It’s an honor and a privilege and more than a trifle scary to stand here today and thank you for choosing me to be your president. As we begin, I want to share with you the story of how I came to be a member of the League.
I joined the League in 1983 when a member of my church invited me to join. She told me the League was beginning a study of California’s initiative process and since I was a college professor of American history wouldn’t I like to join? Sounded intriguing and it would be fun to work with people in such a prestigious organization. So I mailed in my form. The next week I got a letter which turned out to be the agenda for the next board meeting. Puzzled, I called the president and asked if perhaps there had been a mistake. The president, a very gracious steel magnolia who originally hailed from Texas, said; ‘Oh no dear, you’re the study committee chair. Committee chairs are always on the board.” And here I am.
I was thrown in at the deep end, then and many times after, as opportunities for League service arose – frequently out of left field. Nobody asked for my CV and four letters of recommendation. I was deeply interested in public policy and willing to work, and that was all that counted. I was enabled, encouraged, supported, and occasionally guilt tripped, to take on new projects and stretch beyond anything I could have imagined. And I’m sure that every person in this room can say the same. The League truly is a unique organization which empowers its members to participate and to lead no matter how new or nervous they are.
I come into this role as League President not only as a survivor of the deep end, but as a former professor. For years, I taught United States history and government. In my time as a professor, I guided my students to look at pivotal events throughout our country’s history. Not only that, but I pushed them to consider the context and aftermath of these events, contemplate their importance, and put historical figures and trends into a larger perspective.
One thing that is inescapable from a study of our history is change. There has never been a time in our history when our society wasn’t challenged by major upheaval. Every institution in our land has been forced to reinvent itself many times over as technology, political and social upheaval, economic crises and more wars than we like to admit, upended whatever status quo existed at the time. We are changing now and we’ll continue to change. What we will look like then no one can say. But we know our nation will continue to adapt, fix up, remodel and reinvent to meet the challenges.
Much the same can be said of our League. We were born out of a massive social and political upheaval: the revolutionary claim that women should vote. And once we got the vote, we had the equally revolutionary idea that voters should know who they were voting for and what policies the government should enact. We set out to educate ourselves and then all voters, and created a process whereby good objective information could be shared, not just within our organization, but with the entire community.
We need to be honest about who we were and why we were there. Educated white women who had brains, energy, and economic stability but little opportunity to use them for the public good. The League was a safe, nurturing, empowering place to use the talents society didn’t value.
But the times have changed, we have changed, and we must continue to change with them. Once the public came to us as often the only reliable source of information on candidates and policy issues. Now, the public is drowning in information from numerous sources, many of which may be unreliable. Once we were ‘the’ training ground for women to advance in the political world. Now there are countless avenues. Once we met on Wednesday morning or Thursday afternoon. Now everybody, including most of our members, are working full time, or engaged in several different volunteer groups, or caring for parents or grandchildren or all of the above. We know this and we have made the decision - once again, that we have to change to meet the real world.
As we approach our League’s centennial, our organization must grow ever nimbler and more flexible. We must adapt to the challenges of a new age, accommodating and welcoming new generations of diverse American people. We must channel our energies and choose our battles strategically. In order to thrive during our next hundred years, we must embrace and work within ever-evolving national dynamics. We have the ability to connect with people across the country and across the street thanks to technology that erases borders and shortens distances. We’re already on the way.
But being nimble and flexible is not enough. If we wish to harness the great power of new technology in achieving our future goals, we must also consider the structure of our organization. Our national, state, and local leagues work together, but they don’t fill the same roles or have the same focus day-to-day. That fact will likely not change. To understand the future of the organization as a whole, however, it’s worth looking at the roles of the local, state, and national Leagues as we move into our second century together.
At the local level, Leagues are centers of community, education, and activism. These groups are our best way to bring together members old and new to discuss issues, socialize, and build camaraderie. However, in the future we will find different ways to make this process happen. Some members will prefer to meet in a library, others over a latte at the trendy coffee place, some of us at a happy hour or a wine bar. But we also must find ways to engage individual members who want to be a part of our work, but who don’t have the time to attend regular meetings or perhaps don’t even have a local League to join. Our path to the future will include greater use of technology and social media platforms and online communities to engage members in Making Democracy Work®, wherever and however that work may need to be done.
However we choose to structure it, local Leagues can also serve as training centers, offering skills and know-how for members eager to volunteer their time to important tasks like lobbying their state or local government or educating the public.
At the state level, it is key that we recognize that the work our members perform must vary from one state to the next. Each state has its own politics, its own identity, and its own flair.
Of immediate importance is that state Leagues have a vital role in building and strengthening local Leagues. Through our national staff and programs like the Shur Fellows, the national League will continue to assist in the development of state Leagues so that they are better able and prepared to mentor their local Leagues.
Many of our members live in states where government is focused on making it easier to vote and providing more information for the voter. These Leagues focus their energies on pursuing positive change in their state and communities.
But many members live in states where they must engage in a constant battle to protect the right to vote and their policy agenda must be quite different. And state politics will determine what policy issues they advance – or fight. One size does not fit all.
And as state Leagues work locally for the betterment of their respective states, they also assume the awesome responsibility of pursuing our League’s national agenda within their communities.
At the national level, in addition to strengthening our infrastructure, the League will continue to focus on our core issues. These are the issues we are known for in national politics. These are the causes we champion.
To pursue our issues, we must work together with the state and local Leagues, uniting to achieve nationwide goals using state-based strategies, just as Carrie Chapman Catt did with the Winning Plan 100 years ago. Much of the positive change we wish to effect across the country: starts with addressing the laws of fifty different states.
Most important at the national level is what we have adopted here--Making Democracy Work® for All. This we can and will do by increasing civic engagement among key constituencies, from Latinas to Asian-Americans and new Americans: the so-called “rising American electorate.”
To increase civic engagement in key constituencies, we will work with the state and local Leagues to:
- Protect the electoral process from restrictive measures that make it more difficult for citizens to cast their ballots;
- Register and educate voters on key issues;
- Reform redistricting processes to give equal weight to voters’ ballots, regardless of where or for whom they are cast and;
- Reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics.
The efforts to suppress voting rights continues to spread at the state and local level. We will jointly continue our vigorous efforts to fight back against these pernicious tactics.
As discussed earlier in this Convention, almost every state League has been pursuing redistricting reform, in many cases for decades. But we are a persistent group, and we aren’t about to give up! Whether you’re on the cusp of achieving substantive reform or just continuing to shine a light on the dirty deals cut by legislatures to protect themselves, we’re with you to continue the fight.
Reducing the influence of money in politics has become a hot-button national issue since the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases. We cannot reverse Supreme Court precedent with a wave of our wand, but there are two key ways we can, by working together, curtail the influence of money in politics.
We will continue our nationwide effort to register voters. No amount of money, no number of attack ads, and no Super PAC can turn back a wave of engaged, informed voters. It won’t prevent campaign contributions and independent expenditures from being made, but it will reduce their impact at the ballot box.
Second, we must propose, endorse, and push for legislation to reduce the influence of money in politics at the state and local level. We know from past experience that this has the greatest chance of success. Contribution limits, full disclosure and public financing at the local and state levels is the first, vitally important step. I can tell you from personal experience, that setting reasonable contribution limits for municipal elections does reduce the amount of money flowing.
There is no doubt that as I stand here before you today, our political situation is appalling. The image is bleak, but it is not new.
To put our political situation and its challenges into perspective, we first look to the past, which is not a surprising comment from a historian. Clearly, we have seen nearly the same spectacle played out several times over the course of the past two and a half centuries.
What comes immediately to mind is the Gilded Age and the national reaction to that situation. And in the midst of the resulting upheaval, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920. Six months prior to that ratification, on February 14, 1920, the League of Women Voters was incorporated by Carrie Chapman Catt.
Carrie Catt and her fellow founders succeeded in achieving their goal in large part thanks to their sheer willpower, that is true. But they also won this fight because of their carefully-laid strategy and their single-minded determination to follow it.
Our great League was born during a pivotal time in American history. Now, in the midst of our present political climate, we need to remember that much of our society’s greatest progress is born out of challenging and even appalling times.
Now, in the twenty-first century, people use technology to engage in public life differently. They may not have the time to attend scheduled meetings and events, but that doesn’t mean we can’t engage them. Civic organizations, religious institutions and labor unions are still a great presence in our society and our politics, but they do not act as centers of a person’s weekly social life in the way they once did.
Instead, people find community and engagement through social media. They exchange ideas online more frequently than in person. And they receive nonstop information as it is beamed straight to the smartphones in their pockets.
This presents opportunities as well as challenges. All of us here today understand this new reality. Now we all, as an organization, have to find a way to embrace it.
These are the questions we must ask ourselves:
How do we adapt to this new climate?
How do we reach new members in an age of social media?
And how do we engage members new and old with a personal, human touch even if they may be in far distant places?
I don’t claim to have the answers to all of these questions; no one person can. These questions are only the starting points to a conversation that we all, as members of this League, must have. This conversation starts today, and it is one we will continue to have throughout the next few years. It is a discussion to which we all can and should contribute, and I hope each and every one of you will join me as we formulate our new Winning Plan.
Thank you, and great success to us all!!