, noting that she intends to keep going.
“We are the only League of Women Voters in Walworth County,” she said. “That is something to keep in mind as we broaden our base. I encourage all of you to attend our meetings so we can have lively meetings.”
Abbott, a member of the Whitewater Common Council, shared some personal history, explaining how she had been interested in politics from a very early age.
“I want to congratulate you for 50 years, but more than that, I want to thank you for 50 years,” Abbott said, recalling how she moved from her hometown in northern Wisconsin to Whitewater to attend the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
She was appointed to the Whitewater Common Council in 2011 and elected in 2012, and then re-elected in 2014.
“I remember my first exposure to politics, when I was five years old,” Abbott said. “My mom raised four kids on her own, and she was very busy. While she was fixing diner, she found me sitting in the living room watching C-SPAN.
“My mom asked what was I doing,” she added. “I asked her what I was watching. She explained that was the U.S. Senate, that they make laws. Then I said, ‘I am going to do that.’ I told her that looks like a lot of fun, and that it looked like there were not that many girls there.”
Abbott noted that as a five-year-old, she did not realize the historical relevance of what she was thinking.
From that point forward, she always insisted on accompanying her mother to the voting booth on election day.
“Every time she took me there, I always took her sticker and wore it on everything as long as I could,” Abbott said.
She said she missed voting in the 2008 Presidential election by three weeks. The following spring, she said she likely was the only person under 20 casting ballots in the council primary.
“I wore that sticker proudly because, for the first time, I was not just a kid playing pretend in my mom’s clothes,” Abbott acknowledged.
A few years later she was appointed as a member of the Whitewater Common Council.
“I recently read quote that summarizes most of my thoughts about what I have done here in Whitewater,” Abbott said. “It was a quote from Daniel Burnham, an architect involved in urban planning. He said ‘To love one’s city and have a part in its advancement and improvement, is the highest privilege and duty of a citizen.’”
Whitewater’s diverse population, she said, includes “a wide spectrum” of differing viewpoints, opinions and perspectives.
“I do not think any of us can disagree that Whitewater is a fantastic place to live, and that none of those opinions or causes are worth anything if we don’t actually engage with them, and take action on them,” Abbott said. “I think that organizations like the League of Women Voters have made voting such a part of our society, we do not always realize what a privilege it is.
“One-hundred years ago, I could not have voted, and I certainly could not have run for office at 20 years old,” she added.
The council member noted that politics is more than just partisanship, which is what makes organizations like the League of Women Voters so important.
“These community organizations and groups build foundations that allow young men and women, like myself, to see the critical nature of our engagement in democracy,” Abbott said. “I am thankful that my political involvement and political dreams are neither impossible goals nor hilarious novelties anymore.
“I am thankful to have had women before me who made that happen, and who continue to support me regardless of partisan feelings,” she concluded. “I will probably never agree with all of you in this room, and you’ll probably never agree with me, but at the end of the day we have an opportunity to come together to make our community better, our state better ... our country better.”