Carroll County is one of only a handful of areas in the state where the League has a presence. And next week, the League of Women Voters Carrollton-Carroll County will be celebrating its Golden Anniversary, with a 50th birthday party to be held Saturday, Aug. 11, at the Sunset Hills Country Club. Among the speakers will be Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the national organization, and whose home is in DeKalb County.
While many political organizations nowadays have a clear liberal or conservative agenda, Robin Collins, current president of the Carroll group, maintains that the League is completely bipartisan, despite a popular perception the group favors progressive issues.
“I think that women have always been interested in children and the welfare of working women, but I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that (League members) are progressive.”
“That’s not to say we don’t take up topics,” she added. But the positions taken by the League reflect a carefully built-up consensus, grown from the group’s diverse, national membership.
“I think each region of the country picks up the flavor of the (local) community and of its members,” she said. In some regions, the membership may be more progressive; in others, it may be more conservative. But at the national level, that diversity is blended into a single position for which the League may advocate; a position independent of any major party’s agenda.
“We have tea party members who belong,” added longtime member Mary O’Neill. “We have various people who might belong to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, independents. So it’s sort of an interesting mix. I think it’s a good thing to have.”
The National League of Women Voters was founded in 1920, right after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, so that newly enfranchised women could study the political issues and make informed choices at the voting booth. The organization soon spread to Georgia, even though the state itself did not take a stand for women’s suffrage until 1970 – and only then because of the advocacy of some of the League’s members in Carroll County.
The Carrollton-based group began in 1960, part of the intense voter interest sparked by the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. On Oct 8, the day after the second CBS network-sponsored debate – watched by some 70 million people, “a committee of (local) ladies met together,” according to Collins, with the idea of starting a local chapter. That meeting, she said, led to a meeting with state leaders, which in turn led to provisional status for the Carroll group. The national organization approved the Carroll County’s petition on August 23, 1962
In the beginning, the local group’s interest was primarily in education, according to Dr. Martha Ann Saunders, a former instructor at the University of West Georgia. In fact, several members of the organization have educational backgrounds. O’Neill was one of them.
“I taught nursing at the University of West Georgia and health care is political,” she said. “And I found that I wanted to get unbiased opinions or ideas or thoughts that I could bring and share with my students, because they really need to be involved in the political process.”
Many people associate the League of Women Voters with sponsorship of presidential debates, even though the League stopped doing so in 1988. While some local groups do sponsor political debates, Collins says the Carroll County organization prefers to sponsor candidate forums.
For her part, Collins says she became involved because she thought the League’s various programs were interesting. When she set up one of those meetings, on the topic of whether judges should be elected or appointed, she became committed to the League’s process of studying issues at the local level.
“The important part is first you study, then you come to a consensus, and then you make a position. That’s how the League works.”
And the focus is not just on domestic politics. For the past 15 years, the Carroll County group has hosted a series called “Great Decisions,” which promotes citizen awareness and discussion on various foreign policy issues. The League says it is the “oldest and largest grassroots educational program on world affairs.”
Membership in the organization has remained steady, Collins says, although poor economic conditions are causing recruitment issues on the national and state levels. Nevertheless, the group’s influence on the national political stage is still strong, even though more partisan organizations are more often in the public spotlight.
“One thing I have stressed to people when I am getting them to join, is that there is power in numbers.”