SHERWIN, BELLE (20 Mar. 1868-9 July 1955), was a notable reform activist and a suffragist who led the national LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS (LWV) during 1924-1934.
Sherwin was born in Cleveland, the daughter of Frances Mary Smith and Henry Alden Sherwin, the founder of SHERWIN-WILLIAMS CO. She was educated in Cleveland schools and at the private St. Margaret’s School at Waterbury, CT, and later attended Wellesley College, from which she graduated in 1890 Phi Beta Kappa with a B.S. She pursued graduate studies at Oxford University in 1894-1895, receiving a degree in history. After returning to the U.S from Oxford, Sherwin taught 4 years in Boston at St. Margaret’s and Miss Hersey’s Schools for Girls.
In 1900, Sherwin returned to Cleveland, where she began her activist career as the first president of the CONSUMERS LEAGUE OF OHIO, a role she had until 1907. Under her leadership, the organization concentrated on voluntarist campaigns such as the “white label” in which League members encouraged consumers to buy only products that were manufactured under fair labor conditions and health standards. It was this type of work that convinced Sherwin of the importance to have a voice in government through the vote.
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. She was also a member of the FEDERATION FOR CHARITY & PHILANTHROPY.
Sherwin’s involvement with the suffrage movement intensified after she met Maud Wood Park in 1910, who convinced her to join the College Equal Suffrage League. Park also introduced her to some of the national leaders of National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) like Carrie Chapman Catt. Sherwin harnessed these connections on the local level, organizing state efforts to achieve the vote. In 1912, she enlisted to the campaign to put women’s suffrage into the State constitution, giving soap-box speeches in favor of the referendum. She also made use of her family finances and her electric car to place suffrage billboards all over Cleveland and to publicize the suffrage cause. Despite high hopes, the measure was defeated by 87,455 votes, and another attempt in 1914 also failed.
In 1916, she and other prominent local suffragists like FLORENCE ALLEN and MARY B. GROSSMAN founded the CLEVELAND WOMEN'S CITY CLUB, as a response to the male-only City Club that was founded 4 years earlier in 1912. The Club sought to encourage women’s interests in civic affairs by offering a place to meet for public discussions and to promote the welfare of the City of Cleveland. The Club acted primarily as a public forum, sponsoring classes and lectures on topics ranging from public affairs to music and the visual arts. This was a space where women networked and banded together to advocate for various civil causes, mostly revolving around education and women and children’s welfare. In fact, although many suffragists belonged to the club, it did not openly campaign in favor of the franchise, but instead worked to promote women’s issues and rights and to increase women’s public role.
During WORLD WAR I, Sherwin led the Ohio branch of Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, orchestrating food conservation drives, selling of war bonds, and women’s work in factories and the Red Cross—a job in which she demonstrated her administrative and organizational skills.
In 1919, after Congress passed the 19th amendment and the states ratification process began, Sherwin became the president of the Cleveland Suffrage Association, helping with the efforts on the local level. She also became involved in the transition of NAWSA to the League of Women Voters, becoming the president of the Cleveland chapter in 1920. Staying true to her perspective that voting was only part of a broader reform agenda, the League under Sherwin’s leadership also supported the passage of the federal Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act in 1921, worked to bar child labor, endorsed minimum wage for women workers, and joined the anti-war and pacifist effort after WWI.
In 1924, she became the president of the National League of Women Voters, serving in this position until 1934. During this decade, Sherwin consolidated many of the organization’s programs and committees, shaping the League’s mission as a non-partisan educational organization.
After her tenure as the NLWV president, she was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Consumer Advisory Board of the Nation Recovery Administration, coming full circle from her activist days in the Consumer League of Ohio. Sherwin left Washington in 1942, to return to Cleveland, where she remained active in civic life until her death in 1955.
Sherwin received honorary degrees from Western Reserve University (Now CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSTITY) in 1930, Denison University in 1931, and Oberlin College in 1937.
Sherwin never married. She is buried in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.
Belle Sherwin Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute