League Evolves with Changing Times Women's Group Has Taken Stands on Issues, Shaped Public Policy for 80 Years
Kadin, Deborah, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
"Democracy is not a spectator sport."
This could have been the mantra of the women who gathered in Chicago 80 years ago to savor a hard-fought victory - the right to help choose their elected leaders.
Many states, including Illinois, had given women the right to vote in state and local elections. A constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right for all would become law that year.
For the National American Woman Suffrage Association, getting the vote was one thing; putting it into action was another.
What happened at the Chicago convention changed the face of politics. The single-issue organization that had worked so hard to win the vote became a non-partisan network to help women become active participants in the political process.
Today that group is known as the League of Women Voters, which this year celebrates its 80th anniversary.
"We're still not at the pinnacles of power," said former Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, who got her political start with the league, "but our numbers and talent have significantly shaped the public policy agenda."
The league in DuPage County is almost as old as the state and national organizations. The first local chapter was formed in Downers Grove in 1921. A league combining the Villa Park and Lombard chapters began in 1931, followed by Elmhurst a year later.
In the 1950s, local leagues formed in Glen Ellyn, Naperville and Wheaton. A county chapter was formed in 1967 when county government became more influential.
From the outset, the league concentrated on registering and educating voters. Chapters mounted registration and get-out-the- vote drives.
Non-partisan debates and forums on issues and elections from local referendums to presidential campaigns became the mainstays of the league's education efforts.
Where the league also has gained a considerable reputation is in its balanced, objective and thorough study of issues. Once members reach consensus, they lobby and educate lawmakers and the community on the issues.
"We have raised the consciousness of residents and made a difference in DuPage County. When we move on an issue, it's with a lot of thought and careful study," said Barbara Pape, president of the Wheaton league.
As an example, Wheaton turned to the league to organize a forum on tear-downs when the city was dealing with the issue several years ago.
The league presented a well-balanced, thoughtful panel that went a long way to help the community understand the problem, said Wheaton Mayor James Carr.
"The league tries to do what's right for the right reasons, and I think Wheaton has benefited from their efforts," said Carr, who joined the league four years ago. "I hold the league in high regard."
The league's studies and debates are what attracted women to join.
"It's like going back to college. It's so enlightening," said Annette Smith, the president of the Naperville league and an active member since 1988.
The work gave many women confidence to speak and debate in public, draft meaningful public policy statements and learn the art of compromise. …