Interview conducted by Nicholas MacDonald, Humanities New York
HNY: How did you each get started with the League of Women Voters?
Laura: I joined the League in 1982, when I moved from Washington D.C. to Albany. I was worried about not being as involved in politics, that turned out to not be a concern!
Dare: I was pretty apolitical for the first 25 years of my life, but then I accidentally got a job teaching middle school social studies. Having to teach the Constitution really opened my eyes to civic responsibility; after that, I became involved with the League of Women Voters.
HNY: Historically, I know the League was created to educate women in connection with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. How has that role changed over the years?
Laura: The League really was more than just getting people to pull the lever. Initially we focused on educating women about the issues so that they could make an informed choice. It’s still about education now, but with a focus on good governance, and on educating all citizens to be able to be informed voters.
Dare: I think that the issues have changed considerably. Women back then were very concerned with issues that affected women and children. Fairly quickly they broadened out to many other issues including world peace.
HNY: With fifty chapters in New York State I imagine when you meet up, it’s quite the discussion! What are NY chapters focused on most these days?
Laura: The League is a three tiered organization with a national League, state League and local Leagues. One of the primary roles of the New York State League is to support all of the local groups in what they want to do. Each chapter has its own issues that it’s passionate about. New York is very diverse! We encourage them to become active on local issues and ask for their help when we want to influence the state legislature by contacting their own representatives. We also help to keep the local Leagues strong with assistance in management, membership recruitment,technology and social media usage, and education of the public on important current issues.
Dare: We also provide guidance for running local events. We don’t tell them what to do, that’s up to them, as Laura mentioned. Each group is independent, which is really fantastic, because every community is different. But, we can offer guidance and assistance to ensure programs are nonpartisan.
HNY: Humanities New York faces the same challenges as a statewide organization. It’s a big task to be embedded in so many communities across New York State. What are your biggest challenges right now?
Laura: The state League will be celebrating our anniversary in 2019, and then the national League’s anniversary in 2020. As the times have changed, we’ve changed. Did you know that starting in 1974, the League allowed men to join? We’ve adapted. Similar to many volunteer organizations, the League is struggling to engage members as people have much less time these days, between raising children, work, and other demands. Our members tend to be older, because they have more time to contribute, but they also bring with them a lot of experience that they can share.
HNY: Do you also see yourselves as building leadership?
Dare: Speaking for myself, the organization really prepared me for other jobs, so yes. I not only learned about issues and got comfortable speaking in public, but I was trained in fundraising, publicity, and other transferable skills. As independent chapters, a lot of the work requires us to be learning all the time and many League leaders end up running an agency or a non-profit.
Laura: Our strength is in our local chapters. They engage with their communities and really know a lot about what is going on in their area. We hold Conventions every other year, and conference calls regularly, to keep the local Leagues and our members informed and engaged. We also do build leadership and many members have gone on to become locally elected public officials, state legislators, and school board members, like myself..
HNY: The League of Women Voters of NY developed a “Women’s Suffrage Resource Kit,” and it’s going to be distributed nationally. Congrats! What led you to create these materials?
Laura: Local chapters were asking about what they could do [for the NYS Women’s Suffrage Centennial in 2017] so we put together a committee. They developed the kit that included a wealth of resources (books, films, speakers, historic sites, etc) for programs, events and forums.. The kit is posted on the state League website for all to review and utilize. Since NYS passed suffrage legislation three years before the nation did, we were ahead of the game in terms of thinking about the next anniversary. The national League and other states have appreciated our kit and will be replicating it for their own programs. The national League also celebrates its own 100th anniversary in 2020, so we have a lot going on!
HNY: Do you have a personal role-model from the movement?
Laura: Not one from the suffrage movement in particular, but when I was growing up I was inspired by Ella Grasso. I was a high school intern in the CT Legislature when she was Governor. She was the first female Governor of Connecticut, and the first female governor who wasn’t following her husband. That was really inspiring for me at the time.
Dare: My great aunt was a real intellectual and she marched in a suffrage parade. She died when I was a teen and wish I had been able to spend more years talking to her. Even in that short time she had a big influence on me.
HNY: How can people get involved with their local chapter?
Laura: If you visit our website you can find a local chapter to join, or join at the state level if there isn’t a local League in your area. Meetings happen usually monthly and anyone is welcome to come. You don’t have to be a member to get involved.
HNY: Thanks for talking to us during Women’s History Month during the NYS Women’s Suffrage Centennial—we look forward to hearing more about all of the work you do in New York.
The League’s Mission
The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.
- More about the League of Women Voters for New York’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Celebrations and their Women’s Suffrage Resource Kit.
- Follow the League on Twitter @LWVNYS
- LWVNYS is a valued Centennial Partner in Humanities NY’s Suffrage Centennial initiative.
Laura Ladd Bierman
Laura joined the State League staff as Executive Director in July 2008. She has been a member of the League for 30 years, with membership in four different local leagues in three states. She has served in a number of positions in local leagues, including study chair, editor of the newsletter, board member, Vice President and President. Laura has a BA in political science from Colgate University and a Masters Degree in public administration from the University of Virginia. She spent much of her early professional career in the area of health care planning. From 1998-2008, she maintained a home business providing financial and consulting services to a national membership organization. Laura has taken her league experience and training to practical use, serving for over 8 years as a member, and 2 years as Vice President, of a school board in Glenview, IL. She was also elected in 2008 and served until 2013 as a member of the school board for the Bethlehem Central School District in Delmar, NY.
Dare Thompson has a BA in English Literature from Swarthmore College and an MAT from Oberlin College. After beginning her work life as a teacher of secondary school English and sixth and seventh grade social studies, Dare spent a quarter century as an executive director of several small to mid-size arts organizations. They include the Kirkland Art Center in Clinton, NY (near Utica), Ohio Citizens for the Arts in Columbus, OH which worked closely with the Ohio Arts Council, and The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Her primary volunteer activity since 1972 has been with the League of Women Voters, including service as the state president in Rhode Island, first vice president in Ohio, and two stints on the New York state board, currently as president. She has also been president of four local Leagues – Swarthmore, PA; Delaware County, OH; Utica-Rome, NY; and the Mid Hudson Region, NY — and has served on several national LWV committees. She is also an active volunteer with the Quakers, both locally and statewide.