EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published on Feb. 17, 2020.
WILLIAMSBURG — When the Williamsburg Area League of Women Voters first started in 1962, it wasn’t without a fight.
The league started with a little more than two dozen women, some of whom were African American, said Mary Ann Moxon, communications director for the Williamsburg League.
Moxon said when the local women went to become an established league, they found themselves turned away because there were black women involved. There were no integrated leagues in Virginia at the time, but Moxon said the founding Williamsburg members didn’t give up.
“This was during a time when Jim Crow was still the rule of the land,” Moxon said. “But they persisted and became the first integrated league in the state…Now, it’s our history that motivates us.”
Integration league wasn’t the only challenge the women had to overcome. During the league’s first year as a “provisional local League,” leaders had to complete a “Know Your Town Survey” in order to be recognized as an official league.
Before her death in 2019, Edith Edwards, co-chair of the project, remembered facing push-back from the local government when trying to get public information for the survey, Moxon said.
Instead of backing down, Edwards and member Rita Welsh, who died in 1981, petitioned Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court Judge Robert Armistead to order the local court clerk to provide the information.
“It didn’t help that some of the League members were from other areas with northern accents. I, at least, was from Raleigh with a southern drawl,” Edwards said in an interview with the League.
The League’s first annual meeting was held in April 1963 with local educator and activist Clara Byrd Baker as the Voter Service Chair. Baker, who died in 1979, was the first African American woman to vote in Williamsburg in 1920 and taught at the previously segregated Bruton Heights school.
During her lifetime, she promoted interracial cooperation and advocated for women’s education and interaction in public affairs, according to Virginia Changemakers.
This year, the league is celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote through various events, including honoring lifetime members such as Jan Woodward, who joined the league in 1970.
At the time, she said she just wanted to work to make a more educated public and enact change in the local area. Now, 50 years later she can reflect on her time as a member of an organization that has not only promoted women in democracy but upheld values of an educated citizenry from its beginning.
“I was just impressed by the willingness of these women to spend time and energy in educating the public about what was going on in the community,” she said. “I didn’t know the founders well when I joined, but some of them became dear friends and I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”
Woodward said she thinks the mission of the League is just as important today as it ever was. She added she doesn’t want people just to vote, but to do so with informed opinions.
“It was always a matter of wanting people to be educated,” she said. “Because if you don’t know what’s happening, or the history of something, you’re not able to make a sensible decision going forward on what should happen even next week.”
Woodward was honored Friday by the League for half a century of dedicated service to the organization. But Woodward said she can’t take credit for any of the league’s successes, it was all the work of one group of women who fought for, and continue to work toward, an educated democracy.
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