Friday, November 2, 2001
A League of our own?
What has become of Candidates' Night in Carlisle? Who gets out into the community, identifies issues and organizes people to advocate for them? Who links Carlisle to state and national concerns? What's missing from our political scene? Where, in short, is our League of Women Voters?
The League of Women Voters (LWV), now celebrating 81 years of advocacy for political enfranchisement and social welfare, is one of the most respected non-partisan political organizations in the U.S. Its policy of studying issues carefully and thoroughly before taking a consensus position on them has become a standard for assisting voters and legislators to make informed and thoughtful decisions, and a model for research and political groups nationwide. Because studies are done at the grass-roots level, locally across the country, legislators on all levels can tap into the League's enormous information resources for their own study and debate.
The early LWV identified the need and advocated for collective bargaining, child labor laws, minimum wage, compulsory education and many more issues that became laws we take for granted as part of American life today. Throughout the twentieth century, the League was on the cutting edge of social issues. From a small organization started by just a few women in 1920, its membership grew to many thousands, spread to all fifty states, and opened itself to all voters of either gender who are 18 years or over.
The Massachusetts League of Women Voters (LWVMA) has an impressive record of sponsoring voter education in our state. We are all familiar with the voter information packets sent to our homes before state and federal elections; the sponsorship of panel discussions, lectures, candidates' nights; and educational programs for citizens of all ages.
Is the League alive in Carlisle?
League programs are designed to encourage all citizens to make informed choices and to be pro-active in their government and in the lives of their towns. All of this activity would seem to suggest that the League is alive and well in our state and our area, at least in Concord. However, the fact is that Carlisle used to have its own branch of the League, which, over the last twenty years, dwindled to the point where it was no longer viable to maintain the group without the support of the larger Concord organization. In the late 80s, therefore, Carlisle's League was tacked on to the Concord group, which was renamed the Concord-Carlisle League of Women Voters. Unfortunately, because the League is based in and is most active in Concord, absorption into it has not supported Carlisle's specific political information needs. In fact, Carlisle is largely ignored in the new organization because it is so poorly represented. The cause of the original Carlisle League's atrophy is complex, and its effect may be more serious than we imagine.
Thirty years ago, the Carlisle LWV was a program whose activity level resembled that of the founding members of the national organization. Women's issues such as reproductive choice and the Equal Rights Amendment were side by side on Carlisle's LWV agenda with state and local education reform, candidates' nights, and warrant nights. Warrant nights allowed voters to come to information sessions dealing with all the warrant articles to be considered at Town Meeting. Publications dealing with both sides of Town Meeting issues were produced and distributed. Women from Carlisle served on state committees and organized study groups and grassroots advocacy. They sponsored issue-based information sessions and moderated debates between opposing candidates for town office. They sent a corps of members to observe the meetings of all town committees and enjoyed a cordial relationship with these committees, who depended on them to "get the word out" about their work. Considering the size of the town in the 1970s, a large number of women, reportedly as many as 70, were busy with the business of the League.
Recycling, bike/footpaths, Town Meeting quorum...
During the 70s and early 80s the League began the publication of the Town Book; they began the study of recycling options for Carlisle, published a pamphlet of the study, and advocated for a town recycling program. Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard was instrumental in getting the League study accomplished and published, and in designing an educational program on recycling for the Carlisle schools. She says that when she was a newcomer in Carlisle with two small children, the League "was a life saver, a great way to stretch the brain. I really valued going to meetings, where we would brainstorm about issues and form questions for political candidates. It was a good way to be part of the community."
The Carlisle League fought for and prevailed on the defeat of the motion to abolish the quorum at Town Meeting, published the town's first study on long-term growth and planning, and advocated for new funding mechanisms for newly-mandated educational services and equal funding for existing services. It also produced Carlisle's first study of bicycle paths. That study was the resource used by the ad hoc Carlisle Bike/Foot/Woods Path Committee in 1973 to recommend to the selectmen an "extensive system of bike and footpath trails" radiating from the town center to "divert cyclists and pedestrians from the main roads." It declared that "vehicular traffic [was] increasing" rapidly and threatening the safety of Carlisle cyclists and pedestrians. The study argued not only that the safety of Carlisle citizens would be greatly improved, but that the cost of maintaining the paths (two and a half percent of the town's budget expenses at the time) could be offset by state and federal funding. Carlisle elected not to construct these paths in 1973, and the issue has become a hot topic again 27 years later. The Carlisle Pedestrian and Bike Safety Advisory Committee, with that first League study in its files, faces the same safety issues today, and even more complex problems related to land use and funding.
Mary DeGarmo, who joined the Carlisle League in 1973 and served as its president from 1981 to 1983, says, "There was a very active and professional group of people here in Carlisle. It was a wonderful time for people to learn from one another and to participate in debate and information on issues. The League was intergenerational, and this gave it a richness of perspective. We activists of the 70s and 80s learned from women who had been the activists of the 30s and 40s. People worked hard and learned a lot. In fact, we were schooling ourselves constantly."
What happened to the Carlisle LWV?
What happened? How could a group as active and involved as this one simply dry up? DeGarmo describes a "town in transition": women who had been at home joined the full-time and part-time work force, and their volunteer hours became limited. The demands of League activities were stringent: they amounted to an unpaid part-time job and sometimes more. One friend joked to DeGarmo that she should go out and get a "real" job so she wouldn't have to work so hard. With the rise of organization-sponsored after-school activities, even those women who chose to stay at home found their time severely constrained by transportation and supervisory obligations related to their children. One way and another, it became increasingly difficult to find people with the time and energy to take on leadership positions in the local League, and to connect with the state and national organizations. Verna Gilbert, who focused on issues concerning the elderly during her time as an active League member, noted that many of the leadership positions in the Concord League today are held by people who work part-time, or in flex-time jobs. She, like many others, attributes the loss of the Carlisle League's "critical mass" to the entrance of its members to the full-time work force.
Time crunch, risks, and technology
DeGarmo argues as well that "social constructs grow out of a time when a large part of the population chooses to be at home" and spend the time to identify issues and organize advocacy. Certainly over-scheduling has become a concern across age, gender, and professional lines in American life, and causes our politicians to call regularly for a return to the volunteerism which has gone begging at the table of our jam-packed personal calendars. Today our time crunch forces us to choose our causes more specifically than we did in the past.
A random sampling of several residents and former members of the League yielded many other explanations as well. One suggests that volunteerism has become more difficult as issues involve more money, the possibility of litigation, and the necessity for constant attention to volumes of rapidly changing regulations. Our increasingly fractious and litigious society has made it harder and riskier to serve and to be in the public eye. Another offers the idea that computer technology allows individuals to gather support and lobby their legislators by e-mail, and makes opinion polling more efficient. The complexion of grassroots advocacy, therefore, has changed.
Still another and more immediate explanation is that Carlisle has deliberately and determinedly maintained its small-town character, so that we have built into the open town meeting system a means of airing our views and identifying issues. Larger populations and representative town governments may perhaps have more need for an organized group of volunteers than we do here, as their citizens are more removed from the workings of government than we are. The Mosquito itself has become an efficient forum for the airing of individual views and for the non-partisan dissemination of information about issues facing Carlisle today. In Concord, the League publishes Observer Reports to subscribers on a monthly basis, containing the accounts of various town board and committee meetings submitted by the League observer corps. In addition, excerpts from the Reports are published in the Concord Journal. Carlisle's town board and committee meetings were once covered by its own League observer corps. Over time, the old Carlisle Gazette and the Mosquito recruited women from the ranks of the corps, and the experienced observers became reporters. Today, all of Carlisle's board and committee meetings are covered by Mosquito reporters.
Committees and professionals do the work
The League bike path study suggests another answer. The League study in that case was used as a primary resource by the town committee formed to advocate the issue. In recent years, all of the League's projects, studies, and issues advocacy of twenty and thirty years ago have been taken over by town boards and committees or by professionals, many of which include present and former LWV members. The Massachusetts Recycling Incentive Program and the Carlisle Household Recycling Committee handle our recycling needs. The Town Book is published by the town. Studies and reports are prepared by town committees and boards or commissioned by those groups from professionals with accredited expertise in specific fields. Administrators who were formerly volunteer advocates are now professionals as well, and some of them, as former League member and Mosquito feature editor Marilyn Harte says, work in Carlisle but do not live here. It is now the responsibility of town committees, boards, officials and hired professionals to identify and advocate for issues, and citizens can take their specific concerns directly to the vehicle designed to deal with them. Last week, news editor Maya Liteplo wrote in the Mosquito that, "[in] the past decade, as long-serving, low-paid, quasi-volunteers have retired, they have been replaced by professionalsIn addition, many boards and committeeshave hired experienced administrators and assistants who have an extensive knowledge of regulations and procedures, and provide a needed continuity (or 'institutional memory') in managing issues that frequently run longer than the terms of office of the committee members."
A measure of success?
Oddly enough, the idea that the League of Women Voters in Carlisle has become obsolete may be a measure of its success. Ann Porter, a Cambridge mental health professional and social worker, believes that: "women's institutions are structured to make themselves redundant. They focus themselves around an issue or problem. When that problem is solved, the institution has succeeded, and either has no further reason to exist, or becomes absorbed into another institution with a self-perpetuating base of power." She cites the example of Radcliffe College, originally formed to provide high-quality education for able women who were spurned by Harvard. Over the years, Radcliffe women became accepted in Harvard's classrooms as a result of their proven abilities at the sister school, reducing and finally eliminating the need for a separate women's institution. The end of Radcliffe's undergraduate college, at least theoretically, represents its success in finally achieving parity for women at Harvard. It may be that the professionalism which addresses the needs of Carlisle's body politic today has effectively eliminated the need for a League of Women Voters here, and pays tribute to the League's success in identifying and helping to establish those programs which improve our quality of life. Our League's work seems to have been absorbed into larger, self-perpetuating, and specialized institutions which tackle issues specifically here in town. Our absorption into the Concord League has not yielded many fruits for Carlisle and makes it appear at best dormant, and at worst, moribund.
Where do we go from here?
Is there no more need for a group of concerned Carlisleans to identify an issue, research it, and advocate for it? There are many here in town who see the demise of the League as a real loss. Symbolically, it represents the demise of the power of the individual. Some even blame the loss of the League for the political apathy that sees candidates running for town office unopposed. Two weeks ago, the Mosquito carried an editorial by Harte urging citizens to consider running for office. Is there no competition because there are no candidates' nights scheduled? Or are there no candidates' nights because there is no competition? We have half again as many people in Carlisle now as we had in the 1970s when the League was active, and fewer candidates for office. Is it true that, as one resident suggested, people are too polite to run against
each other? Are we too fat and happy here in Carlisle? Are there no more pressing social issues for us to identify and debate?
Surely this cannot be the case, and several residents offer arguments to the contrary. Gilbert suggests that we lack adequate transportation for our senior citizens to go to Boston for their appointments, not to mention their cultural needs. We lack a community center. Our struggle with the affordable housing issue continues. Mosquito editor Penny Zezima suggests a role for the League in study and grassroots advocacy to pressure our legislators to maintain our state and local voting districts, and the list goes on. Finally, of course, is the argument that the League provides us as well with a valuable and personal connection to state and national issues and advocacy. There are many ways in which we can still improve the quality of life for Carlisleans.
In addition, not all of Carlisle's government operates with professionals at the helm. Willard asserts that, "we cannot afford an entirely professional town government. Policy issues are for the volunteers. We need volunteers, and we need their experience. They are precious, and their time is precious."
Perhaps now is the time to recognize the successful redundancy of Carlisle's League and to restructure it. Thirty years ago, it was on the cutting edge of social issues shared by towns across the state and the nation in a world less sophisticated, less complex, less personally isolating. Social issues have not gone away, and today are perhaps even more pressing as the voice of the individual seems more and more eclipsed by the machinery of government. If nothing else, a group of citizens dedicated to the advocacy of social welfare shines a spotlight on our political system and upon the need to participate in it. Should we organize a League of our own?
Earning the respect it enjoys today was a long and arduous process. The League was born out of the women's suffrage movement, and traces its origins to a convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association held just six months before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution. National LWV literature reports that its founder, Carrie Chapman Catt, envisioned a '"union of all intelligent forces in the state' to attack 'illiteracy, social evils, industrial ills.' She added, 'The politicians used to ask us why we wanted the vote. They seemed to think that we wanted to do something particular with it, something we were not telling them. They did not understand that women wanted to help the general welfare.'"
The League's programs extend to those citizens not yet old enough to vote as well. One such program is LWVMA's student essay contest. Every year from November to April, essay questions posed by the League produce some fine and thoughtful writing from students from grades 4-12. They play a role in getting our kids thinking about the way our government works and should work, and about the issues that affect their lives. This year's theme is citizenresponsibility and participation, and questions geared toward each age group will be available in each school system in the Commonwealth in early November. Essay contest winners will be presented with savings bonds, and all participants will receive certificates at ceremonies next spring.
It all begins at the most basic local level: the Massachusetts League relies on the postal service and various technological communications to bring information to advocates in towns and cities across the state. Advocates then lobby their state legislators when action on critical issues is needed quickly. Most of the national League's biggest accomplishments started with this type of local advocacy, and it continues to be a big part of League operations. This year, as every year, the Massachusetts League has established several legislative priorities specifically for our state and taken positions upon them:
· Clean elections implementation: pro
· Death penalty: con
· Education reform financing: pro
· Equitable coverage of reproductive services in health plans: pro
· Gender-neutral insurance: pro
· Health care finance and reform: pro
· Standards for Basic Human Needs (welfare and self-sufficiency): pro
· Gun control: pro
Issues labeled for continuing action from years past include:
· Casino gambling: con
· Education reform: pro
· Special education legislation: pro
· Rehabilitation and training of prisoners: pro
The League's positions on these widely ranging issues have, in most communities, become a dependable index for voter consideration. They are non-partisan, and are established by consensus resulting from League studies, panel discussions, information sessions, and the like throughout Massachusetts. Print copies of the studies are available to any citizen, and excerpts are available on-line. By policy, therefore, they reflect the careful consideration of people who have made it their business to become thoroughly informed about an issue before taking a stand on it.
Active on the local level
Local Leagues in cities and towns across Massachusetts contribute information and participate in establishing the state League's consensus position, and they provide other services for their own voters as well. This month, the Concord-Carlisle League sponsored a "Know Your Town" bus tour through Concord, and on November 6 plans a 7:30 P.M. information session and discussion of educational testing at CCHS. Speakers and town officials from Concord will be participating in information sessions throughout the fall to inform voters about issues facing Concord: long-range planning, use of open land, and more.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito