League of Women Voters
The League of WomenVoters is a non-partisan political organization that influences public policy through education and advocacy. It supports positions, but not individual candidates or political parties. The national league was established in 1920, primarily to help the 20 million newly enfranchised women exercise their constitutional rights.
League members study issues of local, state and national significance. Once members agree on a position, the League may act by providing information to the public, obtaining public support for the position, lobbying, initiating legislation or participating in court action.
The League promotes political responsibility through its voters' service and citizen information activities. Members register voters, organize candidate forums, publish voting guides and disseminate general information on the legislative process and the functioning of government on the local, state and federal levels.
On March 21, 1939, Joy Kennedy organized a meeting to establish the League of Women Voters of Amherst. The group included five Amherst residents who belonged to the Northampton League, and 20 members of an Amherst reading club. Since 1939, the Amherst League has studied and taken action on a wide range of national, state, and local issues. It also provided voter information, registered voters, and undertook special projects. All of these activities are reflected in the records.
Growth and change in Amherst since 1939 is reflected in some of the activities of the League. In 1939, the town's off-campus population was 6,400. The 2000 census lists the town of Amherst as having 34,874 residents. The need for new housing, schools, water and sewer, recreation facilities, and professional town management formed the basis of the League's program over the years.
In 1940, when the superintendent of Amherst Schools fired five married women teachers, the League formally protested, opposing a blanket indictment of married teachers, saying a teacher's effectiveness should be decided on individual records. The policy changed.
In 1944, the League adopted a position in favor of a new elementary school, the beginning of a series of campaigns for new and renovated school buildings that was to last to the turn of the new century. Other school issues studied included curriculum, overcrowding, kindergarten (a goal not achieved until 1968), and regionalizing the secondary schools.
In 1950 Town Meeting voted to submit a proposal for a Town Manager form of government to the state legislature. It was approved by the Legislature but rejected when submitted to the town voters. In 1953 the League collected enough signatures on a petition to place the plan on the ballot again and in 1954 it was adopted by a 13-vote margin. The League has reviewed its position in favor of this form of government several times with almost continuous studies of town meeting, and has maintained its position.
Lucy Wilson Benson, Amherst League President 1957-1961, was President of the Massachusetts League 1961-1965 and of the League of Women Voters of the United States 1968-1974. In 1977, she became Under Secretary of State in the federal government. Two of the many achievements of her tenure in Amherst were the adoption by the legislature of fiscal autonomy for the University of Massachusetts and measures to strengthen the Massachusetts executive branch of the government.
After a 1966 study of the town's libraries, the consensus was to affirm the public nature of the Jones Library. The town subsequently increased and continued its tax support of the libraries.
During the 1970s, the League, which had observed the Select Board and School Committees for many years, began to observe other major boards regularly. The February 1975 newsletter reported that the Observers Corps was expanding its role with 18 members observing 10 town committees. The "Observers Corps Notes" became a regular, popular feature in the League newsletter.
Voters Service by the League has included registering voters, publishing election guides and conducting candidates' forums, holding public meetings on community, state and local issues, and publishing handbooks.
Booklets published by the Amherst League of Women Voters for the information of the citizens of the town include Town Meeting Handbook, You and Your Amherst Government, and They Represent You (a list of Amherst Town Meeting members and town officials with their addresses and telephone numbers). They are revised and up-dated periodically.
League members have served on town boards and committees and as town meeting members, contributing considerable information about issues. In Essays on Amherst History, (1978, p.351) Winthrop Dakin, former longtime town moderator, says "Participation of women in official town positions has increased steadily...By far the most consistently useful and politically effective citizen group in the recent decade has been the local branch of the League of Women Voters."
During the 1980s and 1990s the Amherst League continued studies and action concerning town government, local schools and affordable housing as well as participating in state action on education reform, child care, universal health care, casino gambling, county government, reproductive choice, and domestic violence. League members twice worked with other organizations to pass state-wide ballot questions to implement a graduated state income tax in place of the flat income tax. (Neither ballot question passed.) A major, successful effort was made in 1995 to retain the Amherst Town Meeting/Selectboard/Town Manager form of government.
Many members of the Amherst League of Women Voters have not only contributed much to the League, but have served the Town of Amherst as well. Among these was Diana Romer, President of the Amherst League 1983-1985 and 1987-1989. She served two terms on the Selectboard, and was on many town committees including the Finance Committee and Solid Waste Committee, Animal Facilities Committee and many others. She was elected to the board of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters in 1984.
From the guide to the League of Women Voters of Amherst, Massachusetts Records MS 296., 1939-2002, (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries)
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