Radcliff Quarterly, March, 1986
On my 21st birthday I rode my bicycle from Cambridge to Brookline Village, first to register to vote at Town Hall and then to join the League of Women Voters at the home of my mother’s friend. In my mind the two rituals went together.
My first memories of “The League” feature my father on election day morning, rummaging through the piles on my mother’s desk, cursing and calling, “Faithie! Where’s the card from the League of Women Voters? How the HELL am I supposed to know how to vote without it?” The League was more or less a sacred institution in my house. When my Aunt Lloyd (Yoy) Garrison Bliss became president of the Utah League, I assumed that she was about equal in influence and moral authority to the governor.
I didn’t become an active League member until I was in my thirties. I was homesick here in California and hungry for the company of brainy, committed woman. More specifically, I wanted to be on the lively LWV Education Committee now that my children were enrolled in public school. When the committee found out that I had majored in American Government and could read supreme court decisions, I was put to work at once studying the landmark school finance equity case Serrano v Priest. I put together a Serrano presentation for small groups of League members, and was soon sent on the road, explaining the case to school boards, PTAs, and faculty meetings throughout the county.
My school finance road show was the beginning of the end of housewife’s depression for me. I had finally found an accommodation between my fine education and my decision to stay at home to raise my children myself. From my mastery of public school finance arcana flowed a remarkably varied series of involvements. First, I wrote a PTA newsletter for parents, driven by my League perspective that good information frees people to govern themselves more wisely.
In the process of covering the school finance scene in Sacramento I was tapped to write the monthly newsletter of the Educational Congress of California and to become a speaker for the California Coalition for Fair School Finance, two coalitions of which the California League of Women Voters is a founder and member. At the county level I became a “Jarvis-watcher” for the League and the PTA, serving on the committees to defeat his three tax-slashing proposals, Jarvis I, II, and III. (Score: Jarvis 1, Layzer 2.) Fighting off the devil from another direction, I went on the road explaining the League’s position against school vouchers and tuition tax credits.
During the drive to pass the ERA, our local League staged mock debates in which I, trying to look demure, played Phyllis Schlafly (M.A. ‘??). (Some people call me Phyllis to this day.) I have participated in state and local League studies of the relationship of state and local government, the funding of libraries, the content of public education and its funding, the condition of the community college, the preservation of agricultural land, and the effectiveness of public transit. I have moderated candidates nights, spoken to high school government classes, and registered 18 year olds to vote. I have appeared on panels on our local TV station explaining the League’s study of the initiative process in California and its position on other issues.
Most recently, the League has sent me to school to learn to operate video equipment because we have begun to produce TV programs on local issues and to cover the meetings of the county board of supervisors for the local public access channel.
The League of Women Voters of the United States is 65 years old this year. Its founding mother, Carrie Chapman Catt, was president of the American Woman Suffrage Association. She proposed the establishment of the League at an AWSA convention six months before the passage of the 19th amendment. Its purpose would be to “finish the fight,” by educating woman for the vote they had struggled so hard to achieve. It was “to foster education in citizenship, to promote forums and public discussions and to support needed legislation.” Its founders quickly discovered that it wasn’t only women who needed assistance as voters and that the need for League would not vanish at the end of five years as originally thought.
The League is considered by many to have been in its early days a passive organization — studying issues, watching boards, informing citizens, monitoring candidates nights, registering voters — but it was from the very beginning vigorously activist with a progressive legislative agenda. Carrie Catt wanted the League to be “five years ahead of the political parties ” in its vision and activities. “The place where the spaces are broad and the air is clear and bracing is ahead of the procession, in the lead. (My emphasis) Let us travel there,” she told the first national convention. Such language reflects the almost manic exhilaration women felt in 1920 about their new political position.
While the League has always been strictly non-partisan in its political activity, it was at first closely involved with the political parties. One of the first items of business for newly enfranchised women was to infiltrate the parties’ power structure. And as they did, they brought to the political parties’ platform debates the legislative agenda of the League of Women Voters.
Reading about that legislative agenda in the 1920s, I am surprised to find how current it seems: issues of peace, disarmament, international cooperation, health, education, welfare, labor relations, birth control, civil rights, and equality of opportunity for women and other second class citizens. Underlying all other League activities has always been the protection of the basic democratic institutions, the good government program which strives to keep government accessible, accountable, effective, responsive, efficient, clean, and fair.
Because its program has been so progressive, the League has been accused of being dominated by Democrats, particularly in recent years when it has opposed so many of President Reagan’s policies. In truth, slightly over half of League members call themselves moderate Republicans, and the League positions are deeply conservative in the sense of conserving and protecting what is most precious: government institutions, human resources, civil rights, natural resources, world order, and a reliable infrastructure of services. Still, the bold stands of the modern League are too much for some of its own members. After the Arab oil embargo, when the California League supported an excess oil profits tax, I was stopped twice in the supermarket by members in their seventies who said sadly that they were going to have to quit if that’s the way the wind was blowing.
The League arrives at its positions through an excruciatingly careful process of consensus seeking. Committees of specialists develop superb background materials which are presented to the members in their local units. Discussion of the issues is guided toward the answering of consensus questions, and these answers are hammered into local, state, regional or national positions on which action can be taken. Action includes writing letters to the editor, getting out information, lobbying, testifying, bringing suit, and building coalitions.
Indeed, because of its chaste reputation, the League is a much sought-after member in coalitions. But those organizations which make policy from the top down instead of the bottom up may find coalition with the League absolutely maddening. League cannot bend with the wind during a fast-moving campaign, unable to alter its positions without study and consultation with the membership. I have seen men froth at the mouth as the League prepared to stand aside or withdraw from campaigns which were straying from League positions or into unLeaguelike behavior.
Of all the groups active in the political process the League demonstrates a unique ability to address individual issues while keeping the bigger picture in mind. From the national down to the local League boards, when a member speaks on behalf of, say, education, her comments are being heard and criticized by members carrying other portfolios, those of water, transit, solid waste, civil rights, health and welfare. At the annual budget hearings of such bodies as the county board of supervisors, the LWV may be the only disinterested group with a representative sitting through the entire dreary process, another way in which League stays close to the big picture.
While the League is a grass-roots organization in one sense, it is not, by its very nature, representative of the general public. Its members have certain possessions associated with privilege: education, leisure time, self-assurance, confidence that political action pays off, a secure sense that women belong in the rough-and-tumble battles over public policy, $30 in spare change for the annual dues, and (usually) the support of the men in their lives.
The League has always been a training ground for women. This is movingly evident in a League booklet, “In League with Eleanor,” which describes the early involvement of Eleanor Roosevelt. While I would not presume to place myself “in the same league” with her, we were certainly “in the same League,” for it was there that we both had formative experiences in public speaking, debating, writing for publication, chairing committees, organizing campaigns, mastering the legislative process, representing a organization before the public. Because of this training, League members who are very active do not stay in one place; they move on and move up. They run for office, they are appointed to boards and commissions, they go to graduate school, and they are offered jobs by the people who have watched them in action.
In some respects League influence and effectiveness is indisputable: as watchdog, source of information, moderator of the public debate, protector of an open and orderly process of government. In other respects doubt lingers whether the League and the other community-based non-profits have more than moral influence without money to contribute to campaigns. When I raised this subject with the minority leader of the state assembly, he suggested we form our own PAC. I was deeply shaken by his answer. It was as if Carrie Nation had been offered a drink. I guessed I knew what sort of clout the League had in his neck of the woods. Needless to say campaign finance reform is high on the League’s agenda.
It’s high on my agenda, too. I would love to take that on for the League. But there’s a vacancy now on the juvenile justice commission, nobody is monitoring the meetings of the community college board, our public transit system is in a shambles, and our county League has just signed a $10,000 contract with the San Rafael School District to do a community information project for which I am to write the report. Looking into my future as I approach age 50, I can see that being in League means never being without important work to do.
I have a secure, even gleeful, sense of myself as a political animal and I wonder whether this is unique to American women. When I suggested to my daughter that she could start an LWV in Scotland where she lives, she said wistfully, “I’m not sure the women in my village know they have the vote yet.” Her expression of longing increased even further the gratitude I feel toward League for providing me with a structure which increases my effectiveness in taking political action.
League has also eliminated for me the stigma I used to feel about being a mere housewife. I have come to understand the vital role I play as the glue holding the community together, the grease for its wheels. From all the government courses I took, I remember one lesson best: that democracy is a garden which needs constant tending. Tending that garden has been the mission of the League of Women Voters and I have made it mine.