One hundred years ago, women and men all over this country were crusading for a noble cause: women getting the right to vote. They were marching, advocating, writing letters to the editor, talking to their friends and neighbors and generally behaving in a less than respectable manner. Three years later, the pushy behavior paid off when one Tennessee state legislator, the son of a suffragist, decided to risk the censure and ridicule of his colleagues and vote for the 19th Amendment, thus assuring his mother – and all American women – the right to vote. Out of that crusade was born the League of Women Voters, which was determined to provide women, and eventually all voters, with the information they needed to make an informed decision about how to vote.
The organization grew and prospered, breaking new ground in how people connected with candidates, providing objective background information on the issues facing voters and a safe space for women who were interested in public policy to talk, network and advocate. In the process, a leadership development program was created that women used to advocate and run for office. Times and demographics changed. The thrilling marches became “history,” safely in the past. We accomplished many good things but quietly, unobtrusively, and we never wanted to draw attention to ourselves by doing anything that might upset somebody. The membership was female, white, and upper middle class. And the League was more an embodiment of the “Tasteful Lady” than the ground troops of Carrie Chapman Catt.
Times and demographics changed again. Still doing good work but losing membership, we began to ask ourselves tough questions about who we were, where we were going and how to revitalize this organization. There was a gracious plenty of hand wringing, soul searching and endless talking. But slowly, by fits and starts, things began to change. We began reaching out to a more diverse membership base, trying new ways of working and getting much more assertive about our goals. We began to upset people and shrugged it off.
Sometime in the past ten years, the ground shifted, although nobody noticed. As this election season played out, we were more visible than we had been in decades in the way we both provided voters with information and fearlessly fought assaults on voting rights. People joined us. After November 8th, more and more people came to us. Across the country, local Leagues and leadership began trying new ways to engage people, shaking up their structures to work more effectively and demanding that the national board provide the leadership to change what needed to be changed to make this organization charge into the 21st century.
That’s what we’re here to do. We have quite a job ahead of us. And, the organization is ready to go.