Sherwin, Belle (1868–1955)

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Sherwin, Belle (1868–1955)

American suffragist and civic leader. Born on March 25, 1868, in Cleveland, Ohio; died of bronchopneumonia on July 9, 1955; daughter of Henry Alden Sherwin (an industrialist) and Mary Frances (Smith) Sherwin; educated in public schools in Cleveland; attended St. Margaret's School in Waterbury, Connecticut; Wellesley College, B.S., 1890; conducted graduate work at Oxford University, 1894–95; never married; no children.

Belle Sherwin, who after the ratification of the 19th Amendment would serve as the second president of the League of Women Voters, was born in 1868 in Cleveland, Ohio. The daughter of Mary Smith Sherwin and Henry Alden Sherwin, founder of the Sherwin-Williams Paint Company, she was fortunate to inherit sufficient wealth to make her financially independent, allowing her to pursue causes important to her, as well as strong organizational skills, the desire to work hard, and a clear moral vision. She was educated in the Cleveland public schools and at the private St. Margaret's School in Waterbury, Connecticut. She then attended Wellesley College, where the educational ethos and belief in useful women fostered by Alice Freeman Palmer , the school's president, had a lasting impact on her life. Particularly influenced by her classes in history and economics, Sherwin received her B.S. in 1890. She would sustain a long relationship with Wellesley, donating many financial gifts and serving as a trustee and then trustee emerita from 1918 to 1952.

After attending Oxford University for graduate study in history (1894–95), Sherwin tried her hand at teaching, but soon returned to Cleveland to begin a career in social and civic work. After organizing English-language classes for the city's Italian immigrants, Sherwin set up the Cleveland Consumers' League in 1900. She would head its investigations into industrial conditions for several years. In 1902, after the creation of the Cleveland Visiting Nurses' Association, she became a member of its board, chairing the committee on recruitment and training of nurses and facilitating its eventual attachment to the city's official public health system. Organized and energetic, Sherwin proved a natural leader.

In 1910, while suffragist Maud Wood Park was visiting Cleveland to drum up support for women's suffrage, Sherwin joined the College Equal Suffrage League, although she remained more involved with her civic work than with the fight for the vote for the next several years. In 1916, middle- and upper-class women of the city were suddenly divided into factions by the founding of a local branch of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. In response to the disruptions to Cleveland society caused by the introduction of this group—the diametric opposite of the country's largest suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)—Sherwin founded the Women's City Club as a place for both sides to meet and debate the issue without viciousness. The suffrage question was temporarily transferred to the back burner nationwide the following year, when the United States entered World War I. Because of her administrative experience and reputation, Sherwin was named chair of the Women's Committee of the Ohio branch of the United States Council of National Defense. In this capacity, she supervised and integrated the efforts of some 60 women's organizations involved with social welfare programs, conservation of food, and industrial recruitment.

After the war, Sherwin focused her energies on women's suffrage, becoming president of the Cleveland Suffrage Association in 1919. The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was already wending its way through Congress and the states by this time, and Sherwin became an enthusiastic proponent of NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt 's idea for a successor organization to NAWSA aimed at educating enfranchised women on their new civic rights and responsibilities. With the ratification of the amendment in 1920, NAWSA, having achieved its aim, was transformed into the National League of Women Voters (NLWV), with Maud Wood Park as president. As vice-president, Sherwin took charge of the department organized to educate and train women in the performance of their civic duties. Despite the materials the department created and distributed on citizenship and on the mechanics of politics and voting, in the first two national elections after women were permitted to vote, far fewer exercised this right than Sherwin or many others had hoped.

In 1924, Sherwin was elected president of the NLWV, and moved to Washington, D.C. Aiming to change the poor turnout of those previous elections and create informed, educated women voters, she consolidated the far-flung programs and committees of the NLWV at its D.C. headquarters. An excellent spotter of talent who expected those around her to work as hard as she did, Sherwin described the organization as "a university without walls … whose members enter to learn and remain to shape the curriculum." Over the decade that she served as president, the NLWV became known for the evenhanded accuracy of its research and evolved into the non-partisan educational organization that it remains today. She was admired for her intelligence and diplomacy, and for the way in which she united the various factions of the group into an authoritative organization respected for its balance and objectivity.

Succeeded as president of the NLWV in 1934 by Marguerite Milton Wells , Sherwin accepted an appointment to the Consumers' Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration, President Franklin Roosevelt's program to combat the Depression. She also served on the Federal Advisory Committee of the U.S. Employment Service. Sherwin left Washington in 1942 to return to Cleveland, where she remained active in civic life until her death of bronchopneumonia in 1955.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City

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Sherwin, Belle (1868–1955)

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