A Major League
At age ninety, the Greenwich League of Women Voters is full of energy and plans for the future
photograph by ilona lieberman
When the greenwich league of women voters holds an anniversary party later this month at the Historical Society, it will celebrate ninety years of educating voters and advocating for good government. It will also pay tribute to the legions of members who have continued the work of those early women who fought for the right to vote.
Cyndy Anderson, the League’s current president, is following in the footsteps of the suffragettes as well as those of her mother. “My mother was president of her local League in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and I think of the state League,” Cyndy says. “She wanted to make a difference. To a certain degree, I honor my mother with my commitment to the League.”
Under Cyndy’s presidency, the Greenwich League is pursuing its traditional role of voter education and political action on issues it has studied. It is also sponsoring programs that inform the public about a range of local concerns from water quality to affordable housing to leaf blowers, the topic of a public meeting in June. “People are very passionate, pro and con, about leaf blowers,” Cyndy says. “We thought we’d provide an educational forum with some experts so people could decide for themselves.”
One of her goals as president is to correct misleading perceptions about the League. “The terms ‘blue stocking’ and ‘blue rinse’ come to mind. We are trying to show we have younger people, and even older people, who are vital and interesting, who don’t just manage paperwork and arcane information but deal with things that affect our lives.”
Another misperception, Cyndy adds, “is that we are a liberal fringe group. But we are really just doing good work for good government in a nonpartisan way.” As an example, she cites a study of the town’s ethics code that prompted the town to revise its policy last December. “Ethics reform does not have a liberal agenda,” she remarks. “It’s good for everyone.” The revisions include a requirement that every town employee receive and read a copy of the code, which did not exist before.
With close to 340 members, the Greenwich League is the largest in Connecticut, and Cyndy intends to keep it that way. When she learned last January that forty people hadn’t renewed their membership, she called each one to ask why. “I said, ‘I don’t really care why’—although of course, I did!— ‘but I’d just like to know if we could be doing things better.’ I got twenty-seven of them to renew. That was a good use of my time.”
Over the years, many women, and even some men, have found engaging in League activities a “good use” of their time. Three of those explain why.
Jara Burnett was born in the Czech Republic when it was a democracy but spent much of her childhood under totalitarian rule. Nazi Germany invaded the country in 1939, occupying it during World War II. After a brief return to a democratic government when the war ended, the Communists staged a coup d’état in 1948 and established one-party rule.
“When Communists took control of the country, they decided the middle class needed to be eliminated,” Jara says, “and things became very difficult for my parents, who opposed the Communist government.” In September 1949, the secret police came to arrest her father at the family’s home, but Jara’s six-year-old sister told them he was on a business trip, which was not true. When he arrived home for lunch, her father missed the police by just ten minutes, Jara recalls. Soon afterward he managed to secretly leave the country, crossing the border into Austria. Jara, her mother and three siblings escaped three months later, “basically with nothing.”
The family lived in the south of France for three and a half years until they were able to get visas to immigrate to Canada. Jara came to the United States at age twenty-four for a year of graduate study at a Harvard-Radcliffe business school program, where she met her husband. “I had lived under three Czech Republics, the French government and the Canadian government,” she says. “So I had become very interested in how governments worked.”
That interest in governments has been a focus of hers ever since. Jara joined the League of Women Voters when living in a suburb of Philadelphia and took part in a study of local property taxes, and she has been a member of the Greenwich League since moving here in 1969. One of her early responsibilities, Jara recalls, was to hire a babysitter to watch members’ young children, including her three, in her Old Greenwich basement. “It was not a particularly glamorous assignment,” she says, laughing.
As Jara’s children grew older, she became more deeply involved in the League. She was elected president of the Greenwich chapter in 1980, when she and another member created the first Voters Guide, now an annual fixture. She then was elected to the state LWV board and chaired a study on national security. It included a four-day conference in Wingspread, Wisconsin, where high-level experts, such as Condoleezza Rice, spoke about nuclear weapons and disarmament.
“That study made me realize that I really wanted to concentrate on this volunteer involvement,” Jara says. “I found that I had opportunities to participate in so many different things that gave me access to much more interesting endeavors than I ever would have had in the kind of paid job I’d get.”
After working on a League study of the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, Jara decided to run for the board and served on it from 1995 to 2005. “I felt I knew how the budget process worked, and I would know how to apply the results of the study and improve the process,” she says. “One of our discoveries was that the public input came too late, so we pushed for much earlier and more frequent input.”
Jara was state president of the League from 2005 to 2010 and currently is vice president for voter services for the Greenwich League, a job that includes organizing voter registration drives and debates for the 2011 election.
“I’ve moderated a lot of debates, and I love doing that,” she says. “I think debates are very important because we need to have a more educated electorate. Too many people, even if they vote, do not know why and what. It’s particularly interesting to me how people may know about the federal government, but they know very little about how our local government and state government works.”
Jara, who got the right to vote in 1964 when she became a citizen, says she’s come to understand what democracy means through her League involvement. She holds strong views on voter turnout, which is around 40 percent or so in local elections.
“I don’t know why so few people vote in elections for local officials,” she says, pointing out that there are 34,000 registered voters in Greenwich. “But when you vote in the state election, you are one of 2,500,000 voters. It gets astronomical when you talk about national elections.
“Through my League involvement, I have really come to espouse the American ideals from the bottom of my heart,” Jara says. “I think it’s important that we do better in encouraging people to vote and believe that if they vote, it’s going to be counted. Basically the system does work. That’s what I believe, and it’s a result of my League experience.”
In 1983, Kay Maxwell joined the Greenwich League when she and her family moved here from a town in Virginia, where she had been president of the local League. A government and international relations major in college, Kay says the organization provided a way to pursue those interests.
“When I first joined the League, most women weren’t working outside the home,” she recalls. “It offered an opportunity to debate and discuss issues and was intellectually stimulating.” Kay served on the Greenwich board for thirteen years and became involved with the Connecticut League while chairing its annual symposium on international relations at Yale. She became state president in 1989.
After her four-year term was up, Kay says her work with the League led to a job with the International Executive Service Corps organizing public administration programs in the former Soviet Union. “I helped local and regional-level government officials, who,” she says, “all of a sudden when the walls came down had no clue as to how they were supposed to operate.”
Her League experience also enabled her to go to places like Thailand, Korea, Mongolia, the West Bank and Rwanda working on women’s political participation as part of the State Department’s International Speakers and Citizens Connect programs. “The League’s given me an opportunity to meet women from around the world under really difficult circumstances, reminding me how lucky we are here,” she says. “Not that we don’t have a long way to go.”
After serving as national budget chair and first vice president of the national League of Women Voters, Kay was elected president in 2002. She kept her service corps job for a year but found it too difficult to do both jobs. “I gave up the paying job for the nonpaying one,” Kay comments. “But it was a fabulous experience that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.”
A main goal as national president was to ensure that the Help America Vote Act, which Congress passed in response to the contested 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, was implemented. The act required standardized voting machines, poll worker training and other reforms to protect voters’ rights.
“Before the 2004 election, I toured eight swing states, doing radio, television, meeting with groups, delivering information about what voters needed to know,” she says. “Over my four years as president, I went to something like twenty-five states.”
Sponsoring presidential debates had once been a prominent part of the job, but that changed in 1988, Kay observes, “when the national president said that the League refused to continue being a party to hoodwinking the American public into thinking this was still being run by the League.” Former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties now run presidential debates; the League continues to sponsor state and local debates.
Today Kay Maxwell is executive director of the World Affairs Forum in Stamford, a nonprofit organization that sponsors prominent speakers on international relations and America’s role in the world. Earlier this year she completed a two-year term as chairman of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. She continues her League work by moderating political debates and public forums, such as one on health care last year.
“The League has impacted me in so many different ways,” Kay states. “First of all, I learned how to organize and run meetings. It’s always surprising when you go to another organization’s meetings where people don’t know the basics. It led to a job. It enabled me to be engaged. I love government and politics. The League gave me an opportunity to be involved in both in a nonpartisan way.”
Soon after Cheryl Dunson and her husband moved here in 1992, she saw a notice in the paper about a walk in the Mianus River Gorge Preserve being sponsored by the Greenwich League. She recalls thinking, “I don’t know anyone in town, it’s not far from where I live, I’ll check it out.” The walk was part of a study of land use that the League was doing in advance of the town adopting a new plan on conservation and development.
“I was really impressed with the group. I could tell they were more interested in issues than in what they wore, and I found that very appealing,” Cheryl says, so she decided to join both the League and the study. “I learned so much about town planning, urban planning and in particular, the importance of protecting the water supply and the land around the source of the water,” she says. “Through the League, I developed a passion. I kept going to meetings. I ended up chairing the land use study, and the rest is history.”
After the study was completed, Cheryl headed a campaign to explain to Greenwich residents what a land use plan was and what it meant for them. “We made presentations to community groups, and people started saying, ‘Wait a minute, I have strong views about whether we should widen sidewalks or have more businesses. I should have a voice.’ ”
Cheryl says the town started holding community meetings and added an implementation component as a result of the League’s activities. “The plan would say we should preserve open space,” she explains, “but it wouldn’t say how much was supposed to be preserved or who was supposed to preserve it. We said, ‘Once you have your plan, you have to be sure you are acting on it, not just put it on a shelf.’ ”
“It’s the way we work every time,” she observes. “We educate ourselves on an issue, we establish a position, we educate the public, then weigh in where decisions are made. I have become addicted to the process. It’s such a thoroughly intellectual, stimulating environment to be engaged in.”
She went on to serve as president of the Greenwich League from 1996 to 1999, then continued as the organization’s land use specialist. In that role she enlisted support for three major land acquisitions in town: the Pomerance property, Calf’s Island and Treetops.
Cheryl says the League changed her life. “I was never interested in government or politics beforehand. I thought that politics was corrupt. I thought some of the issues were too complex for me to understand. I thought that public officials were completely self-serving.
“My husband’s an attorney, and whenever we’d go to a firm function and there was a conversation about politics,” she recalls, “I would extricate myself.”
In 2005 Cheryl got involved on water use issues at the state level at a time when water supply companies in other states had started selling off land that had been acquired to protect water quality. By lobbying Hartford legislators, she helped get a law passed that eliminated the financial incentives for Connecticut water companies to sell off that type of land. “I thought, ‘Oh, I like this,’ and I joined the state board as its head of advocacy. We had a team that focused on different areas: transportation, water, reproductive rights and so on.” That role led to being president of the Connecticut League for the past year and a half.
The League of Women Voters has given Cheryl a sense of empowerment that she’d never had before, she says. “I definitely felt powerless before when it came to political issues. I am a different person in the way I view the world. I really do believe an individual can make a difference because I’ve lived it.”