The League of Women Voters often conjures up an image of the well-meaning suburban housewife, the one who earnestly attends coffees with public spiritedness worn on her Talbot's sleeve. Her politics were those of school boards and misplaced traffic lights. But that's changing.
Or so says the League's new president.
"I was one of those when I joined," says Dorothy Ridings. "I was pregnant with my first child, and I wanted to learn the community, so that was the time to plug into the League. The meetings were in the mornings." Just a few working women would meet in the evenings.
"Well, now it's totally flip-flopped. My league meets at lunch, in the board room of one of our new large companies in downtown Louisville."
Ridings is the first League president in its 62-year history to have a full-time job. She is editor of a monthly business newspaper in Kentucky and is also producer and host of a Louisville television show about local entrepreneurs. Today, local League members are giving a reception for her at the YWCA.
One recent afternoon, Ridings sat down at the national League offices on M Street to talk about the women's vote, the gender gap, frustrations with the White House and the League itself -- the 110,000-member political organization that grew out of the suffragist movement more than a half century ago.
Those were the days when women, demanding the right to vote, chained themselves to the White House gates. Ridings, the smoothed-out, mainstream product of her more radical grandmothers, heads an organization that engages in more conventional politics: voter service, political training, lobbying successfully for the Voting Rights Act, working against federal budget cuts affecting the poor.
The League is best known as the sponsor of the presidential debates -- although it still hasn't escaped a reputation that is more do-good than tough. Ridings claims the League does "play hardball" but, at the same time, says she doesn't want to ignore its charitable base.
"Being a do-gooder is not totally negative," she says, "because we believe in those things that sound so hokey -- like good government and representative democracy and truth in political advertising."
Ridings transmits the cheery energy and efficiency of a woman whose calendar is forever scrawled with meetings, lunches, speeches and plane schedules. She has short-cropped hair and wears a business suit with a small bow at her neck. She grew up in West Virginia, graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and the University of North Carolina. She worked for The Charlotte Observer and, briefly, for The Washington Post. She joined the league when she moved to Louisville, slowly working her way up the committee- and board-member ladder to its presidency.
But she talks most vividly about her days as a political reporter in North Carolina.
"I think I liked being able to be set apart from the actual, internal workings of a campaign," she says. "And we've still got that big shield. Because I'm not going to go over and throw my arms around Elizabeth Dole assistant to the president for public liaison and be part of the good old gang. And I'm not going to do the same thing with Teddy Kennedy's crowd. I see a real similarity in remaining somewhat detached."
But Ridings is hardly a quiet observer on other subjects.
On Dole and the White House: "Well, we've already agreed to disagree on some basic things. Elizabeth and I simply set ERA aside, because ERA's not going to happen; it's not going to have any support out of this administration. So she will not fight that battle . . . I can't help but believe that anyone who is seriously interested in women's issues would not be frustrated in that job she's got."
On the "gender gap," or the differences in male and female voting patterns picked up in the 1980 and 1982 elections: "All of a sudden, the media started talking about it, and I started getting a lot of calls. We said, 'Hey, this is a real opportunity to build on this phenomenon of 1980.' " The League did a little advertising and had a "Get Out the Vote" day, but "it was not a massive project by any means." The attention now being paid to the women's vote, Ridings adds, "is kind of neat. But we can also raise our eyebrows and say, 'It's about time, guys.' "
On Sonia Johnson, the excommunicated Mormon feminist who, with a number of others, staged a hunger strike in support of the Illinois ERA this year: "We sent a telegram to Sonia because our convention was meeting while the hunger strike was going on. It was a very agonizing time, because that's just not one of the techniques we use. And yet, I understand. Because my people who were working so closely said, 'These women who are doing this feel a real Gandhi-like moral commitment to do this.'
"You have to be supportive. But there were so many things that happened during that time in Illinois. That place was a zoo, an absolute zoo." But she admits that Johnson is not unlike the suffragists of the 1920s.
"It's true," she says. "I try to position myself back in 1919. Would I have chained myself to the White House gates? I don't know."