League of Women Voters embraces civic duty

Published: 2/7/2017 5:41:50 PM

In the 1970s, Greenfield hosted a chapter of the League of Women Voters, which worked for decades to raise awareness about emerging issues like women’s rights. In more recent years, interest waned, and the chapter faded into history.

Now, a historic presidential election has revived interest in the league, and while it’s unfortunate that a bitter election had to be the proximate cause, revival of the league locally is good for Franklin County’s civic health.

The newly formed Franklin County League of Women Voters began work last week, with about 150 people discussing local issues the group plans to work on once recognized by the statewide umbrella organization. Topics included climate change, reproductive rights, voter registration, community engagement, and equality and justice.

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan national organization that lobbies for specific issues at the state, national and local levels, but not specific candidates. It works hard to educate people about issues and how to get involved in our own governance and to foster debate and discussion.

Jean Cherdack of Ashfield, president of the state organization, said there has been a lot of interest statewide in membership since the election and new chapters have formed in response.

Marie Gauthier of Shelburne Falls started the league’s revival here. After the election, she wanted to get more involved and heard about the league from friends in other nearby chapters. When she realized there wasn’t a chapter in Franklin County, she decided to start one.

Some of those drawn to the league are 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. They want to fix that.

That was also the motivation of Ethel “Risky” Case after moving to Greenfield in 1967 from Ohio, where she had been a member. Case, who remained a strong civic leader here until her death 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.

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.

Through forums at which the local chapters try to present all sides of issues, “people can make up their own minds how they feel,” according to league state Membership Chairwoman Marilyn Peterson.

In addition to working to influence public policy through education and advocacy, the league helps organize and moderate candidate forums, like a state Senate debate sponsored with The Recorder last fall in Ashfield.

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

In these difficult, overly polarized and contentious times, it’s good to see some nonpartisan energy being directed at improving how we govern ourselves by fostering respectful, informed civil discourse and informed decision-making. We hope this will foster the best possible outcome the next time we head to the polls.




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