The history of the League of Women Voters of Orange County is a colorful tale of many determined local women on the vanguard of the equal rights movement who demanded more for themselves and from their government and elected leaders.
Some of the earliest organizers, including the chapter’s founding president, were women from Winter Park, according to Joy Wallace Dickinson, local historian and longtime columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, who spoke May 5 at the Winter Park Public Library as part of the official book launch for Warriors for Democracy: The Story of the League of Women Voters of Orange County, Florida.
The book, by author and league member Ann Patton, chronicles the history of the local league which today is the largest and strongest chapter in the nation. As of the end of 2018, the League of Women Voters of Orange County counted more than 900 members on its rolls.
One of the early documented calls for women to organize came from New York transplant and new Winter Park resident Gertrude Trowbridge in a 1938 letter to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel, according to the book. Trowbridge encouraged women to start a league chapter and do the kind of voter education she had experienced in the north.
An organizing meeting was held the following year at the Woman’s Club of Winter Park, and Winter Park resident Virginia M. Stone in 1939 was elected president of what originally was called the Winter Park-Orlando League of Women Voters.
The first meeting of the Florida League of Women Voters was held soon after in Winter Park after the creation of two other local league chapters in St. Petersburg and Winter Haven qualified the state to form a chapter. Stone was elected as the state chapter’s second vice-president.
Winter Park’s role in the league’s development was featured at the city library event and is just part of the historical detail uncovered through extensive research by Patton in the course of writing her book.
“The interesting part of the book is how much of the history had been lost and hidden,” Dickinson said.
For example, the book chronicles the 11th hour write-in candidacy of league member Ethel Melcher in the 1940s for seat on the Winter Park city commission. Melcher was the incoming president of the Winter Park-Orlando League of Women Voters. Her surprise victory made Melcher the first woman elected to the Winter Park city commission and only the second woman in state history to win a local office.
“Much of the history has been lost by now, as the forward-moving Leaguers push ahead with too much urgency to look back,” wrote Patton in the book preface. “This book is based on the shards and tracks we found that reveal their work and, most of all, their indomitable spirit.”