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A League of Their Own

This story was originally published in The Vineyard Gazette

On August 18, 1920, The United States Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, and upwards of 20 million women gained the right to vote.

But it was six months before that monumental act when a group of forward-thinking former suffragettes came together to form the League of Women Voters, with the goal of helping to prepare millions of women to wield their nascent political power.

“The thought had been, ‘Okay, now that we’ve won the power of the vote, we need to teach women how to use that power,’ said Deborah Medders, member of the local Island League of Women Voters chapter. “From its inception, the League of Women Voters has had a focus on education,” she said.

On the Vineyard, the league has kept that focus, taking on a central role in local political engagement for its many decades of operation. It was formed on-Island in 1933, Deborah said, as the Tisbury Women’s Association, not affiliated with the national league, in order for thrifty Islanders to avoid paying national dues.

“It was diverse from the start,” Deborah said, highlighting the early participation of Portuguese immigrants with the group.

The group became enrolled in the national league in the mid 1950s.

Through candidate forums, voter registration efforts, nonpartisan activism and more, Deborah said, the Vineyard league has helped the Island become a model of engaged local governance.

“I would like to think the Vineyard represents what is possible elsewhere in the United States when we educate people,” Deborah said, her perspective informed by her previous work as a committee staff director in the Texas state senate.

“It was through those years that I really came to appreciate how people, who really do not know just how much of a voice they have, can effect change,” she said. “That influenced my getting involved here.”

One of the main ways the group helps bring out that voice is through their candidate forums, said longtime league member Judy Crawford. During those forums, the league hosts candidates running for municipal and regional Island offices, highlighting races that can get less attention than national politics.

At each forum, candidates give prepared statements while also answering questions from a league moderator and the audience. Essential to these events, Judy said, is a commitment to impartiality on the part of the league.

“We’re not the people with the opinions. We may have private opinions, but that’s on the shelf,” she said. “We’re there to make sure that others get to express their opinion.”

Discussions at the forums typically run smoothly, Deborah said, though voter passions can occasionally run high.

“If more people engage civilly, then that is what our goal is,” she said. “And if that becomes a little cantankerous, that’s going to be okay.”

Each forum, she said, tends to take on the character of the town it takes place in, and league members are not allowed to moderate forums in the town in which they reside.

The ability to build bridges between different Island communities, said league member Dr. Lorna Andrade, is also beneficial for their mission.

“You are meeting people in the community from all our different towns, and learning about the various groups who are very, very different,” she said. “But you begin having those conversations, and you realize the commonalities that are there.”

In the past, organizing around regional issues has been a priority for the group, Deborah said. They’ve spearheaded events around affordable housing, the Steamship Authority and the creation of the Regional Refuse District.

“I’m really pleased that when people in the community have a need for something to be highlighted…they come to the league, they think of the league,” Judy said.

Getting younger people engaged in voting and elections is also a key priority, Deborah said, and for the last thirty years the group has awarded annual scholarships to Islanders pursuing college degrees in Environmental Science, Political Science or Social Justice.

And in terms of their membership, Judy said, the league has gone through something of a renaissance in recent years, prompted by a change in organizational structure.

“I guess it was about 12 or 15 years ago that that no one wanted to step up to be president,” Judy explained (she, Lorna and Deborah have all previously served in the role). Initially the members were concerned, but the group decided to reorganize with a decentralized leadership structure they call “the committee of the whole.”

“We thought the organization was going to go down the tubes, and instead it blossomed,” she said. “It has worked out beautifully.”

The change has also encouraged new, younger members to join the group. “At this point, we have a whole other generation that’s into the league,” she said.

And amidst all the changes, as the league prepares for another busy spring of local elections, Lorna is confident their work will remain as strong as ever.

“We’ve done some wonderful things here,” she said. “I know that the women can do this. And they’re doing it.”