A state-wide League of Women Voters was formed in Arkansas in 1920 to see to it that Arkansas would vote for the 19th amendment to the Constitution that would give women the right to vote, something women had pleaded for since 1848. The women were successful, because the all-male Arkansas legislature was second in the South to vote yes.
But the league didn’t get off to a good start. Members began backing individual politicians, a practice that the league does not tolerate, so the state’s charter was jerked. But finally in the 1950s league groups in Pine Bluff, Fayetteville and Fort Smith asked for Arkansas’s state charter back and they got it.
The state league will celebrate its 50th anniversary at a convention in Fort Smith April 9 and honor 10 women (two deceased) who have worked hard to make the league a power in the state. These are women like Shirley McFarlin of Little Rock, a former president of both the Little Rock and the state league and advocate of the campaign for free textbooks in schools, and Floy Looper of Fort Smith, who campaigned for voting machines, a good water supply and the Crippled Children’s Clinic.
Stephanie Y. Johnson of Little Rock is 43, a tall, attractive and credible woman who will finish her second term as state president at the convention. She is the first black woman in the United States to be elected president of a state’s League of Women Voters. Her interest in the league came when she had been appointed to a vacancy on the Little Rock School Board and then was defeated when she ran for a full term. “Very few people bothered to vote and the league wants to change that,” she said.
Not long ago there were more than 1,000 members, and now it has dwindled to about 400. Dues are $45 a year, but money isn’t the only reason. More women are working than ever, which means they don’t have time to join and go to meetings. Also, Arkansans just aren’t much interested in government. Example: Next to Hawaii, Arkansas had the smallest turnout of voters for president last November.
I asked Johnson if the league’s goal is to have more women elected to office. She seemed surprised, as did Shirley McFarlin, a member since 1954 sitting beside her. She looked surprised and said, “Not at all.” I pointed out that Arkansas has never had a female governor but that many states have and that right now six states have one. “Good, but not our goal,” Johnson said, adding that many men are members of the League of Women Voters in Arkansas and throughout the nation.
Johnson and McFarlin say that the league is interested in good government, not politicians, and they ticked off the many things that the league is fighting for — support for the United Nations, equal rights, more state money for mental health and public schools, civil liberties, abortion rights, medical marijuana, good water, more voter education than voter participation, etc. “Individuals who are members can support candidates if they want to, but not as the League of Women Voters,” Johnson said. And no league opinions of bills in the state legislature and the U.S, Congress can be offered by league members until the organization has studied the issue and voted.
“It’s not a soapbox outfit, and maybe that’s why some people don’t join or quit,” McFarlin said. Many members didn’t like the idea of making medical marijuana legal, but the majority of the league stuck to it, she said.
I say “hooray” for the league and wish it another 50 years.
Representative Johnnie Bolin, D-Crossett, has introduced a bill that would raise the cost of license plates $5 for every vehicle except pick-up trucks. The extra money would be used to improve rural highways. I wish he had put on another $5 or maybe $10 for those people who buy SUVs and giant pick-ups, huge things so tall and wide that they aggravate and endanger everyone else’s parking and driving. In 2003, 10,000 Americans died in rollover auto crashes, and most of them involved top-heavy SUVs and big pickups, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
About 250,000 people buy one of these every year despite the growing cost of the gasoline they consume. A salesman at a Little Rock Cadillac agency that sells its SUV — the Escalade, $57,000 and up — said, “The people who buy these things don’t worry about the cost of gas.” He’s right, of course. The new, up-to-date accessory for SUVs is a $3,000 TV receiver that can bring 100 TV channels to the vehicle. Its satellite weighs 45 pounds and sits on the roof making the vehicle even taller and heavier.
Surely Arkansas urban cowboys who just have to have a SUV or a giant pickup wouldn’t mind paying another $5 or $10 for a license to help the public schools, where most kids learn to drive and to beware of monsters on the road.