By Ann Sandford
Formed on November 19, 1919, the League of Women Voters of New York State predated the founding of the League of the United States and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted women the right to vote in 1920. As interest in the new organizations grew, local leagues began to form throughout the country. One of them, the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, had its beginnings in 1977. This essay draws upon interviews and written submissions from Hamptons League members for inclusion in a Memory Book, Forces to Reckon With, published in 2019 by the New York State League as part of its 100th anniversary celebration.
When Jacqui Lofaro joined the League of Women Voters of Southampton in 1989, members did not meet monthly: “The Voter was a series of pages on pink paper and the East Hampton, Southampton, and Suffolk Leagues all held their meetings in homes.” So began one member’s recounting of her experiences with the League. The group she had joined was already thirteen years old. Founded by Grace Pearson Lewis, the meetings held in Southampton were attended by League members from East Hampton as early as November 1976. Joy Butt, who lived in East Quogue, had been its first president, elected in 1977. These members of the founding generation of the future LWVH no doubt had many reasons for coming together to form a local league. People may have been moved to action by a general uptick in feelings of civic enthusiasm and national pride associated with the country’s bicentennial in 1976. For example, longtime member Julia Kayser learned from the radio about the national League through its sponsorship of the presidential debates from 1976 to 1984. (They were also televised). When the League ceased to sponsor the debates after 1984, the public controversy that ensued may have galvanized more local activists to join. In 1988, Julia and her husband retired and moved from Brooklyn to East Hampton where they joined the local group.
A turning point in the League’s history came in the late 1980s when Linn Duvall Harwell, president and chair of a very active Membership Committee, was working to attract younger members: she recruited Jacqui Lofaro, who soon became chair of the Natural Resources Committee. The role enabled the younger woman to pursue environmental issues, an area of longtime interest. By 1990 or so, largely led by these two women, membership was “pushed to a record 400.” In 1991, a representative from this Southampton League was appointed to attend the East Hampton meetings and a year later, the Southampton group changed its name to the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons. Susan Wilson (co-president, 2003-05; 2017- ; Suffolk County League and New York State League board member) recalls that she was asked to get “involved helping organize the food at the Annual New/Prospective Member Pot Luck Dinner at the Presbyterian Church in Bridgehampton in 1992”; it was one of many recruitment activities. In 1993, the East Hampton gathering became part of the Hamptons League, a consolidated organization that would cover the towns of Southampton and East Hampton. Jacqui soon became president (1993-97). Susan wrote that “The front porch of Jacqui Lofaro’s Lumber Lane home [in Bridgehampton] served as the drop-off & pick up location for Voter articles & any other LWVH materials.” This reinvigorated Hamptons League had already begun moving in new directions. Susan, for example, expanded her activities from membership to media programing, fundraising, commemorative events, and other areas. The League established positions on Recycling and Solid Waste (1989) and a proposal for a new county carved out of the eastern half of Suffolk County. A consensus of members to create Peconic County was reached in 1992.
Jacqui went on to serve as president of the Suffolk County League and a board member of the New York State League. She has been clear about what triggered her involvement in the Hamptons League: “the values were key: non-partisanship; good government and education with a focus on the adult voting population and youth. Also, out here [in the Hamptons], the environment is the economy….”
While the years since 2000 have seen a decline in membership, often attributed to the growth of new organizations on the South Fork vying for members from the same demographic, the Hamptons League has been no less impactful than in previous decades. That demographic is composed mainly of residents who are new (sometimes not so new) to the area and bring fresh ideas about civic engagement to the traditional communities of the two towns. The League itself has evolved as well: geographically, early presidents and co-presidents tended to come from western Southampton Town (“west of the canal,” the Shinnecock Canal, that is) whereas by the 1990s, leaders have lived in the villages to the east.
As one might expect in an increasingly stable organization, certain longtime members have become identified with specific public issues critical to the Hamptons. Examples where leaders and their teams have achieved significant accomplishments include Barbara Jordan (co-president, 2003-05; Suffolk County League board member), who led awareness campaigns and spearheaded projects in affordable housing. For example, Barbara conceived of and led the project to produce the widely viewed and highly acclaimed video on the Southampton and East Hampton towns called Trouble in Paradise: The Affordable Housing Crisis on the South Fork (2006). Anne Marshall (president, 2005-07; co-president, 2007-08) worked to expand voter access and sponsorship of candidate debates in her role as chair and then sub-chair of the Voter Services Committee; and Carol Mellor (co-president, 2007-08; president, 2008-11; Suffolk County League and New York State League board member) assumed leadership of the Government Committee. Carol helped organize a forum on the Patriot Act, brought together a team in support of a Work Force Center for Day Laborers (2007), supported the effort to influence town governments to adopt a Council-Town Manager form of government (2010), and led efforts to educate League members and the public about state legislator issues (for example, earning outside income and term limits), as well as the calling of a state constitutional convention (on the ballot in 2017).
While the organizational history above provides the context for the volunteer work pursued by members of the Hamptons League, the organization’s impact on individuals is equally important. This was illustrated in the responses I received from members to my questionnaire. It asked: What triggered your involvement in the Hamptons League? What has the experience meant to you? What do you consider the one or two big accomplishments of the Hamptons League? The responses constitute the main source of material for this essay.
Anne Marshall’s response to the first question echoes the experiences of other respondents: “Having moved to Bridgehampton in 2001 from Pittsburgh, PA and not knowing a soul, I was looking to find ways to connect to my new community. I read about a Hamptons League meeting to which the public was invited. At that meeting I listened to a question-and-answer discussion among Southampton Town Board members and the audience. I was immediately impressed that not only were elected officials available to speak in such a fairly intimate and accessible setting, but also that audience members were so articulate and knowledgeable about local issues. And furthermore, I liked the women I spoke informally to that night. They were welcoming and warm. Although they encouraged me to join, there was no hard sell.” In her email, Anne went on to mention that she has formed many friendships through her participation in the League.
Other respondents mentioned being pulled into the League. Certain women, with their different styles, have served as mentors, with recruitment as part of that role. Barbara Jordan stands out for the generation of 2000. In Carol Mellor’s description, “Barbara was a formidable woman by any measure: Large, booming voice, strong willed, powerful organizer, indefatigable and stubborn…. She pulled me into the League and did not let me go.”
Respondents also shared their key experiences in the League (question two above). They cited building friendships and working through one or more of the League’s powerful committees to educate and advocate for the issues they felt passionate about. For many members, the committee that they joined was Natural Resources. Others noted the sense of having made a significant civic contribution through voter registration drives. Joanne McEvoy-Sanborn, for example, called attention to members of “Voter Services going to the Federal Court in Islip to help in the process of registering new citizens to vote” as a source of personal satisfaction. Judi Roth (co-president, 2011-13; Suffolk County League board member) further commented on the meaning of the League experience: “… when you find people who have common interests in issues it stands to reason that they become fertile ground for friendship — and the League offers both.” From a personal development perspective, Carol Mellor wrote that “professionally, I became much more at ease speaking before groups, running meetings, organizing forums, and advocating for issues.” Glorian Berk (co-president, 2011-13, 2013-17; Suffolk County League board member) pointed to the importance of friendships but added that “My involvement has enabled me to continue to learn and grow.” For Arlene Hinkemeyer (Publicity Director, 2006- ; New York State Public Relations Director, 2011-13), the opportunity to chair the 100th Anniversary Committee for the Hamptons League meant pursuing stimulating work among many organizations and researching the roles played by local suffragists.
The paramount themes that ran through the comments that I received on the third question, which addressed accomplishments that are intangible, were the Hamptons League’s reputation for nonpartisanship, and its commitment to rigorous study and the evaluation of facts. Respondents mentioned that in the League “the values were key: non-partisanship”; it “garnered great respect in the communities”; the League offers “fair, impartial education of the community about issues and candidates (through forums and debates)”; it possesses “a sterling reputation in sponsoring candidate debates from the Village to the Congressional levels”; “People have told me that when they hold meetings they want to do it ‘the league way’.” During the years I served as secretary of the Hamptons League, I was able to ask clarifying questions about the nonpartisan policy when it came up for review each year. The topic elicited comments which made for tweaking the policy. Through that informed process I, too, see the Hamptons League’s rigorous obedience to nonpartisanship as its finest accomplishment long term. A second is the commitment to the rational and factual backup to analyses of the issues that are studied.
Some respondents cited other specific accomplishments. One of those accomplishments, described by Judi Roth, provides an apt conclusion for this essay. The event was organized by Arlene Hinkemeyer, the 100th Anniversary Committee, and others, during the summer of 2017: “We had almost 200 women and men join us as we walked in the streets of East Hampton to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York State. This was a glorious day for us and for all women and the fact that we were able to get so many people to join us testifies to our importance and relevance in our community. And our collaborations with different organizations keep growing — and our work in the schools, etc. I am so proud to be a part of this group!”
This essay draws on inputs from Jacqui Lofaro, whom I interviewed in May 2017, and on responses I received to the questionnaire I emailed to a sampling of the LWVH membership in May 2017 and again in May 2018. Respondents were: Glorian Berk, Arlene Hinkemeyer, Julia Kayser, Anne Marshall, Barbara McClancy, Joanne McEvoy-Samborn, Carol Mellor, Judi Roth, and Susan Wilson. Thank you to all. I am grateful to Arlene Hinkemeyer for providing photographs, caption information, and communications to League members and the media about women’s suffrage in New York State during the years 1917-1919.
Presidents and Co-presidents of the LWVH
Key: SH means Southampton League; dec. means known to be deceased
|Joy Butt, SH (dec.)||1977-
|Grace Lewis, SH
|Ronnie Kaplan, SH||1985-
|Linn Harwell, SH||1988-
|Chaired the very active Membership Committee|
|Jeanne Abbott, SH (dec.)||1989-
|The liaison between SH & the East
|1991-92 served as SH President|
|Bridgehampton; 1992 named LWVH|
|Joy Lupoletti (dec.)-