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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gladys Avery Tillett, March 20, 1974. Interview G-0061. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Membership of the League of Women Voters and its goals during the 1920s

Tillett goes into further detail regarding the composition and goals of the League of Women Voters during the 1920s in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tillett says that membership was high, with at least fifty women joining in the organization's first years. She describes the kind of women who tended to participate and take positions of leadership and she asserts that the primary goal of the League during those years was to pique interest in political issues, raise awareness about political candidates, register women voters, and increase women's participation in politics.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gladys Avery Tillett, March 20, 1974. Interview G-0061. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
How many women were in your local league? Was it the county or what?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
We called it Mecklenburg County League of Women Voters, and I put much time into getting women who were respected leaders, and genuinely interested.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How many women?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
I'd have to go back… I couldn't say… but it was a creditable number and members from other organizations attended meetings… we… I worked hard. I got women to serve as officers on the board—many of them outstanding in their own right.
JACQUELYN HALL:
50 women?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
On yes, I feel reasonably sure there were 50 women. I might be able to find you this. But I had… there was the president and then the vice president, secretary, treasurer. We had, you know, the usual set up. And then I tried to get women of other organizations—women of influence and standing in the community, who shared our views on women's civic responsibility. And therefore, they themselves were leaders and they gave an added support to the movement.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of women would be considered women of influence and standing?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Well, they were women who had stood for women voting and had taken part in such things as the YWCA, AAUW, Woman's Club, Business and Professional Women's Clubs, or church work. Or patriotic societies and whatever opportunity there was for leadership. I spoke to some of the organizations of women and invited them to join the League. And those were, to some extent limited, though there were women secretaries and…
JACQUELYN HALL:
Would you say it would be more women's positions in women's organizations than their position as say the wives of prominent men?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
I don't think the husbands played a part… most of them were married, but many had responsible positions or were leaders in other groups or organizations… one of the first secretaries… Miss Carrie McLean, a lawyer, was active in the community. A woman who had had a very interesting life. She'd graduated from a Baptist college. Grown up without great means in life. And as a young girl had written letters to a missionary and told her about how she longed to have an education. And the missionary would write back and she'd write and they wrote for some years. And she was a very very able young woman. And she, when she got old enough to go off to school the missionary told her that she was going to send her to the Baptist college. So she had gone and made a splendid record and then taken secretarial training. And she was one of my allies in public work.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And she was a secretary?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
At first she worked as a business secretary but then she studied law at night and passed bar exams. Later she ran for the legislature and was elected. I managed her campaign. She made an outstanding record… So there were women and there were… one woman was from another part of the country with a very broad… she'd lived numbers of places. And then one was the wife of a dentist, a woman with qualities of leadership. There were college graduates and some teachers. They were people of, often, professional standing. And many had supported woman's suffrage. And there were some very ardent supporters, you know, among the women. When we … these were the group that were backing me in what I was doing. Well, the meeting came and we had it and it was magnificently attended because of the wide interest in the contest.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What were the politicians afraid of? What were they afraid would happen if they had the meeting?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Well, I… they were false fears. It was something new in political meetings. They were dealing with an unfamiliar political meeting and they were fearful of the unknown. It was most successful—very well attended and both sides thought it a success. 7 * The Mecklenburg League of Women Voters directed the first registration campaign for women and it was very successful. It contributed to getting out the vote. But we had it and it had excellent publicity. We were pleased we had established the fact that candidates meetings could be held and the voters could hear them discuss issues. It had been a success. And we were assured we could move on and have other meetings in the future. You see, later we had—in 1928, we had a speaker for Al Smith and a speaker for Hoover. So, we kept up the interest in candidates, you see. And it was quite a contribution because it had never been done in North Carolina or Charlotte before. Two party—both parties speaking—each for their party candidate.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So you were trying to educate women about the issues and increase interest in voting.
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Sure, the same political issue education the League does now. I mean, this is the thing the League succeeded in doing. We were working for the things we believed in and we wanted the women to know what these candidates stood for and then women would hopefully make their own decisions.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you work on any issues like the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act, the city manager form of government or women's work, wages. Did you take a stance on those kinds of issues and work on them?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Yes, we did. A very conservative local businessman reacted adversely to our interest in wages for women's work. And there was a debate at the time on the election of city council. We took a stand. See, we had at that time Mrs. Palmer German who was active in Woman's Club and also politics. Women's organizations lobbied at the legislature. Mrs. German was a leader in Raleigh. She was really a very able person. She'd been state president of the women's clubs and she was a leader on issues and all the women's club and other organizations had a legislative program… one thing, dormitories for women at UNC, raising the age of consent from 14 to 16, admitting girls to UNC before their junior year. We had women who were quite capable of leading and to a great extent—they had gotten their experience in the women's club and other women's organizations and had—it was broad in its outlook, one of the women's groups at that time. Of course they had educational things and they had teachers' organizations. A number of the early officers in the party were women who had been state presidents in women's organizations and knew the state. Would be the natural thing, you know. And here, of course, the League contributed to the interest of people for participation in politics. But of course as far as being integrated into the party, that was a closed book.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Well tell me the story of how that integration came about. What kind of obstacles you ran into. When you first organized the League of Women Voters were you intending to get inside party politics?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
I had every intention of doing this. The men were not aware of just what steps or course women would take in the League… they didn't exactly know what the League of Women Voters wanted and they were very respectful… people running for… because some of the women were from influential families and were influential in their own right, and they had their families behind them. My father-in-law, my husband, were lawyers of standing in the state and in the community and we … though we proceeded tactfully, we felt self-assurance. We gave thoughtful consideration to issues and our stand on them. And the more I thought about it, realized that women must have some standing in the political party organization. It helped to have had some political science along the way. And so—of course the family knew everybody in the community, all the lawyers and so forth, and I decided that the thing to do was for me to go as the president of the League of Women Voters and talk—it was a one party system in the state, but the registration was for all women, each choosing her party—and talk to the chairman of the party about the matter and get his reaction. And I had talked to some of my League officers and members. Would they serve on precinct committees, if they were permitted to do so, and work on registering women? And I had about 15 or so who wished to serve and would welcome the experience, you see. So I went to see the chairman and he was a lawyer and of course knew my family and they knew him. Name's Hamilton Jones. And I said, "Hamilton, I came over to talk to you about the registration of women." I said, "I know you're interested in getting them registered and getting them registered possibly in the democratic party." And he said "Yes." I said "It seems to me that it would be very important for you to have some women who are within the party organization to serve on a registration committee. Some vice-chairmen of precincts." He looked at me in great astonishment and said, "But Gladys, you wouldn't be vice-chairman of a precinct. Why your father was a judge and so forth. You wouldn't be…" I said "I'm eager to be useful in the registration of women. And I know about 15 more women who are just as eager as I am and I think you ought to look at this very seriously. For example," I said, "how are you going to get the women registered?" I said "I know you have precinct workers, but do you think those men are going to be able to go and knock on a lady's door?" And I said "lady's" with purpose. And I think it hit home. Anyhow he decided to appoint about 15 women so we could conduct a registration campaign. You see, you had to take the step. And women registered in the party of their choice.