League of Women Voters still battles on

A look at the past and the present

1990 league of womens voters forum PM

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It’s finally — almost — Election Day. Do you remember where your brain is?

After nearly two years of presidential campaign stumping — with an estimated, unprecedented, $6 billion in messaging, posturing and largely negative advertising — who could possibly want more?

Yet, years ago — long, long before the first trial balloon even hinted at last year’s New Hampshire primary — there was a different sort of campaign.

It was aimed, one century ago, at allowing women the right to vote.

Margaret Barnard gave her Feb. 29, 1912, speech at the Deerfield Valley Pomona Grange as part of a full-blown event on the theme, “Woman Suffrage.”

Barnard, referred to by the Greenfield Gazette and Courier as “Miss Barnard,” quoted from Jane Addams, Ellizabeth Cady Stanton and other women “to show what women can be and do,” according to the newspaper’s account. “She spoke of countries that were having full suffrage and the advanced work being done by them.”

Barnard also spoke of the greater influence that could result from having the right to vote.

“She criticized the inequality of wages, as teaching, where a woman was doing, more work and even better than, the man and yet receiving less compensations. She said she believed in suffrage because of justice, because of increase in purity of political life, and also of character of municipal housekeeping.”

And the speaker cautioned the 125 people attending, “Don’t be afraid “suffrage will unsex you or that you will make a poor imitation of men.”

League is born

Flash ahead more than 50 years, to Greenfield, where another generation of women leaders gathered to form a chapter of the League of Women Voters. The organization was created in 1920 during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, just six months before the 19th Constitutional Amendment was ratified giving women the right to vote after a struggle that had taken 72 years.

The Greenfield chapter got rolling, remembers Ethel “Risky” Case after she had moved to Greenfield from Ohio, where she had been a member, as in more than a half dozen other states before that. Case 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. She 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.

At the time, the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts had 13,500 members around the state, 11 women attended a gathering to plans for forming a “provisional” chapter. Six months later, 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,” recalls Mary Siano, who had just graduated with a political science degree from the University of Massachusetts. “These were women who liked to be involved.”

Involved in organizing candidate forums, in registering voters and in diving into study of issues and advocating political action — although always as a nonpartisan organization, steering clear of backing candidates.

In letters to the editor, with brochures and in rallies, the League encouraged people to take part in their democracy.

The League researched and then worked on housing issues, education issues, employment and public welfare issues, as well as on water quality and other environmental concerns.

By the time the Greenfield Chapter marked its 20th year, in 1990, membership was down by half, even though, during the 1970s, the organization had been opened to men.

The League had worked hard on issues like the National Voter Registration Act to increase voter participation and had been active in keeping the Clean Air Act from being weakened and to push for stronger legislation to prevent child abuse.

The organization, whose members also came from Montague, Northfield and Franklin County towns, had also been instrumental in holding voter registration drives and candidate forums.

“We used to take topics like the justice system in Massachusetts, did it need to be reformed,” said Pamela Wolanske, who now lives in Montague. “People would volunteer, study the issues and present the information. It was up to entire organization to reach consensus so we could advocate on certain topics. That was a good way to keep your mind active and be with a group of smart intelligent women.

“But I think more and more women had to go back to work to support their families. That probably had the biggest impact on why the organization couldn’t sustain itself. We had babies and then we all had to go back to work.

Also, Siano said, more and women went back to school, as she did, or got older and moved out of the area. Siano went on to become a social worker and got involved in advocating for a single-payer health care system, helping to form the Franklin-Hampshire Health Care Coalition and then realized that she could join the League’s Amherst chapter, which is alive, well and working to reform the health care system.

“I missed it. It was a great way of learning,” said Siano, who added that a number of Franklin County women are members in the Amherst League.

“It’s sad we don’t have that here. I have thought when I’ve seen how very low voter participation is for uncontested (Greenfield Town) Council seats. I feel the town would benefit from the kind of attention the League pays to local government,” Siano said.

Amherst started in 1939

With about 130 members, the Amherst chapter dates back to 1939 and has committees that work on projects that have included presenting speakers, disseminating information for residents about how to contact their local officials, gathering position statements from town meeting candidates and, until recently, attending local meetings as an observer corps.

“We’re involved in quite a lot of different things in Amherst,” said chapter President Rebecca Fricke. “I’m not sure what this town would do without us helping the town clerk and the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee.”

The League registered more than 40 voters at a table set up at the Amherst Farmers Market, and it continues to hold candidate debates and issue voting guides.

It’s a chapter that’s working on positions on alternative energy and on getting money out of politics, promoting health care reform, developing a town meeting warrant article calling for Styrofoam recycling, and encouraging people to think about issues like voter suppression and casino gambling.

While she admits that Amherst is “a little bubble” in its level of civic engagement, Fricke said, “I think a town like Greenfield would definitely benefit from this.”

In an age of cynicism, not to mention divisiveness and polarization, Fricke said, “It’s easy to be cynical if you’re on outside, not trying to get involved in any way. It probably looks from the outside like nothing can be done. On the local level, there’s a lot that can be done. But you can’t be in a hurry.”

State level

Massachusetts League President Eva Valentine agrees.

In this era of sound bites and elevator speeches, she said, “it’s very difficult to describe what League does and how we can make a difference. We work by consensus, if you can imagine how difficult that is. It can take upwards of a year or more to do that exercise, and then we can take position for or against on the state level. If it involves a national issue, like affecting national political funding, the national organization also becomes involved in deciding how far the position can go.

“It’s frustrating for some people in this age of instant gratification. They don’t have an appetite for that,” Valentine said. “We have to go through exhaustive activity looking at both sides, at all angles, at all the ramifications of any position.”

That careful pace is very frustrating people who want to be able to respond instantly, said Valentine, who helped organize the League’s Greater Haverill chapter and has seen membership across the state and beyond fall off to about 5,000, in part because of that frustration.

The number of chapters has also fallen off, to 48 now, in part because of other demands on people’s time, and the fact that the organization, though open to men, retains its Women Voters identification. And then there’s the polarized political culture which looks on the nonpartisan League with suspicion.

“Those are all challenges,” she said. “I’m not going to sugar coat it. We try to stay balanced, but the fact that we’re nonpartisan has begun to turn away more and more people, because people really want to work for their candidate. But I think it’s essential to have groups like League to get the facts out and not just the emotions out.

“The League is even more relevant than it’s ever has been, because in a world of polarized opinions, to have this calm, measured studied voice is valuable,” she said.

On the web: http://lwvma.org

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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