The long view of politics

The long view of politics

After a half-century of working to hold local governments accountable and standing up for women's rights, four members of the Champaign County League of Women Voters will join its exclusive 50-year-member club at a wine and cheese social today at Milo's Restaurant. Staff writer Nicole Lafond caught up with the honorees for a few questions.

What has been the most memorable part of your involvement with League of Women Voters?

Margaret Stewart: I was really involved in the urban renewal project. I was a new member when we were first getting into that. It was very controversial and I remember sitting in on city council meetings. I was in the audience listening; the League's position was all for it. That study really changed the face of housing here in Champaign. It was very influential. There was a league study before I was a member that documented some of the horrible conditions that some of the housing was in here.

Nancy Morse: I remember strongly the event of working with an older member of the League on a project. Her first name was Margaret. There was an older publication in Champaign County that looked at what the governments were like here and (found) the existing one was out of date, so Margaret was in charge of revising it and I worked closely with her. I got to go to all the small little villages and find out things about them. I learned a lot and had the experience of helping her work to make it a booklet. That was good for me in all kinds of ways. I learned a lot and she was a wonderful, wonderful lady.

Maureen McCord: There were so many things going on and it was so much fun to be a part of it, so to identify a particular experience is really hard. All of us learned to go to public meetings and all of us learned to speak at public meetings. ... It was a time where most women were either not employed or underemployed. They had children and there was still the hangover from the university rule about if a husband worked there, a wife couldn't. It stemmed from the Depression — the university would only support one member of a family. That was slowly eroding, but it was a time where we had these very bright women who were clearly overeducated for their employment level and they're running around chasing children.

For some people that's not quite enough in life: You need some adult contact, you need something beyond "Ladies Home Journal." The idea of civic involvement with these incredibly intelligent women was a total high for me. They were fabulous; there were all these bright women that got involved in social change because that's what was occurring. I called it my mental health group and the best non-credit local government course I ever took. It was just fun.

Ruth Fisher: It was just a wonderful bunch of people. It showed men didn't have to run everything. I was lucky to have a mother who was not a member of the League, but she would've been if she'd been a little older. My mother was one of three women in her class in medical school at the University of California back in 1908. She was harassed by some of the men medical students who were angry she was taking the place of a man and that just made her more determined to go on with her career. After she married and had her family, she didn't go back into being a physician, but she kept very interested in public health in the community.

I think that idea — women can do anything they can put their minds and energy to. My husband, Ralph, was also a League member; he thought that was pretty neat — for the women to invite the men. It was before the Rotary Club even took in women. I was a school social worker for 20 years so I was also specially interested in things related to the schools.

Who's been your favorite president?

Morse: There have been several times over the years that I have been so disappointed. I've said 'I'm going to move to New Zealand' or dye my hair red if this happens. But eventually I realized, it really doesn't matter. The president is the big cheese, but I don't know that the president affects a lot of policy. I always had a fond spot for Jimmy Carter. He was an honorable man, he's done wonderful things since he was president.

Stewart: I remember when Franklin Roosevelt died. I was in high school and we all assembled in the auditorium and it was announced. I was in mourning for a few days because he was the only president I had known.

McCord: If it is a president's job to set policy, well, you could say Roosevelt. He clearly did. So did (Harry) Truman. Lyndon Johnson got some tough stuff through. (Barack) Obama got the health insurance, but it's going to be cleaned up. So are we talking about an individual who has had a profound impact on policy or a man who was honorable like Jimmy Carter who did not have a profound impact on policy? All of this is important to me, so I'm never happy.

Fisher: My adolescent rebellion was voting Democrat. I came from a long line of Republicans but I've stuck with the Democrats. I'm lucky I had the choices that I've had. I'd say Truman was the biggest surprise. I remember the day I found out (Roosevelt died). I was waiting for a bus in Berkeley and my neighbor said "Have you heard the news?" ... He said "We've got to believe that Truman can do it."

What do you remember about the first time you voted?

Fisher: I think I was 21. I graduated from college in 1943, so it was 1944. I voted for Roosevelt.

Stewart: Well, I had to be 21 because that's what the age was. The first few times, I voted absentee from my home in California because I really wasn't going to be anywhere for very long, so I didn't know if I should register. The first time I actually voted at a ballot place was here in Champaign. ... It was the 1960 presidential election. I voted for John Kennedy.

Morse: At that point, we were living in Brooklyn and the ballot place was a local church and it was the Kennedy election. I was just carrying one child with me. I had more later, so the booth used to get pretty crowded. I was older than 21, but I don't remember (how old).

McCord: I voted in New York the first time. It was an off-election and I think I've voted almost every election since. I was 21 in 1957 and living on Long Island with my parents. I was in college, so I came home to vote.

What's the one change you'd like to see in the electoral process?

Morse: So much of what used to constitute news used to come through the newspapers that everybody read. Now, so much of what people think is news comes off the TV or off the Internet and that seems to have no balance. At times, The News-Gazette used to have a pretty heavy right wing footprint, but everybody knew it. The vitriol that comes over the TV and the blogs is really frightening to me. I'd like to get that resolved before I encourage more people to vote. People can get their information from anywhere now and if you get it from five different bias sources, then maybe you might find some kernels of truth, but if you only have things like MSNBC or Fox News you'll think the world is just going to hell in a hand basket.

McCord: I think Citizens United is about the worst decision to come out of the Supreme Court within recent memory and I think if that decision could be overturned, we might be able to correct part of the voting posture. Right now, because of that case, we're faced with the preeminence of PACs supporting various candidates. You don't get a true read on the candidates' position from the PACs; you get the PACs' read on it and it's presented as though it's the true read on the candidate. That's something that has to be looked at carefully and somehow it should be overturned. It's an abomination.

Fisher: Well, I don't know how much is being done now in the schools to encourage young people to study the issues and take part. ... Do students at the university tend to vote at home or in this community? Are they more likely to vote and pay attention to things in their hometown or in the larger community?

Stewart: Well, one is changing the map, redistricting. That's really front and center, I think, independent mapping. We've been at it for several years.

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mgd wrote on December 16, 2015 at 1:12 am


Dear League of Women Voters Leaders,

I honor all of you. You definitely paved the road for me and I am so grateful. I followed your ideas and input on events when I lived in Urbana as a child and through grad schooI. I have a very independent daughter who lives and teaches in Dubai. Your ideas filtered down to her. I don't think that that would have been possible without all of you. I knew some of your children and my mother benefitted from your examples. I would not have been a teachers' union president or head of the bargaining team without your fearless leadership and commitment. You led me to the life I live today.

Fondly and with great respect,

Mary Gates DeRosier

Buffalo Grove