A friend suggested to Marie Gauthier that she check out the League of Women Voters as a way to channel her sudden urge to be more civically engaged after November’s election. But Gauthier had to call her friend back with bad news.
It looks wonderful, she recalled telling her friend, but there’s not a chapter here in Franklin County in central Massachusetts. To which her friend replied: “So, maybe you should start one then.”
Gauthier, a 45-year-old mother of three children, ages 11, 8, and 4, had always modeled herself as being a good citizen through community service, but she’d never been particularly interested in political activity. But, like so many of the voters who were disappointed by the election outcome, Gauthier felt like it was time to “reprioritize” where she invested her energy.
So on Nov. 14, less than a week removed from the election, Gauthier called the league’s Massachusetts state branch and said she wanted to start a chapter where she lived.
“I never thought I’d take it this direction,” she said, “but I guess I look at my kids and I want them to see that when there are challenges you have to rise up to them and meet them.”
The nearly 100-year-old organization — which began during women’s suffrage to give new female voters a way to organize around their new civic right — has seen a massive resurgence since the election, and even more so since the women’s marches last month. Across the country, the league added thousands to its membership and inspired individuals like Gauthier to start new chapters in towns from Utah to Georgia to Pennsylvania.
It’s a level of interest that national president Chris Carson has never seen in her 33 years with the league. She thinks people are drawn to it because it is nonpartisan — it doesn’t weigh in on party politics, but it does take a stand on issues, usually progressive ones. Its main purpose, though, is to engender the kind of active citizenship that is in sudden demand since the election. It encourages voting and champions civil discourse, putting out voting guides in communities and sponsoring political debates at all levels of government.
“It’s very encouraging, it makes me feel wonderful to know there are that many people who care about this country who want to perhaps change the direction they see now, but want to do it in a positive and constructive way,” Carson said. “So many were horrified by the toxicity of the campaign and are tired of the negativity.”
That’s how Cuffy Sullivan felt when she decided to take it upon herself to reboot a defunct chapter in Savannah, Ga. Sullivan said she watched friends unfriend each other on Facebook over political disagreements and retreat deeper into their echo chambers. It saddened her that even in a town known for its Southern hospitality, people seemed to be losing their civility.
Sullivan, 51, said she’d never been overtly political, but she’d always felt a deep patriotism. Since her daughters were old enough to talk she’s taken them with her on Election Day and had them read aloud the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, outside the polling place before she voted. She’s also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and her three girls are members of the Children of the American Revolution.
Because of its apolitical approach to advocacy, restarting the League of Women Voters, which folded in Savannah in the late 1990s, was a natural fit.
“The ability to have discourse over issues seems to have been eradicated,” Sullivan said. “I saw the futilely of political action through Facebook posts and thought it was time to get off my ass and make something happen.”
She held a meeting to gauge interest at a coffee shop and eight people came. So, for her second meeting on Jan. 5, Sullivan reserved a table for 10 at a local restaurant. More than 50 showed up.
What amazed Sullivan is that the women and even a few men who wanted to be involved were not all Democrats or anti-Donald Trump. They just wanted to find a meaningful way to engage with the public about the importance of active citizenship. In that spirit, Sullivan wrote something of a mission statement for the group, which now has nearly 200 people signed up:
There are enough other organizations in place for individuals to find like-minded people who share similar views and concerns. I want to do something unusual in this day and time: To create a forum that allows us to leave aside our self-defined silos, bubbles, algorithms and parties to come together to factually evaluate and reasonably consider issues that affect us as citizens living together in a community, no matter what our personal political leanings.
We are, after all, first and foremost, neighbors.
A similar thing happened in Franklin County. In her role as the state’s membership chair, Marilyn Peterson has helped Gauthier set up the new chapter. At 81 years years old, Peterson has been a member of the league in Massachusetts since 1969, at a time when it was a place for women to come together to study and discuss important issues, she said.
When she pulled up to the temple where Gauthier was hosting her second meeting on Jan. 29, Peterson said she saw women streaming in from all directions. They’d been expecting around 80 and more than 150 showed up. They kept bringing out more chairs and when they ran out, people had to sit on the floor, she said.
The organization’s membership skews older, and Peterson was heartened to see how many young people were there.
“I certainly have not seen a surge in interest as we’re seeing in the last three months. It’s exciting,” she said. “I think it’s a revolution for the league. Older members are invested, but these are the people who will be living in the world we’re working to make even better. We’re not going to look like the league of their mothers and grandmothers.”
For Gauthier, who works part time for a nonprofit, her almost accidental leadership has given her what so many are seeking after the election: A sense of place and purpose.
“It’s invigorating to be in a room with engaged and passionate women and it’s a great comfort to know we’re all working together,” she said. “There’s something really rewarding about that.”
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