×

New chapter aims to make a difference



Recorder Staff
Friday, January 27, 2017

GREENFIELD — When the League of Women Voters holds an organizational meeting Sunday at 1 p.m. in Temple Israel at 27 Pierce St., it will be a bit of history repeating itself.

An area league chapter, which formed in the 1970s but was disbanded because of waning interest in recent decades, is being created anew in the wake of November’s election spurring a desire from citizens to get more involved in the community, acccording to lead organizer Marie Gauthier of Shelburne Falls.

At town and school meetings she attends, Gauthier said, “I don’t see as many others of the community attending. I want to get others involved; I want to make sure we can make a difference.”

An initial meeting earlier this month in Shelburne Falls about forming a Franklin County League of Women Voters drew about 40 people, some of whom said they were concerned that many voters during the national election seemed uninformed or confused by conflicting information on social media. Some said they felt the concerns of western Massachusetts weren’t being heard in Boston.

Sunday’s meeting will be attended by the state League’s Membership Chairwoman Marilyn Peterson, who will discuss next steps toward state recognition of a new chapter.

Peterson said there’s been “an uptick” in people around the state wanting to join the league, as well as in forming chapters, some of which had existed but then disbanded.

“Franklin County is definitely unique in the number of people who are interested in an organization like this,” she said. “I think part of that is there are a lot of school issues and a lot of issues in communities in Franklin County that are similar ... This will allow them to work together, and it’s an opportunity for them to be effective in their community. I think it’s terrific that citizens want to participate and have their voices heard. They want to move things forward. The league’s a great place for doing that.”

That was the motivation that Ethel “Risky” Case had after moving to Greenfield in 1967 from Ohio, where she had been a member, as well as in more than a half-dozen other states earlier. Case, who died in 2015, believed the league was “a wonderful organization” that worked to educate voters about issues, candidates, and the political process, and could get more women involved in running for office, and convinced friends and neighbors that the post-1960s surge in women’s rights could fare better than a 1950s effort had in town to organize a chapter.

Six months after 11 local women gathered to plan for a “provisional” chapter, about 50 women showed up to hear the president of the state league’s pitch for a new chapter here.

“It was very exciting; It was like furthering your education, in a way,” according to member Mary Siano, who had just graduated with a political science degree from the University of Massachusetts. “These were women who liked to be involved,” she recalled in a 2012 interview.

Education is still at the heart of activities for the league, which counts men among its members and is now open to anyone over age 16 and includes non-citizens, as part of an effort to be more inclusive than ever.

The organization, which has 44 local or area chapters and will mark its centennial in 2020, strives to be strictly nonpartisan, which is part of its appeal, especially in a time of uncertainty, said Peterson.

“Because the league is active in the environment and in women’s rights, as well as in open and transparent governance, there are people who are uncertain who feel they need to get involved and who want to have their voice heard,” she said. “It’s the issues, it’s not (just) an election time thing. It just so happens that people had been doing a lot of thinking about this, and that’s what spurred them on.”

Through forums at which the local chapters try to present all sides of issues, “people can make up their own minds how they feel,” Peterson said, and local chapters can take their own positions, which may be different than those of the state or national leagues.

In addition to providing information on public policy issues and working to influence public policy through education and advocacy, the league helps organize and moderate candidate forums and helps in voter registration drives.

“This is an old, established organization, and we encourage members to participate in the political process and follow their own beliefs,” she said. “There are positions and actions we take. But we need to be nonpartisan.”

Jean Chernack of Ashfield, who is president of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters and is on the board of the Northampton League, said, “When Marie got in touch with state League to find a unit up here, I was very excited.”

She said there’s been interest in starting or reviving League activity in the Wachusett area, around Peabody, Framingham and in southern Berkshire County, as a result of “a lot of things that culminated with the election. People want to know how they can do something, and get involved. The election really got people moving again, no matter what side you’re on.”

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269