By John Kennett
The year was 1920 and the United States had just come out of World War I. January of the same year saw Congress pass legislation for the prohibition of alcohol and the League of Nations was established.
Women still couldn’t vote, but that privilege was on the horizon.
One month later, another organization was formed, one that would have a tremendous influence across the U.S.: the League of Women Voters.
“I think the biggest impact has been providing non partisan information for voters every other year and anything in between with voter guides and candidate forums,” said Sue McCollister, president of LWV-Midland. “In an ongoing manner, we’ve been making available information for the voter and made it more accessible.”
On Feb. 14, 1920, six months before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified giving women the right to vote, the LWV was formally organized in Chicago as the National League of Women Voters.
Now, on its 95th anniversary, the LWV is still encouraging the responsible participation of all citizens in government. They’ve also provided voter services for general and local elections with candidate information, forums and general information about registering and voting, along with studying and developing positions on significant issues.
“The League began as a ‘mighty political experiment’ designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters,” states the website of the national LWV. “It encouraged them to use their new power to participate in shaping public policy. From the beginning, the League has been an activist, grassroots organization whose leaders believed that citizens should play a critical role in advocacy.”
Since the beginning the League has been a nonpartisan organization.
“League founders believed that maintaining a nonpartisan stance would protect the fledgling organization from becoming mired in the party politics of the day,” states the LWV website. “However, League members were encouraged to be political themselves, by educating citizens about, and lobbying for, government and social reform legislation.”
This year, the LWV of the Midland Area also celebrates a milestone with its 45th anniversary. Led by president Margaret Berhenke, LWV began its local impact in 1967 when a group from Church Women United formed the LWV-Midland as a provisional league. Two years later, Pinky Snow took over as president when LWV-Midland was recognized as a full-fledged league with 93 members.
“It’s been a wonderful group of women willing to invest time in the community and had the energy and took the time to do different things,” said Carole Swinehart, who joined the League in 1971.
With more women having joined the workforce since Swinehart joined, the LWV has seen more retirees join.
“We’re seeing way more women working for many years of their workable life. When I joined, it was an intellectual outlet for women,” said Swinehart.
But, the change in demographics has allowed the League to continue its impact.
“They have been involved in many different areas, which brings a rich background to the League,” said Swinehart, who has served four different terms as president. “They are not afraid of technology which allows us to do a lot more.”
To commemorate both anniversaries, a celebration is set for today, from 3-5 p.m., at Whiting Forest, 2303 Eastman Ave.
“It is just going to be a social get-together,” said McCollister. “There will not be a formal program.”
LWV-Midland has provided Voter Guides for area citizens since 1971 and in 2012 it saw the inaugural online guide, VOTE411. The medium of television has been used to inform voters since 1989 when candidate forums aired on Midland cable television (now MCTV).
“It’s given me an opportunity to participate in some of the really basic elements of our form of government: voter rights, transparency of our elected officials; and the political process,” said McCollister.
Advocacy and action
Besides providing local citizens with voter education, the LWV-Midland has been a prime source for information on various issues such as climate change, clean energy, health care, human trafficking, fracking, school bond proposals and others.
The League has also dug deeper and studied other issues such as city and county planning, Midland County and city of Midland governments, local adult corrections, local use of federal funds, county housing needs, K-12 public school financing, the Midland Police Department, nuclear energy and services for juveniles.
“It’s been a really good opportunity for me to learn about a whole lot of these things that are so critical to our society,” said McCollister. “For the current (Midland Public Schools) bond proposal we hosted a forum community meeting. We try to advocate those things where we can.”
The late 1970s saw LWV-Midland initiate the Great Decisions program. Developed by the Foreign Policy Association, a national, non-profit, non-partisan group, Great Decisions provides background information and policy options for the eight most critical issues facing America each year and serves as the focal text for discussion groups.
Around the same time, LWV-Midland began Radio Days, its annual fundraiser. In conjunction with WMPX/WMRX, League representatives ask local businesses to purchase advertising as public service announcements to be aired during Sunshine Week, which promotes transparency in government and celebrates laws such as the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act.
For more information on the LWV-Midland area visit its website at: lwv-midland.org or call (989) 631-4769