The League of Women Voters is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month, and the Johnson County chapter has a special party planned for the occasion.
Since its foundation in 1920 — the same year that Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, which enshrined women’s voting rights — the League of Women Voters has been an advocate for such rights as well as efforts to increase voter turnout.
The Johnson County chapter — which started in 1952 — is celebrating the League’s 100th anniversary on Feb. 29. Shawnee resident Amber Stenger, a local League member, said the celebration will be an opportunity to honor their organization’s past but also look at what other issues need attention in the coming years.
“It’s a great opportunity to recognize all of the work and efforts of all of its generations that have come before us, but also try to engage and inspire the next generation,” Stenger said. “I think it’s great to have this historical milestone, but it also serves to hopefully energize us for the work that’s ahead. There’s just so much still left to do. Our democracy doesn’t function unless people are actively involved.”
‘Very comforting to belong… even inspirational’
Some of the Johnson County chapter’s first activities included an analysis of the school system and personal property taxes. The chapter, which initially had 55 members, also supported early efforts to establish a park system in Johnson County and published a guide on county government in 1957.
Today, the League of Women Voters of Johnson County boasts a membership that has doubled in size since 2015 (309 up from 154). It has several lifetime members who have been part of the league’s local efforts for several decades.
Two such lifetime members include Jean Hiersteiner, who happens to celebrate her 100th birthday this year (Oct. 31), and Carol Sader, a former state representative who led the Johnson County chapter during the 1980s.
Sader once introduced legislation that would have allowed same-day registration for voters on election day. It never passed. Today, she carries those same concerns about access to the polls.
“I think in certain ways, we’re still facing all of the same issues, but some of them are more pronounced and extreme,” Sader said. “There are many efforts being made now that were not on the front burner then for voter suppression.”
Hiersteiner, who first got involved in the League in the early 1950s, agrees.
“There’s a big movement to disenfranchise voters, not just women: People who find it hard to get to the polls, people who are ill and can’t manage to get there, people who are unaware of restrictions,” Hiersteiner said. “It angers me and frustrates me.”
Hiersteiner said she joined the League after befriending feminist writer Betty Friedan (“The Feminine Mystique”). Friedan’s work and Hiersteiner’s own life experiences about how women were treated unequally to men spurred her to get involved in the League.
“It was very comforting to belong to a group that had national status but had local activity — even inspirational,” she said. “I tried never to miss a meeting.”
Hiersteiner said she and her fellow members would meet in each other’s homes, discussing issues facing the Shawnee Mission area and Johnson County. She has lived in Prairie Village since 1946; she raised four children with her husband, Walter.
‘We were able to accomplish a lot’
Sader first joined the League in 1960 in Detroit and was active in a few chapters before settling in Prairie Village with her husband, Harold.
“I found it very satisfying because we were able to accomplish a lot,” Sader said. “You can be effective. You can actually do something because you’re working in concert with a concerned group of citizens who have no personal agenda. Their agenda is for the public good.”
One of Sader’s fondest memories happened while she was president of the Johnson County chapter. The Kansas City area chapters organized the presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale in October 1984 in the Music Hall in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
“It was a very nice opportunity to work with other Leagues in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area,” Sader said. “I think we performed a very important informational function for the nation. It was a novel experience.”
Sader was also the first recipient of the Johnson County chapter’s Make Democracy Work award in 2008.
Local advocacy work continues today. League chapters across Kansas are meeting in Topeka on Thursday to discuss gerrymandering and fair ways to redistrict. Stenger said they’re also working on efforts to help voters get to the polls this year. Their efforts remain non-partisan, a point of pride for Stenger.
“It’s humbling in some respects to be involved in an organization that has been working so hard for women and all voters for so long,” Stenger said. “I find it really inspiring. On the other hand, you can’t let up. It’s very important to stay engaged and to stay committed and keep your eye on the ball.”