Riffle through the stack of aging newspaper clippings and a thought occurs.
The story of the League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley is the story of the political and social evolution of the Las Vegas Valley itself during the latter half of the 20th century.
The local affiliate of the national voter advocacy organization tackled school integration here during the ’60s, equal rights for women during the ’70s, the federal government’s plans to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain during the ’80s and mental health issues during the ’90s.
In addition to those hottest of hot-button issues, the league has involved itself with a comprehensive roster of social and political concerns in the Las Vegas Valley, including child care, pollution, health, housing, education, school lunches, parks, land use and welfare reform, along with its nonstop activities aimed at educating voters.
This year, the League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley celebrates its 50th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, the organization has scheduled a combination birthday party and candidate meet-and-greet at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Las Vegas Social Club at Main Street Station, 200 N. Main St.
The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 as a national, nonpartisan, grass-roots organization that would watch over government and affect public policy by informing and educating citizens. It was on April 29, 1964, that two members of the league’s state affiliate, the Nevada League of Women Voters, traveled to Las Vegas to assist in the creation of a chapter here.
Sondra Cosgrove, current president of the local affiliate, notes that the visit came at a time when the Las Vegas Valley was experiencing the full maturity of its postwar years and facing some difficult growing pains. “One of the main reasons we incorporated in 1964 was for desegregation of schools. That was the first big thing,” said Cosgrove, a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.
By the early ’60s, life in the valley was shifting from being about more than “just the Strip and the little houses that served the Strip — that kind of company town feeling,” and seeing the growing need for such quality-of-life amenities such as parks and schools, she said. “By 1964, women were speaking out about the fact we needed to have plans for schools and we needed to make sure we have hospitals that are accessible.”
So, on April 29, 1964, the Las Vegas Valley chapter’s history notes, a meeting was held at the home of Mrs. John Wright, president of the Faculty Wives Club of Nevada Southern University (which later would become the University of Nevada, Las Vegas). On May 1, a temporary committee was formed and 16 women joined together to form a new League of Women Voters chapter, which held its first meeting May 7.
During a meeting on May 16, the women who would become the chapter’s founding members learned that their new chapter would encompass the entire valley. On May 25, 41 women — 28 of whom paid their dues of $5 — attended a meeting where a provisional league chapter was created.
By November 1964, the chapter had grown to 71 members. In May 1965, the League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley was formally recognized by the national organization, and the league here grew in membership in subsequent years, hitting 200 in 1969.
Why did those founding women opt to affiliate with the League of Women Voters? For one thing, Cosgrove said, the women decided that affiliating with an already existing national organization would offer their new group resources — for example, research about public issues conducted by other league chapters that would be of use here, too — they wouldn’t enjoy otherwise.
But more than that, Cosgrove said, “it’s for the same reason that I’m affiliated with the League of Women Voters: because it is nonpartisan.
“As a history professor, to me, voting is very important. I don’t care what party you’re registered with … but that you get registered and get an educated look at the issues.”
The league to this day neither supports nor opposes candidates for political office. While the league, both nationally and on state and local levels, does take positions on issues of the day, its positions are arrived at only after study and reaching a consensus among members, according to league officials.
“What’s appealing to me now, and I know what appealed to the ladies in 1964, is we decide which issues to study,” Cosgrove said. “We do studies, gather data and talk and talk and talk and reach consensus before moving forward. So when the league says we’re going to be against fracking (hydraulic fracturing), I know I can look it up and there’s a 100-page report, and I can look at the data and feel assured the conclusions are sound.”
Sandra Metcalf, immediate past president and current board member of the Las Vegas Valley chapter, has been a league member here for about 35 years. Before that, she was an officer and member of league chapters in California and Arizona.
“It has been just a wonderful experience,” Metcalf said. “I’ve found that I’ve just learned so much about so many new things.”
While the Las Vegas Valley group is a smaller chapter, Metcalf said she found members here “were just as involved. They were the women who helped to make Nevada what it was.”
Then and now, the most visible products of the league probably are the candidate forums it sponsors and the voter guides it compiles each election cycle. However, the league’s position papers and studies long have been valuable resources in educating not just voters, but candidates, too.
“If you had a candidate who was running for office who was against segregation, they could come to the league and know the league had done reports, so they can get up to speed on what the court cases were and what legislation had been passed,” Cosgrove said.
The issues the local league has chosen to study over the years offer thumbnail portraits of the valley’s evolving social and political landscape.
“The first big issue was desegregation,” Cosgrove said. “In the early ’70s we were doing pay equity and equal rights. The Equal Rights Amendment was huge. In the ’80s we were involved heavily (with) the (Nevada) Test Site and even (the proposed nuclear waste repository at) Yucca Mountain, making sure accurate information was getting out about what was going on with the dump, should it come here. In the ’90s, we were heavily involved in mental health issues. And, then, in the 2000s, we’ve done a lot of environmental things.
“As you move through the decades, there are different things that are going to pop up,” Cosgrove said.
While the league’s focus on such basics as voter registration and voter education has been a constant, the organization now finds itself tackling issues that founding members couldn’t have imagined. For example, Metcalf said, “30 years ago, nobody talked about (school) vouchers and things like that.”
When a consensus can’t be reached on an issue even after exhaustive study, the league simply declines to take a position, Cosgrove said.
“Like the Iraq war,” she said. “There was just not a consensus about what (the league’s position) should be.”
Metcalf said, “One of the things I like about the league is that it’s a trickle-up theory. There are national positions we all adhere to, but we do the work of establishing the positions. We look at issues. In some organizations, it comes from the top down, and in the league, it trickles up — it goes from the local leagues and state leagues up to the national.”
Meanwhile, the league continues to hold resolutely to its nonpartisan philosophy, Cosgrove said, despite what some may believe.
“Often I hear people think we’re just with the Democratic Party, and I have to explain to them, ‘No, we need to understand what the league is,’ ” she said. “We don’t affiliate with any of the parties, and when we decide to take a position, it’s based on our foundational principles. Then we do a study.
“I’d say most of our members call themselves progressive,” Cosgrove added, but when political candidates speak to the group, league members tend to come from a stance of “not so much the party affiliation, but, ‘Come to our meet-and-greets. I want to talk to you. I don’t want to hear talking points, but if I ask you what your position is, something I want to know is (that) you went through some process and arrived at that conclusion.’ ”
Metcalf agreed that the League of Women Voters’ nonpartisan stance is “one thing that’s hard to get across to people. I don’t know the political affiliation of half of (members), unless they say it. If they say they worked in so-and-so’s campaign, I can make a guess they’re either Republican or Democrat, based on whose name they drop. But, I mean, most of the people I think about over the years that I knew, I didn’t necessarily know about their political affiliation, and I don’t care.”
The League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley has about 75 members, Cosgrove said. Among them — thanks to a national vote in 1974 — are men, who previously had been admitted only as nonvoting associate members.
There’s something else that becomes apparent when looking over the list of issues the League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley has tackled over the years: Many of them remain issues today.
Does that ever get frustrating? “Oh yes,” Cosgrove said. “But we also keep a historical perspective that things are better today than they were 10 years ago or 20 years ago.
“Sometimes it’s in very small increments that you can move the ball forward. Moving the ball downfield, it’s going to be yard by yard. So when you see it that way, you do see successes as you go along.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.