Knox County chapter still active after 38 years
By Bernie Schmitt
The League of Women Voters was founded 100 years ago by Carrie Chapman Catt, on Feb. 14, 1920, a few months before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which gave women the right to vote), was officially ratified.
The organization formed by the National American Woman Suffrage Association was designed to help 20 million women with their newly-gained privilege of voting. It mission was to educate and inform voters, a mission that remains the same in 2020.
The League of Women Voters of Knox County is one of more than 750 local and state chapters of the League, all working to help voters understand the public policy issues at the local, state, and national levels, and to encourage voter participation.
“We want people to be educated about what we do,” said Joyce Villwock, a longtime member of the LWV of Knox County. “Our mission is that we want people to participate in our democracy and vote.”
Local League celebrates 38th anniversary
The local League will celebrate its 38th year this summer, having been founded in 1982. Former resident Bonnie Orvick was instrumental in the formation of the group, Villwock says, and the Knox County chapter was admitted as a provisional chapter to start.
Orvick, now retired and living in Wisconsin, was the driving force behind the local chapter’s founding, Villwock and others said. She organized an organizational meeting in January 1982 for anyone (women and men) interested in forming a Knox County League.
At that meeting LWV state representative Mary Becker outlined the League’s purpose, policies, and procedures. Persons 18 years and older were welcome to attend and/or join the Knox County provisional chapter. It is said to have begun with 30 members.
Officers of this provisional chapter, according to a newspaper photo from February 1982, show Orvick as president; Beverly Stephens as 1st vice presdent, Sue Bell-Friedman as 2nd vice president, Ginna Stanley as treasurer, Carol Peterson as secretary, Louis Miller as observer corp, Liz Shinouda community study, Kay Henderson bulletin, and Sue Snyder membership. The national League of Women Voters board recognized the Knox County group as an official LWV Chapter in early 1984.
The League of Women Voters has worked to educate the public about the issues facing Knox County residents, having sponsored forums on a variety of public issues, question and answer sessions with political candidates, and locally televised “Meet Your Legislators” sessions when the Indiana General Assembly is in session.
Emily Heineke has been a member of the LWV for 20 years. She became a member upon attending one of the League’s programs at Vincennes University and became interested in the organization. Soon thereafter she was invited by other League members to join.
“My family was always interested in politics,” she said. “We always discussed and argued about politics and what was going on.”
Publishing educational information for Knox County
The League publishes a “Knox County Government Guide,” a handout that lists local and state public officeholders and their contact information. It also explains the functions of various county offices, too. Heineke said at times the League has published candidates’ guides, too, to educate the public about candidates for office and how they stood on the issues.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Villwock said. “I hope what we do is educate people. If people take part in our ‘Meet Your Legislator’ sessions, town halls, and other events they will learn and then they are more likely to get involved.”
Newspaper clippings show how the local organization helped sponsor candidate forums for local school board races, city and county government offices, had annual fundraising campaigns for their chapter, and has even sponsored debates between the 8th District Congressional candidates.
Over the years League members have been present during information sessions or official meetings when the working of public policy affected everyday citizens. Locally, members say they stay out of policy debates. Their only mission is to educate people. They do not advocate for any political candidate or political party.
“The national and state organizations may take positions on certain issues,” Villwock said. “And while we might be supportive of some measure or policy, it’s only after considerable study on the subject.”
Positions that the national League may take are always approved of by the state chapters, and voted on by state delegates, she said.
Not only for women
The League of Women Voters isn’t just for women, either. The national LWV voted to allow men to join the organization in 1974, and many have. Issues, local members say, affect everyone.
Until 1973, the League had rejected a policy to admit men. It finally approved the measure with a 969 to 433 vote in 1973, according to a New York Times article. The issue debated was whether “women have enough self-confidence to work equally with men.”
Democracy is not a spectator sport. I hope what we do is educate people.Joyce Villwock
“I was at the national convention when they decided men could be a part of the League,” said Judith Kratzner, a former president of the local League. “They decided not to change the name if that happened. It was an interesting fight.”
Lucy Benson, who was then the national LWV president, told the Times that she didn’t believe that having men in the organization would alter it in any way. “We work on issues that affect men, women and children,” she said. “We’re a nonpartisan public interest organization and gender has nothing to do that that.”
The group also tries to encourage voting in young people, helping with registration efforts.
Vanessa Purdom, who used to teach legal studies Vincennes University, was introduced to the local League during a voter registration event at VU. She was attracted to the League’s educational component.
“Getting young people to develop the confidence to stand up for something is a big part of voting,” Purdom said. “We help people get the information, knowledge and confidence to vote.”
Beyond the politics
In recent years the League has sponsored a poster contest, along with public service announcements, regarding its “Not Even Once” campaign against drug use. This began several years ago when the county was experiencing a severe problem with methamphetamine use.
“Now I think we’ve titled it “Not with My Life,” and students can now enter videos,” Villwock said. “It is open to all Knox County junior high and high school students.”
In late February, the League sponsored a sex trafficking seminar at VU, to bring attention to a problem that is affecting people throughout the country.
“Some people may think this is an urban topic,” said Purdom. “But the issue is affecting rural areas as well.”
The League of Women Voters of Knox County currently has 22 members. Current co-presidents are Deb Switzer and Miriam Boyd. Switzer said she joined the League in 2008 in her native Montgomery County.
“They had a ‘Build a Better Community Campaign’ and I was interested in that,” she said. “I joined the League right after that.”
The local chapter has planning meetings to discuss what issues are important and what the organization can do to help. Currently, housing is an issue in Vincennes and Knox County, and that might generate a forum or panel discussion in the future. Getting better broadband to rural areas is another issue.
“It’s what people are interested in or what we think people need to know,” Villwock said.
For instance, forums and discussions on substance abuse brought out a lot of people, and brought a lot of agencies out to discuss the issue in hopes of finding solutions, Kratzner said.
Members cannot be a League officer and hold elected office. While individual members may have their views about political issues and/or candidates, they stay away from making those views known as a League representative.
“I have no political signs in my yard,” said Switzer.
The local chapter welcomes new members.
“It won’t take up much of your time,” Villwock said. “We have a project here and there.”
“We take you on your own terms,” said Switzer.