The National League of Women Voters Board of Directors at the February 1920 Chicago Convention. (US Library of Congress)

Nonpartisan Organizing in the Most Divided of Times: The League of Women Voters

Based on the ever-updating polls, this presidential election could be one of the strangest ever. Hillary Clinton has been dogged by allegations about her email practices while Secretary of State, with questions arising about hacking and her public ties to the private Clinton Foundation. Republican Donald Trump has polled at 0% with African American voters in some states.1 Some are also predicting that this election will have the widest gender gap in more than 60 years — and women have only been voting nationally for 96 years.2

With the gender gap possibly making all the difference in this election, it seems the perfect time to talk about women voters; specifically, the League of Women Voters (LWV). The League was founded in 1920 by suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt mere months before the 19th Amendment would take effect, granting American women the right to vote. Catt hoped that a new organization could build upon the momentum that the suffrage movement had developed over the 1910s. In their early years, the League focused on educating these new voters, empowering women to use their civic right and do their civic duty. As the suffrage movement before it, the League was nonpartisan, hoping to help all women across party lines.3

On August 5, 2016, I sat down with two members of the Montgomery County (MD) League of Women Voters and chatted with them about their personal political activism and their participation in the League.

I spoke first with Connie Tonat, a retired professor of anthropology who over the last eight decades has had a strong interest in American and international politics. Immigrating from Great Britain as a child, Connie was influenced by her father’s involvement in labor unions and interest in socialism. While attending school at Olivet College, she first voted in 1944 for Norman Thomas, a socialist candidate. In the 1940s, she worked for the United Auto Workers as a research assistant and she also became involved with the Democratic Party. In the 1950s and 1960s, Connie balanced continuing her education with a Master’s in anthropology and began teaching at a local community college while raising two children. After her divorce in the late 1970s, Connie got more involved in Democratic Party politics. As a member of the American Association of University Women, Connie became a lobbyist in Annapolis around the time she retired from college teaching in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, she joined the League of Women Voters and has been an active member ever since.4

Judy Morenoff (left) and Connie Tonat, both members of the Montgomery County, Maryland, League of Women Voters. (Laura M. Ansley | CC BY-NC-SA)
Judy Morenoff (left) and Connie Tonat, both members of the Montgomery County, Maryland, League of Women Voters. (Laura M. Ansley | CC BY-NC-SA)

Judy Morenoff then joined us. She has been a member of the Montgomery County League since 1970 and frequently has served on their executive board; she is currently the board secretary. In the 1960s, Judy worked for the federal government in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) before leaving her job to raise four children. She was never politically active before, but as a member of the county League board over the last thirty years, she has become very involved in advocating for issues involving children, education, health, and housing.

Speaking with these women revealed the ways that the LWV has both continued its original mission of promoting women’s political involvement, but has also expanded to encompass grassroots activism and lobbying in local and state communities. The League was founded as a nonpartisan organization, and both women spoke positively about working with such a group. Asked if it was ever difficult to keep League business nonpartisan, Connie said, “In Montgomery County it’s not too hard, I think mostly because we’ve got more Democrats than Republicans. For people who are very, very conservative, I think it would be a little difficult. People do get very emotional about an issue, rather than a political person.” Judy agreed:

I think almost everybody involved recognizes that the strength of the League is its nonpartisan reputation and I think everybody guards that carefully. When you’re on the board of the League of Women Voters, which I have been most of the time for the last thirty years, you are strongly encouraged and in some degree prohibited from being openly partisan. You can contribute to anybody you want to contribute to, you can go stuff envelopes for them, but you don’t put a lawn sign on your lawn. You tell them no matter how much I contribute to you, you cannot list me in your brochures as a supporter.

Connie added, “that’s why I’m not on the board.”

The post World War II period was a turning point for the organization, when it was restructured as it continues today — as a grassroots organization made up of local and statewide Leagues, which sends delegates to national conventions. In local Leagues, members participate in study and consensus — only after deep research will League chapters decide what issues and policies to advocate for.5

Equal Rights Amendment supporter at the 1972 League of Women Voters US National Convention, where the LWV overwhelmingly approved support of “equal rights for all regardless of sex.” (League of Women Voters)
Equal Rights Amendment supporter at the 1972 League of Women Voters US National Convention, where the LWV overwhelmingly approved support of “equal rights for all regardless of sex.” (League of Women Voters)

For retired professor Connie, the focus on study was one of the things that drew her to the group. As a member of the LWV, Connie has participated in studies on topics as varied as the living wage, youth at risk, and gangs. For a social scientist, these were the natural areas to focus on. “The League does a lot of study on land use, and agriculture, and transportation, but that’s not people. And my field in sociology is really people, what happens to people in ordinary, everyday life living in Montgomery County.”

When studying gangs, Connie enjoyed bringing together community members. “I went to several organizations that were working with gang members, helping or doing counseling with them, and trying to organize opportunities for these kids to get out. I got two former gang members, a young man and a young woman, I got the head of this organization, and I got two plainclothes policemen who worked with the gangs, and we had a whole panel at a monthly Trending Topics event at a local library. The community went crazy, they wanted to do something. It energized everybody. And actually, I got two new members, two teachers who had been working with the kids in the school, who got so enthused about what the League was doing that they joined and worked with the education committee.”

Brought along to her first meeting in 1970 by a friend, Judy was fascinated by that night’s discussion topic. “They were discussing how farmland should be taxed when it was sold for development. And that’s a funny topic to pick on an ‘every member bring a friend’ night. I wouldn’t have thought it was of vast general interest, but it was very much of interest to me. I said, ‘Can a guest talk?’ And they said, ‘Well, we have somebody over here who is writing down all the opinions that are expressed today. You can talk but we won’t write down anything you say unless you join.’ So I said, ‘How do I join?’ And that is how I came to join the League of Women Voters.”

Judy has enjoyed learning about the wide variety of topics that the League has studied in her decades as a member. She says, “I have learned so much that I would never have known otherwise, it’s incredible. You have a few things that you’re deeply interested in, and maybe you’re part of a study committee that really works on that and gets it. And the things you would really never have studied in any depth, one month that committee is going to write a fact-sheet for the newsletter, and the discussion groups are all going to talk about it, and lo and behold, you can now put together a map of South America or a map of Africa.”

While the focus of local Leagues varies by location and member interest, the national League of Women Voters has continued carrying out their founding mission. As Judy describes:

The national level is really deeply committed to voter protection, which fits very well with the original purpose of the League. At the Convention that we just had this June in Washington, we adopted a position that said that ideally states have a nonpartisan redistricting commission that doesn’t gerrymander. So it’s voter protection, it’s redistricting, it’s voter ID. We have worked for laws, we have filed amicus briefs. I think there have been 4 recent decisions that have thrown out voter ID laws and in most of those, the League had filed an amicus brief [with the courts]. That’s definitely the national emphasis.”
Leage of Women Voters - vote411 graphic

Voter education is also a large part of local, state, and national League groups. The organization runs the Vote411.org site, which compiles nonpartisan information on political candidates. Local and state Leagues write voter guides for their fellow citizens, and voter registration drives and poll monitoring are common volunteer opportunities for LWV members. The League also has positions on issues like gerrymandering and the electoral college (both opposed) and have had a long-standing interest in environmental protection and climate change.

I couldn’t sit down with two women who have been politically active for so long without asking a few more personal questions. First, what do they think about Hillary Clinton? Connie expressed excitement about the prospect of the first female president: “I was very much for Hillary the first time, I was glad that she was running. Yes, I’m enthused! She has problems, but most of the problems stem from the years and years and years and years of Ken Starr going after her. And now she’s very frisky, I find, about revealing too much.”

Is it exciting to see a woman nominee? “Yes, it is. Very much.” Judy was more ambivalent. “I am not one of the people who is incredibly excited about that. It is a very good thing that a major party could decide that they could win with a woman in that job, yes. But am I wildly excited about it? No, not particularly.”

I closed our interview by asking them what they want to tell the newest generation of women voters. Connie emphasized the importance of issues rather than politicians:

I think they should think very seriously not about politicians who are running, but issues and problems that are important to assuring that American society will be ever-more democratic. I think it’s the issues that are important, and the most important issues are economic, from my point of view. The social issues are important too, to be able to accept strangers of all kinds, as well as to want to assure that there is a living wage for most everyone, a living standard that everybody can obtain, in a democratic society. A more equitable distribution of the wealth, please! [laughs]

Judy brought us back around to one of the essential missions of the League of Women Voters. “You may be judging the whole world of politics by the fact that we seem to have a stalemate at the national level. Actually what is happening in your community, what’s happening in your state, has a huge effect too on the quality of your life. And probably that’s not nearly as much of a stalemate, and probably your vote, your lobbying, your spreading the word, can have a really big effect. It’s a good use of your time. If you feel that you don’t have the time to research on your own, to be an informed voter, so you think maybe you’ll just stay home because you don’t know who to vote for, there’s the League of Women Voters! And you can go to Vote411.org, you don’t even have to go to library and find a voters’ guide!”

Readers, if you found these women as inspiring as I did, you can find out more information about the League of Women Voters at their national website. You can also look up your local chapter.

Notes

  1. Philip Bump, “Donald Trump is Getting ZERO Percent of the Black Vote in Polls in Pennsylvania and OhioWashington Post (July 13, 2016). Return to text.
  2. Danielle Kurtzleben, “The Trump-Clinton Gender Gap Could Be The Largest In More Than 60 YearsNPR (May 26, 2016). Return to text.
  3. Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr., “Carrie Chapman Catt and the League of Women Voters: Winning Political Power for Women,” Remarks delivered at the League of Women Voters’ National Convention, Atlanta, Georgia, 2010. Return to text.
  4. Full disclosure from this writer — Connie Tonat is my partner’s grandmother. I asked her about doing this piece, knowing that she has had a long-standing membership with her local League, and she then connected me with Judy Morenoff. Return to text.
  5. League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, MD, Inc. “Suffrage and History of the League,” April 1995. Provided to the writer by the LWV of Montgomery County, MD. Return to text.

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