State League of Women Voters helps mold political process, leaders, say members
Published 3:23 pm, Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Connecticut League of Women Voters volunteers have built up an enviable reputation as an independent group devoted to research and improving the electoral process.
Sometimes they also break up brawls, as one member recounted.
"I was doing a debate in Bridgeport before a state Senate primary and there must have been about 350 people in a room that held 300," Jean Rabinow, 66, said. "Suddenly, two men got into a fistfight. I actually had to hop off the stage and break up the fight. We had to tell them to sit down or take it outside."
Rabinow, a Trumbull resident and member of the League of Women Voters of the Bridgeport area, also serves as the administrator for the Hamden-based state league.
It's that kind of devotion to serving the electorate that will be celebrated Thursday night at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich, 1800 E. Putnam Ave., Old Greenwich, where state league members will gather to mark the organization's 90th anniversary, which comes in February. Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman will be the guest speaker at the dinner that begins at 7 p.m. A cocktail hour begins at 6 p.m.
The state league and its 28 local organizations arose out of the decades-long fight to get women the vote, something that was not accomplished until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Currently, there are about 2,100 members, including some men. They are part of an estimated 75,000 members across the country.
Women who had been active in the movement transferred their energies to the League of Women Voters and created national, state and local organizations to continue activism in support of democratic values.
"It was planned in advance; that was part of the league's way of doing things," Elisa McCarthy, 73, said with a laugh.
McCarthy, a member of the Greater Hartford league, organized a traveling exhibit of the league's history that is touring the state.
The work of the women who fought for the right to vote continues to inspire Greenwich resident and state league President Cheryl Dunson, 54.
"I have such enormous admiration for the suffrage leaders, many of those women were harassed, jailed and force fed," she said. "The whole notion of women voting was so antithetical to the role of women at the time. I just feel great pride to follow in their footsteps."
Some of the women who were incarcerated for their suffrage efforts went on hunger strikes while in jail and were fed against their will by their jailers.
A Stamford resident shares a family tradition of involvement with the league dating back to its founding in 1921 and before, during the suffrage movement.
The league came under the scrutiny of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during Lee's tenure, when the senator searched for Communist infiltration of American government and organizations.
"People have told me there was a personal confrontation between them," said state league President McCarthy, who is not related to the late senator.
McCarthy cited it as an example of "the courage that so many of these women showed, not only in getting the vote, but in standing up for the league and its processes all the way through."
Langstaff's grandmother, Josephine Hamilton Maxim, was active in the suffrage movement and was one of the founders of the Hartford League of Women Voters.
"It was just part of the family thing that one did," Langstaff said. "I strongly believe in citizens taking responsibility of their government. That's what this country was founded on.
"You can't expect other people to run doing things for you; you have to step up and do it."
Langstaff's distinguished family history goes back further than her grandmother.
The league has a tradition of longtime family involvement.
Cyndy Anderson, 53, president of the Greenwich League of Women Voters, will wear her late mother Barbara Tufts' 75th league anniversary pin to the dinner Thursday.
Anderson said the league's nonpartisan nature fills a niche in political discussions.
"I think, in this day and age, the league provides a safe haven for political discourse," she said. "We encourage all viewpoints. It's just nice that here you can get direct, unbiased information that empowers individual decision-making."
A former Democratic state representative from Danbury and longtime league member agrees with Anderson about the group's role in the political process.
"It has a unique ability to bring people together on a lot of issues," said Lynn Taborsak, 67. "You aren't going to get a good product at the end of the day unless you have an organization that is tackling complicated issues and getting a lot of people involved with them."
Taborsak is a member of the league's 90th Anniversary Committee and also director of development for the state league.
League members all speak of the role the organization has played in their development as fully involved citizens.
Carole Young-Kleinfeld is the current Democratic registrar of voters in Wilton. She said her league experience helped mold a nonpartisan outlook for her as she dealt with people of different ideologies.
"I have to credit the league in helping me develop that non-partisan mindset on issues and having good election administration without being partisan," said Young-Kleinfeld, a board member with the state organization as vice president of communications.
The league was a stepping stone into local politics for one Westport resident.
Julie Belaga was the league president in Westport and became involved in many issues like planning and zoning and the environment.
She became the zoning commission chairwoman and later moved into state politics, first as a representative and then as the Republican candidate for governor in a losing campaign in 1986 against Democrat William A. O'Neill.
The league helped her deal with people and issues throughout her career, she said.
"It was the greatest training ground possible -- it was wonderful," Belaga said. "It taught you to look at both sides of an issue."
President George H.W. Bush appointed Belaga as New England director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1990.
Dunson said joining the league shook her out of her political apathy.
"The league really was a life-changing experience for me," she said. "Before I joined it I was an average citizen. The only thing I would do is vote on Election Day."
Staff Writer Frank MacEachern can be reached at email@example.com or 203-625-4434.