Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

The following was written by Vishali Gandhi, LWVNJ summer intern.

On June 12th, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, in conjunction with several other groups, participated in a lobbying effort to promote the passage of Assembly bill 2108. A2108 would ban the treatment, disposal, processing, or discharge of fracking waste in our state (read the full text of the bill here). This effort involved directly lobbying specific members of the New Jersey Assembly to post the bill so that it could move from the committee to the floor of the legislature to be voted on. It also included a rally to raise awareness and show support for the speedy passage of the bill. This truly was the perfect opportunity as an intern and, more importantly, as an activist, because I was able to experience the democratic process first-hand, both inside and out.

The day began as I met with a number of supporters gathered outside the doors of a committee hearing in the statehouse. We were waiting for members of the Assembly to exit so that we could talk to them about A2108 and urge them to move the bill out of committee. As the hearing drew to a close, we began to speak with the members of the Assembly as they exited and I listened in as each person explained why the passage of this bill was important to them.

Despite having very busy schedules, they stayed and listened to what everyone had to say. Meeting with legislators face-to-face is a great way to get your voice heard. Elected representatives are more than happy to listen to concerns from constituents, and it is a very effective way to directly contact representatives.

Nancy Hedinger, LWVNJ VP of Advocacy, addresses the crowd

Nancy Hedinger, LWVNJ VP of Advocacy, addresses the crowd

After the committee hearing, we moved outside to the front of the State House where a sizable group was forming, all in favor of the swift passage of A2108. What I found really amazing as I looked at the crowd was its heterogeneity. There were a number of organizations present, all with different reasons for supporting the bill’s passage. There were mothers who were worried about the safety and health of their children, as well as student-powered environmental groups who believed strongly in the cause. Though the group itself was incredibly diverse, there was a singular passion that was common among everyone there. I was inspired to see that everyone had a shared goal of passing the bill and preventing disastrous ecological damage from taking place within New Jersey’s borders (read more about hydrofracking waste here).

As I listened to calls-to-action from representatives of each of the groups, as well as members of the Assembly who were in support of the bill’s passage, I thought about the importance of political participation. A2108 has been introduced and passed through both houses of the NJ legislature for several years now, but every year, the bill is vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. Members of the legislature who support the bill then attempt to override the veto, but they have not been able to do so yet.

So the question then is: what effect does lobbying actually have? Why engage in these attempts to pass a bill that may just fail? The reason for engaging in political advocacy is raising awareness and making change. The efforts of all of the people who rallied to show support for the bill may not directly result in the passage of the bill, but by making people more aware of the issue, there is more pressure on legislators to post and pass the bill. In fact, a few weeks after the lobbying effort, and after a lot of pressure from activists across the state, Assembly bill 2108 was posted and passed both houses of the NJ legislature and is now awaiting the governor’s signature. This truly was a victory for the League and all of the activists who showed support and it is a testament to the positive effects of engagement.

Activist participating in rally

Activist participating in rally in front of the State House

When people think of civic engagement, often the first thing that comes to mind is voting. While voting is undeniably an important part of civic engagement, struggle to create change and make progress; holding those representatives accountable for their actions and mistakes is the other part.

Getting involved in the political process does not necessarily mean attending every committee hearing and participating in every rally, but instead being aware of the issues and being a part of the process in whatever way you can. A good first step is to join the League of Women Voters so that you can stay up-to-date with issues affecting New Jersey citizens. The League organizes many events during the year that can help you get involved and learn more about issues that are important to you. The League’s website also has a wealth of information on different issues and events.

The New Jersey legislature’s website is another helpful resource. On it, you can find all of the bills that are being considered by the legislature, as well as previous bills. You can also find your representatives and see how they have voted on different bills. If there is an issue or a specific bill that is important to you, a great way to get your voice heard is to contact your local representative’s office by phone, email, or by mail. You can also go and sit in on a committee hearing to find out more about a bill. Schedules for committee hearings, which are open to the public, can be found here.

Conclusion: Women’s History Month, Intersectionality, and Ella Baker

All month long, I’ve had the opportunity to highlight female leaders throughout history and sectors of society. I’ve written full posts about Anna Howard Shaw, Christie Whitman, Sonia Sotomayor, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I’ve called to memory New Jersey-specific pioneers: Molly Pitcher, Marie Hilson Katzenbach, and Alice Paul; while also commemorating the efforts of national and international leaders: Sheryl WuDunn, Coretta Scott King, Michelle Obama, Carrie Chapman Catt, Sally Ride, and Dorothy Irene Height. I’ve had the chance to reflect on some of my favorite fictional female characters from books, movies, and TV: Leslie Knope, Hermione Granger, Elizabeth Bennet, and CJ Cregg.

It has been an inspiring journey, especially prescient for me personally, as I prepare to complete my Master’s Degree this May and enter the world of politics, nonprofits, and advocacy. I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants, and I owe a great deal of gratitude to all of the women I have highlighted this month.

While each woman’s story represents a unique thread of the broader tale of women’s advancement and quest for true equality, I’ve come to realize one major central theme among them all: being a woman is only one aspect of the identity of each of these women. It is only one piece of what drove them to greatness. Identity is a tricky thing, wrought with complex layers and changing constantly as contexts change.

Many of these women faced more than “just” a gender barrier. They were racial or ethnic minorities, LGBT, students, came from a different background or geographic region, or in a field not very receptive to those outside a particular mold. In academia, we call these varying identities “intersectionality,” and I think intersectionality defines the face of feminism today and the future of where it will go.

And so, I offer as my last blog post of Women’s History Month, a truly intersectional figure: Ella Baker. Born in 1903, Ella Baker’s grandmother was a slave. Baker was smart and hard working, graduating as valedictorian of her class from Shaw University in North Carolina in 1927. From there, she moved to New York City and got involved with civic associations focused on advancing the social and economic status of African Americans and women (Are you keeping track? Baker represents women, African Americans, members of the GI Generation, and first generation college students, so far)

In 1957, Baker was tapped by MLK to help organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where she stayed for three years before leaving in 1960 to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She believed in the power of educated young people to create social change, and the NSCC attempted to tap their collective power to tackle the issues of the day.

Like the League of Women Voters, Baker believed in the power of voting and that true freedom cannot be achieved without both voting rights and voter participation. She believed in servant leadership and shared leadership, and the need for an organization’s capacity to be strong enough to survive its first transfer of power, proving that it is sustainable even when the first strong leader abdicates. She was a facilitator and a work horse, often behind-the-scenes, so that the end result of her work could be strong and impactful. After all, community organizing requires organization. These beliefs allowed her to leave a strong institutional legacy. It was also these beliefs that contributed to her nickname: “Fundi,” which is Swahili for “a person who teaches a craft to a younger generation.” (The Child Defense Fund even has the Ella Baker trainers program built around her ideals and work ethic!)

Ella Baker died on her 83rd birthday in 1986. While she wasn’t necessarily the flashiest, big-name, in-front-of-the-cameras figure, she was a major force in the Civil Rights movement practically from its inception. She lived through a period of rapid transformation of the social and political fabric of our nation, and she was at the center of it all, bringing with her all the aspects of her identity. Ella Baker is the perfect capstone to this Women’s History Month series, and we thank her today.

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(sources: http://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marian-wright-edelman/ella-baker-my-civil-right_b_5052112.html)

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Modern First Lady

No list of famous or influential women would be complete without an homage to Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life. Born in 1884, Eleanor was educated in Europe and returned to America to be a debutante. She married her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905; at the wedding, she was given away by then-President Theodore Roosevelt. She had six children before FDR came down with polio in 1920, and she tended to him while he recovered and encouraged him to pursue his political ambitions despite his illness. It was during this time that she began her own political involvement, joining the League of Women Voters, serving as Vice President of Legislative Affairs!

FDR was inaugurated in 1933, and while he conducted a landmark Presidency, Eleanor transformed the role of First Lady. She became a visible public figure, travelling the country and writing a daily syndicated newspaper column. For the first time, the First Lady held her own press conference. In true Eleanor Roosevelt style, she only allowed female reporters to attend. As First Lady, she was actively involved in New Deal efforts, travelling to work sites and living locations for the relief efforts. She became a fierce advocate for the poor and disadvantaged.

After her husband’s death and a brief recusal from public life, Eleanor was appointed by President Truman to the US delegation to the United Nations. There, she served on the Human Rights Commission and helped author the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR was adopted and is still used regularly in international law today. Eleanor developed a strong relationship with President Kennedy, who reappointed her to the UN. He also appointed her to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps and as Chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Eleanor Roosevelt remained active in public life and humanitarian causes until shortly before her death in 1962.

Many tout the Kennedy Administration for transforming the Presidency, turning the office into a public affair with images of the First Family living an “ordinary” life in the White House. I contend, however, that this change could not have happened if Eleanor Roosevelt had not first transformed the office of the First Lady. She was not only an ardent supporter of the work her husband did, but also conducted herself independently as First Lady, championing her own causes and performing her own citizen outreach. Since Eleanor Roosevelt took on the causes of the poor, disadvantaged, and human rights, First Ladies Nancy Reagan took on drug abuse, Hillary Clinton took on health care, and Michelle Obama is promoting healthy nutrition and exercise choices for children and families.

We have much to thank Eleanor Roosevelt for, and today we honor her. May we all attempt to live out her legacy; after all, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”!

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From the South Bronx to the Highest Court: Justice Sonia Sotomayor

ImageAny assessment of the historical makeup of the Supreme Court sends a clear message: the only people qualified to ascertain the true nature of American law are old, white men. The nine-member court only admitted a woman (Sandra Day O’Connor) to its ranks in 1981, well behind the tide of the wave of feminism that had been sweeping the nation since the 1960’s. Sure, the Court is meant to be isolated, austere, and unswayable, but accepting diversity isn’t a trend and shouldn’t be treated as such. It wasn’t until the nineties that the Court saw two women serving concurrently, with the appointment of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But then O’Connor retired and we were back to one—that is, until Sonia Sotomayor came along.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was nominated by President Obama in 2009, and ultimately was appointed as the first Hispanic and only the third woman on the Supreme Court. Described by virtually all of her classmates  as exceptionally bright, Sotomayor was Valedictorian of her high school, a Pynes Award winner at our own PrincetonUniversity, and ultimately attended Yale Law.

Sonia Sotomayor was raised in a single-parent home in a South Bronx public housing project. Her parents met after her mother returned from the Women’s Army Corps in World War II, and her father died when Sonia was nine. The strongest figure in Sonia’s life was her mother, followed only by Nancy Drew, the crime fighting girl who starred in Sonia’s favorite book series. These women—real and fictional—were super important in forming her identity both as Latina and female, and she breached both the gender and ethnicity barriers in every phase of her career. (Career, by the way, is something she talks to Abby about on Sesame Street)

Prior to ascending to the bench, Sotomayor was a consistent advocate for the underprivileged and underrepresented while she worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and served on the New York State Mortgage Agency. In 1992, she was nominated to the Federal District Court by Governor Cuomo and President Bush. Six years later, she was nominated by President Clinton to sit on the Federal Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. During this phase of her career, Sotomayor developed a reputation as a tough judge and boss, but one who is also well integrated in the Bronx community.

When President Obama had to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court, he sought justices who not only were incredibly intelligent and have a strong understanding of the law, but also those with certain experiences— he considers Sotomayor’s identity as Latina and female as assets to her on the bench. Sonia Sotomayor celebrates her identity and is a radical departure from the old, white men wearing powdered wigs that we often think of when we think of the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor is a trailblazer in more ways than one, and we thank her today.

My First Role Model: Christie Whitman

The following post is written by Megan Dunne, spring intern for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

This is the second post in a series highlighting and celebrating female pioneers throughout history. Some of these women have been largely overlooked, others celebrated, but I feel that all of these inspiring women have made important contributions to the state of women today.

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Okay, so that’s a bit of a misnomer; my first role model was my mom. But right around when I was eight or nine years old, Governor Christie Whitman came to my elementary school and talked to us. This was the first moment I was aware of politics, and it’s pretty awesome that my first association of politics was with a woman. I often think back to the impression Whitman had on me, especially now as I am on the precipice of completing my Master’s Degree in Political Science.

Why did I think she was the coolest? Well, she was. Christine Todd Whitman was elected New Jersey’s first female governor in 1993, also making her only the 13th female governor in US history. Not only did she win, but she beat an incumbent—a rare feat in politics. As governor, she appointed many women to important posts, including the first female Chief of Staff, the first female Attorney General, and the first female Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. A Republican, Whitman cut income taxes, business taxes, and reduced the size of government. She was moderate on social issues and championed environmental causes.

Whitman won reelection but ultimately resigned in 2001 to serve as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. Currently, Whitman sits on a variety of nonprofit and corporate boards, started the Whitman Strategy Group, and was part of the initiative to bring the Super Bowl to New Jersey this year. She also wrote It’s My Party Too, a book supporting her vision of a Republican party that is fiscally conservative but socially tolerant.

All Christie Whitman had to do to inspire child-me was to show up at my school, smile, speak confidently, and hold the title “Governor.” I was a kid, I didn’t need to know anything about her policies or politics. I didn’t know what “Democrat” or “Republican” meant; come to think of it, I think I knew who Christie Whitman was before I knew who the President was.

The effect Governor Whitman had on me demonstrates the effect of female leadership: being there empowers others to aspire to be there. What I mean by this is that Christie Whitman taught me at a very young age that a woman can be whatever she wants. This woman was in charge of the entire state when my entire world was encompassed by my one-square-mile town.

I now know that my former idol and I would disagree on certain things if we ever were to meet again. But that doesn’t matter to me. She worked hard to ascend to where she did, and she brought along more strong women with her, paving the way for more women behind them all.

When I was a kid, I idolized Mia Hamm, Nala from The Lion King, and the Olsen twins. But I didn’t become a soccer player, an actress, or a lion (though it was a sad day when I realized that wasn’t possible). I went into politics, and in my job experience and my undergraduate and graduate courses, I’ve been surrounded by a healthy mix of men and women. So thank you, Christie Whitman, for pushing at that glass ceiling. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you.

(Sources: http://governors.rutgers.edu/njgov/whitman/whitman_biography.php , http://www.christiewhitman.com/biography; Image Source: http://www.christiewhitman.com/biography)

The Case for Making a REAL Anna Howard Shaw Day

The following post is written by Megan Dunne, spring intern for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

This is the first post in a series highlighting and celebrating female pioneers throughout history. Some of these women have been largely overlooked, others celebrated, but I feel that all of these inspiring women have made important contributions to the state of women today.

I have to be honest, the first reason Anna Howard Shaw came to my mind when I was developing a list of influential women was because of Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Liz was trying to avoid the pressures of Valentine’s Day by scheduling dental surgery for that day and commenting that, on February 14th, she celebrates the birth of Anna Howard Shaw, not Valentine’s Day. “Happy Anna Howard Shaw Day!” she yelled across the studio. I never learned about Anna Howard Shaw in school, and I had no idea what her contribution to feminism was, but I nonetheless took this opportunity to look into her life.

As Liz correctly noted, Anna Howard Shaw was born on February 14th, 1847. She lived through a series of important historical moments in America’s story: her family emigrated from England to America when she was a child in 1853, and later embarked out to the American frontier. Her family ultimately settled in Michigan. Despite discouragement from her family and friends, she continued her education, graduating from Albion College in 1872. Then she went even further, attending the Theological School of Boston University in 1878, where she was the only woman in her class.

Higher education for women, at the time, was well outside of social norms. Anna was denied ordination from the Methodist Episcopal Church when she applied, despite having the proper qualifications. However, she did go on to become the first female minister ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church in 1880. While preaching in East Dennis, MA, Anna went to Boston University Medical School, getting her MD in 1885. This was an incredibly smart, driven woman.

Her story so far is fascinating on its own, trailblazing so that more women could go to college and any women could get graduate degrees, but its where the story goes that makes Anna Howard Shaw such a pioneer for women in society.

So here is Anna Howard Shaw, a highly educated pastor and doctor. She could easily have stayed in that already unique combination of occupations. But she began to notice something. Shaw writes, “Around me I saw women being overworked and underpaid, doing men’s work at half men’s wages, not because their work was inferior, but because they were women.” Shaw went to join the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association, and joined with like-mined women to start the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. This doctor and preacher suddenly became more politically active than many of us will ever be.

Shaw was so effective in Massachusetts that she ultimately became president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association—precursor organization to the League of Women Voters! During Shaw’s term from 1904 to 1915, membership grew tenfold; the budget grew threefold; and the discussion of women’s rights changed from a state-by-state approach to a national campaign for the federal level of government.

Shaw went on to be involved with the war effort during World War I and was a proponent of the League of Nations, and a cause for which she was campaigning when she passed away in 1919. She died one year before women got the right to vote.

As a pastor, Anna Howard Shaw refused to perform marriage ceremonies in which the word “obey” was used; as a citizen, Shaw refused to pay property for income taxes because she could not vote, thereby making her taxes “taxation without representation.” Anna Howard Shaw was a trailblazer and a true pioneer for the women who followed in her footsteps, and I surely believe that she would have joined the League had she been around at it’s inception.

Today we remember and thank Anna Howard Shaw for advancing women’s rights and helping to create a world where women can study whatever they want, however long they want! May every day be, as Liz Lemon says, Anna Howard Shaw Day.

(Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0214.html     http://www.biography.com/people/anna-howard-shaw-9480841)

#SOTU2014: Why Bother? It matters!

The following post is written by Megan Dunne, spring intern for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey

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Play along with LWV SOTU Bingo!

I don’t have to tell you that we are witnessing an age almost unrivaled in partisan politics and government gridlock. Pick your poison among the various pundits the 24-hour news networks and the current political climate will be blamed on a whole host of factors. It feels like there’s a whole lot of talking and not a whole lot of doing.

So, as the State of the Union address approaches, why bother watching it? Isn’t it just a formality anyway?

I argue that given the current state of our union, it couldn’t be more important to watch. Here’s why:

1. It is uninterrupted.

Other than dozens of applause breaks in the chamber (which, by the way, does set my teeth on edge), this speech will be uninterrupted. No leading questions, no snide remarks, no commercials, nobody cuing the music to hurry him off stage. Just the President speaking about where we are, and where we can go next.

2. It isn’t a stump speech.

President Obama is in his final term. Since he is not trying to get elected again, he is not trying to woo voters. He will talk policy, including addressing issues originally on his election (and reelection) platform that he hasn’t had much success with yet; that is, immigration and climate change. In this sense, this year’s State of the Union Address presents the opportunity for the speech to return to its original intent: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

3. The media will be cropping and splicing it immediately…

…so make sure you see it in its original context. A speech is an entire body, not a series of disjointed statements, and these edits can be the equivalent of Photoshopping an image into something entirely different than what it is in reality. Before the soundbites are distilled and spin attached to them, make sure you understand the nature of the discussion. The only way to do that is to watch the speech.

4. Hold our representatives accountable.

With the State of the Union being a policy map or forecast, we will hear what President Obama hopes to do. As citizens, we have a right to have our voices adequately represented in government. With rights come obligations, and in this case, the obligation is this: If you disagree with what President Obama maps out, contact your representative and tell them. Likewise, if you’re thrilled with what he proposes, let them know. Representatives and Senators wouldn’t be in a position to make these decisions if we didn’t put them there, so our opinions matter a great deal to what they will do.

Find your representative’s contact info here.

5. Democracy works best when we talk about it!

And I don’t just mean by shooting emails to your government reps. An equally important facet of our democracy is an informed citizenry, and one way to be an informed voter is to watch this address tonight and talk about it with the people around you—coworkers, classmates, significant others. The Founding Fathers relished debate with their peers as a means to make the best decisions when voting and maintain sound logic in government decision making. Today, this informed yet informal debate is easier than ever to access: tweet about it using #LWV and #SOTU to be a part of the greater discussion!

There is a lot of discontent among the people about what is going on in Washington these days. Voting is one critical way to do something about it, but not the only way. Be an engaged citizen, watch the speech and talk about it. The State of the Union Address presents us with an opportunity to use our power as citizens in our democracy, use it!

Finally, use this moment of inspiration to be civically engaged all year, not just on one day.  Join the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, join our conversation, and use your voice to affect politics big and small. It is our government, engage it!

Tune in to watch President Obama’s 5th State of the Union Address, Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at 9:00 pm EST. Join the conversation using the hashtags #SOTU and #LWV