A Strong Democracy

Before winning the right to vote or even have their voices heard in formal, public proceedings, women in America were relegated to supporting roles at best in American policy. They could schedule meetings and take minutes, but it was considered best that men handled the shaping
of government, education, business and more. Thankfully, those antiquated ideals are long gone and women today wield considerable power in all levels of government and public advocacy.

Much of this progress can be attributed to the League of Women Voters (LWV) and its founder, Carrie Catt. Catt emerged as a force to be reckoned with during the height of women’s suffrage. Six months before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote, Catt founded the LWV during a convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

After a long and arduous 72-year fight, women finally had the right to vote, but it was quickly realized that they were not as educated as they should be about the American form of government, how bills became laws and how to best have their voice heard by local, state and federal representatives. Thus, the League began as a non-partisan political initiative to help more than 20 million new female voters register and carry out their hard-earned responsibility. The League quickly established itself as a grassroots organization, a national idea with local chapters that would educate voters and influence policy. Even today, the LWV stands by its strictly nonpartisan stance and serves as a source of information transcending petty party politics. They have sponsored presidential debates, produced educational pamphlets, written editorials, sponsored voting guides and more. Throughout the years, the LWV has been known for taking a stand on a myriad of issues, from gerrymandering, international peace, the death penalty, minority vote suppression, contraceptive healthcare coverage, school vouchers, education and the environment. Today, locally, the League takes a strong stand on issues of education and the environment and has dedicated committees committed to educating the public and getting the vote out.

“We remain a non-partisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation of civilians in politics,” said Paula Montgomery, a member of the League and chair of the Education committee. “We tackle problems through studying and research, followed by action.”

The League has long emphasized the need for extensive research and information gathering before taking a stand on issues and rallying supporters behind a cause.

“We, of course, provide voter registration, hold public candidate forums, provide presentations on local and state governmental issues, and address social and educational issues and concerns,” said Mary Gutierrez, local co-president and chair of the Natural Resource and Growth Management Committee. “I think people come to us as a source of political information because of our long standing reputation of studying each issue extensively.”

When they finally do have a sufficient amount of information, they go to legislators, work with the media, organize events and more.

“We balance being nonpartisan with being highly political,” said Montgomery.

The LWV gives its member a range of other outlets for public advocacy and meaningful networking, too.

“We positively impact the community by being actively engaged with our outreach and education efforts through monthly program meetings, hot topic luncheons, and partnership with other organizations for numerous events throughout the year,” said Gutierrez.

The organization is not made of strictly women, though the name may imply that. Shortly after its inception, the LWV began admitting male members in order to be all-inclusive. As such, the League often features speakers, both male and female, who hold a lofty position in the city or county and finds an audience with politicians and activists from a number of backgrounds. Each committee tackles its respective concerns. Recently, the Education Committee conducted a study of third-grade reading tests and whether they are an accurate judgment of how well schools are doing and whether kids should be held back on account of the exam.

“If you didn’t make a certain amount of points [on the test,] you were held back, but the system didn’t look at if they had been held back before,” said Montgomery.
“As such, kids were getting held back multiple times, which of course affects their self-esteem and standing in future classes.”

Recently, the statewide League did a study of big charter schools, publicly funded independent institutions established by teachers, parents or community groups under the terms of a charter. The subject has been long debated concerning their efficacy and whether they should receive public dollars.

“We have a report on that that is several pages long,” said Montgomery. “We found that charter schools do not perform better than equivalent public schools. In South Florida, for example, too many legislators have financial interests in charter schools and therefore push legislation that favors those schools. We have the report because an educated electorate is necessary to a good democracy.”

One of the League’s goals is to create a groundswell reaction to reports like this one so that voters will respond, instead of having to wait on state or federal government to figure it out themselves. On Feb. 2, the main Pensacola library downtown will host the Escambia and Santa Rosa superintendents to discuss the state of local education. At the event, League staff will show the documentary Rise Above the Mark at 5:30 pm before welcoming remarks from the elected officials and citizens.

“We’re hoping that this local groundswell of interest and energy will work to benefit the school system,” said Montgomery. The Natural Resource and Growth Management Committee, an environmental arm of the LWV, has worked extensively with Councilwoman Sherri Myers and Pensacola 350, an environment and climate change advocacy group.

“Some of the [other] items the committee is currently engaged in are the effects of plastic bags within our aquatic systems, the negative environmental and human health impacts associated with deep well injection and hydraulic fracturing,” said Gutierrez. “We have been involved and are continuing to monitor the military proposed use of the Blackwater State Forest, seagrass dredging associated with Santa Rosa Shores, storm water concerns, and Escambia County’s land use development changes.”

Statewide, the League is involved in lawsuits concerning district gerrymandering and the legality of school vouchers. The League hosts monthly programs that are open to everyone the third Saturday of each month at the Tryon branch library at 10 am. Those wishing to join pay just $55 in dues, $27.50 for students enrolled in a certificate or degree program.

“There are always issues of interest and we get great speakers,” said Montgomery. “Upcoming speakers include John Clark with the Council on Aging and Rosemary Hayes-Thomas, speaking on women’s history and genderbased earning disparity.”

Standing committees have other meeting times and can be found on the League’s local website, lwvpba.org.