Honoring League Women

Photograph of two women: Past LWVUS CEO Virginia Kase Solomón on the left, a white woman with long dark hair, wearing a black top and the late LWVUS President Dr. Deborah Ann Turner on the right, a black woman with short gray hair, wearing a gray blazer with a black top underneath

To celebrate Women’s History Month 2024, the Detroit League is honoring two significant women and their work with the League of Women Voters. The first blog is in tribute to the late LWV President Dr. Deborah Ann Turner, who wrote about her life and League work. The second blog is from past LWVUS CEO Virginia Kase, who reflects on her League work over the past five years.

Dr. Deborah Ann Turner, LWVUS President

League of Women Voters president, the late Dr. Deborah Ann Turner, shared many moments of wisdom throughout her nearly four-year tenure.

We hope these words will inspire you as we continue Dr. Turner’s legacy to empower voters and defend democracy.

On Who She Is, the Midwest, and Diversity

“I am, simply put, ‘just a cornfed kid from Iowa,’ and proud of it! Yes, I am one of those people who is asked, ‘But where are you really from?’ Well, I am really from Iowa, born and raised.

I am part of a vibrant and important demographic that many times is overlooked or not acknowledged. Unless you hail from a big city in the Midwest, there is very little understanding that people who look like me were born and live there. I’m actually from Mason City, a small town with a population of just under 28,000. I grew up in a diverse community with friends of multiple ethnicities and religions. I received a really great founding education there, in a place where most people don’t realize that Black people exist and succeed.

I point this out for two reasons. One, it reminds us…that we must strive to look beyond what is portrayed in the media or what we have been taught about our country, into communities large and small, for hidden diversity. And two, we must acknowledge that many…communities like my hometown have unique and hidden diversity.”

Dr. Turner holding a "Voting Rights Now" sign with her fist raised

On Voting Rights

“In our country, voting rights exemplify freedom — the freedom to determine who we are, who we want to be, and who we want to make the decisions about our country and our bodies.”

“Casting a ballot is more than a decision on representation; it is an homage to the women and men who have been locked out of the process.”

“Partisan politics are overshadowing American values — and the cornerstone of our democracy, the freedom to vote, is under threat. Let us be clear: voting rights are not a partisan issue; they are an American issue.”

“At the heart of the issues, democracy, social justice, and civil rights are intersectional, intertwined by the collective goal of advancing the right to vote.”

LWV President Dr. Deborah Ann Turner at Denver repro rights rally

On Reproductive Freedom

“We’re at a turning point in our history. And to me, it all hinges on this: our leaders must act according to the will of the people — and they must realize those people include women.”

“I am angry that pregnant women and those who can become pregnant have been reduced to the status of political footballs. These women are individuals with individual stories, making what is always a serious decision to them. I know. I have sat in the room with them and heard their stories, held their hands, and shared their tears and relief at being treated in a nonjudgmental manner…

Moments like this fuel our fightWe hold the power to create a more perfect democracy. Women’s rights are human rights, and we will continue to fight until the right to abortion is restored.”

“I hope for a world where we can once again leave these choices to the people who experience them firsthand rather than unaffected, calculating politicians. It should not matter what your age, zip code, political or religious beliefs, or reason for seeking abortion care are — it should be your choice.”

“In challenging women and those who can become pregnant, the people who want to restrict our rights made a grave miscalculation. They forgot: women power democracy.”

Virginia Kase Solomon and Deborah Ann Turner

On Women

“Today, and every day after today, I challenge women of all backgrounds and experiences to find time to get to know those that came beforethem — or even those who live just down the block. 

In this pursuit, they may find women who have changed the world across generations, like Gertrude Rush, a Black lawyer from Iowa who founded the NBA in 1925; Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president; Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who helped put Americans into space; Althea Gibson, who not only played at Wimbledon but won the singles title in 1957; and many more who dared to show up in spaces where women, especially women of color, were not just made to feel uncomfortable but in some cases were made to feel unsafe.”

“Exactly 100 years after women won the right to vote, America has elected a woman to serve in the White House. We will not allow another 100 years to pass before we have many more women in the White House and the presidency.”

“It is important for us to remember our history surrounding women’s right to vote because it reminds us that the fight for equality is not over, and it will not be complete until ALL of us are included in its liberation.” 

Dr. Turner at an ERA rally in front of the US Congress

On Equality

We need the ERA because we need equal pay, fair health care coverage that addresses maternal mortality and coverage for caregivers, protection against gender testing laws, prevention of discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons, protections for men in occupations and roles traditionally held by women, and protection against rollbacks in women’s rights. 

We need the ERA because, just as many women of color faced added barriers for voting until the Voting Rights Act, today, women of color are more likely to be underpaid and discriminated against than white women. The ERA would make the Constitution prohibit discrimination on the basis of race AND sex. 

But more than that, we need the ERA because our nation must close the book once and for all on the idea that equality of rights is a debatable issue. 

Because a constitution is not only a set of legal protections: it is a proclamation of a nation’s values. It is time we enshrined our values in the Constitution.”

“No one deserves to be discriminated against based on who they are or who they love…our right to free speech should never be used as a weapon for discrimination.”

Dr. Turner and Ayo Atterberry at a march. Ayo holds a "Black Voters Matter" sign.

On Racial Justice

“Structural racism touches our lives in many ways, from education to health care, to economics, to policing. The Band-Aid has been ripped off. Now is the moment to heal the egregious wound and not rebind it and hope it will heal itself, out of sight, out of mind. It doesn’t work that way. Trust me. I’m a doctor.”

“We must continue to tell the stories of Black women that will inspire the next generation of Black women to seek elected office. We must never forget our history and the tireless work of Black women and allies to advance voting rights, push for change, and continue to shape a more equitable America. More importantly, white America must be moved to appreciate, acknowledge, and understand the contributions to our country by these women and their other colleagues of color.”

“Let us also acknowledge the many Black women who serve as mayors and elected officials in the many communities that we don’t see on the six o’clock news. They are working hard, too, and making a difference.”

“We cannot assuage our feelings of guilt or inadequate action of the past by celebrating Black History Month. As we celebrate this month and honor these Black sheroes of the voting rights movement, we must make a conscious effort to continue that celebration all year long. I look forward to the day that we will no longer need a Black History Month because America will finally acknowledge that Black history IS American history.”

On DC Statehood

“DC statehood is not a partisan issue but a civil rights issue, which cannot be separated from the fight for racial justice.”

Dr. Turner speaking at a podium

On the League

“What may seem like small acts to us — setting up a registration booth, sharing a VOTE411 resource, encouraging someone to write to their local elected official — can be life-changing for the people we encounter.

Many people go through life believing — based on experience — that our democracy does not include them and that their voices will never be heard. At its core, the League is here to show them that their voices are the power behind their democracy and to fight to make sure they are heard. We, as League members, have never taken democracy lightly, and we never will.”

“The League is my endorphin!”

“Our work is more important than ever, and we must stand in our power. Our network is vast because it is rooted in our communities. Our passion runs deep, and our voices together form a resounding chorus. We are one League, and we fight on behalf of every voter in every corner of this country.”

“At the League, we protect the vote. For everyone.”

Dr. Turner and her husband at a rally smiling and raising their fists in solidarity

On Life

“I have been struggling with the tension between what we have to be thankful for and the quest for a better tomorrow for not just us, the privileged, but for all those who are struggling to survive in a sometimes less than compassionate world. I find it is hope that keeps me going — the hope of a better tomorrow, the hope of a world where we all respect one another, and the hope of social justice — for without hope, we cannot face the day, nor can we realize a better tomorrow. So, here’s to hope and the promise of a world we can all be thankful to inhabit.”

“My mother used to tell me you should wake up every morning and be grateful for one more day.

“Keep on keeping on.”

I Still Believe in the Power of Women

Virginia Kase Solomon (From https://www.lwv.org/blog/i-still-believe-power-women)

When I was hired as the CEO of the League of Women Voters in June 2018, I was honored to have the opportunity to lead this legacy organization. I promised the board of directors I would bring my full self to the role but warned them that I might shake things up and ruffle some feathers along the way. They had my confidence, and I will be forever grateful for their trust in me.  

Reflecting on the last five and a half years, I am so proud of the League’s impact on our democracy and the growth this organization has seen under the leadership of me and my justice partners, Chris Carson and Dr. Deborah Ann Turner. Here are a few of my favorite moments.  

The Power of Women 

I first addressed League members when I was announced as the incoming CEO at the 2018 League Convention in Chicago, Illinois. In those remarks, I talked about women’s superpowers as democracy defenders. Women volunteer our time, work the polls, challenge election laws, turn out the vote, and make our country a better place in countless ways. Our democracy depends on the power of women every day.  

Speaking on this, I said:  

“My superpower is not unique: in fact, it is the same as yours. And together, we have the most tremendous power [that] this country, perhaps the world, has ever seen. We are the power of women… the sum of our collective voices, working to create a more perfect democracy.” 

Half a decade later, my perception of the power of women has only grown. I’ve seen many women and our allies, from League leaders to members to partners and beyond, building diverse coalitions that amplify our work and strengthen our impact. I’m proud that we are standing in our power and using that power to uplift voices in our communities, hold elected officials accountable, and always advocate for the American voters. 

Civil Disobedience at the Supreme Court 

Barely six months into my new role as CEO, and just one month before the 2018 midterms, I was among the activists arrested at the Capitol in protest of the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Our democracy depends on the power of women every day.

I was no stranger to civil disobedience; however, this was a first for the League. By being arrested, I hoped to demonstrate to League members and the American people that when we see injustice, we must sometimes engage in peaceful acts of resistance to highlight what is wrong and demand change. Civil disobedience requires us to be uncomfortable. It is not an act to be done as performance but rather, a tool to gain support and pressure leaders to listen to us, the people.  

Many people within the League were not pleased with my arrest, but as Harvard Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” For inspiration, I looked to the suffrage leaders arrested at the White House one hundred years ago fighting for women’s voting rights — some of whom went on to found the League. My arrest was a turning point for our modern League but a continuation of the action taken so many years ago. It began a new chapter of organizing and permitting people to ‘behave badly’ for justice and democracy.  

As I’d promised the League’s board of directors, I would show up differently than other leaders. This was my way of empowering voters and defending democracy.  

Reclaiming People Power 

Following the 2018 midterms, we launched Women Power Democracy, a new initiative centering the word “power” in our work. Power can often feel like a dirty word, signifying privilege or the exclusion of others. We aimed to show how power can be collective, harnessed by people in community with one another to improve everyone’s lives. It means a lot to me that we reclaimed this word as something good.  

The League started to own our power more and to frame the conversation around building power in an empowering light. We built out our first-ever organizing department, focused on harnessing people power to accomplish our goals. We also embarked on a transformation plan that would lift up the strengths and voices of our state and local Leagues, empowering us from the grassroots up. 

Today, we hear people talk about power all the time. Through Women Power Democracy, our new focus on organizing, and our work to enhance our grassroots focus, the League has successfully brought people together and used collective power for the good of democracy.  

People Powered Fair Maps™ and Empowering the People in Redistricting 

In June 2019, the US Supreme Court delivered a disappointing ruling in a group of redistricting cases, including Rucho v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina. Just months before the 2020 Census would launch for the next redistricting cycle, the Court ruled that because there was no fair way for federal courts to determine whether partisan gerrymandering had occurred, they could not make rulings around maps that decrease voting power based on political party. To demand greater public participation, transparency, and fairness in redistricting, the League launched a new national program, “People Powered Fair Maps™(PPFM).  

[W]hen we see injustice, we must sometimes engage in peaceful acts of resistance to highlight what is wrong and demand change.

This 50-state initiative involved hundreds of Leagues and thousands of volunteers engaging on state legislation, federal action and civic education around representative political maps. After three years of high engagement and a pandemic that disrupted the timeline and process for Census collection, PPFM made a permanent mark on our country’s electoral maps, successfully challenging partisan and racial gerrymandering in multiple states and delivering fairer maps to the American people. 

PPFM Impact Report

COVID, January 6, and Remaining Steadfast During Crises 

The League celebrated 100 years in 2020, which was supposed to be a celebratory year to commemorate women’s voting rights. Yet just one month after our birthday, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, disrupting all aspects of life, including elections; And like women always do, we shifted and pivoted time and time again to meet the demands of the moment. 

The League began innovating right away, not only transitioning to a fully remote structure but embracing new and creative ways to reach voters and take care of our communities. During dark and uncertain times, League leaders made sure that justice won and elections ran smoothly.  

Through the chaos of a simultaneous pandemic, federal election, and Census, Leagues worked to be a trusted voice in elections. This work continued in the tumultuous days following the 2020 election, as Leagues provided confidence in our electoral process, reassuring the public that elections were following established processes to count every vote and certify results in a timely fashion.  

Our role as trusted voices around American democracy was a major part of our decision to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump following the January 6th insurrection. I’m proud the League took this unprecedented step in defense of democracy. That courageous action from LWVUS leadership — calling out a sitting president for obstructing justice — was not easy. We made that statement unapologetically on behalf of all American voters and what we require for our democracy.  

2020 was one of our most difficult years, but to me, it is one of the greatest in our history. Despite the many threats to our democracy, we remained steadfast in our work empowering voters. Efforts like this made 2020 a historic election year not for its complications but for its record-breaking level of voter participation. 

Becoming an Ally 

During my tenure as CEO, our nation has faced numerous racial reckonings. The Black community, in particular, has faced relentless threats, many of them coming from our nation’s institutions.  

As an organization that has not always been a welcome, safe space for Black women and people of color, it was important to me that the League learn from the mistakes of the past and write a new chapter in allyship.  

We have been invited to do this work, but we must remember that we come to the table as allies.

I wrote a blog emphasizing this point, stating, “As a democracy and voting rights organization, we must be part of the progress that is catalyzed at this moment. In the coming weeks and months, we will be supporting our partners in the civil rights community who are working on legislation and policy reforms focused on creating systemic change in our government institutions, starting with unjust policing. We have been invited to do this work, but we must remember that we come to the table as allies. We will listen to civil rights leaders spearheading this effort, and we will use our power, our talents, and our collective voices to support and amplify their work.” 

I took this approach in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, reaching out to other leaders, particularly Black women leaders. In the coming months, LWV followed the example of organizations like the National Urban League and the NAACP and advocated for the Justice in Policing Act. The Justice in Policing Act was first passed in the US House in 2021, and elements of it shaped President Biden’s Executive Order for federal law enforcement requirements. The League was proud to follow the lead of Black-led organizations in supporting this legislation, and I’m grateful we had this opportunity to put our allyship into action. 

The League also took steps to show up as allies in places and spaces where we would never have gone before. Before 2022, the League had never participated in the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, an annual commemoration of the historic 50-mile Civil Rights March of 1965. As one of the oldest and largest voting rights organizations, I believed the League needed to be there.  

The National and Alabama state Leagues worked hard to develop meaningful relationships with the Jubilee’s leaders and participants, including partners like Black Voters Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the ACLU.  Now, we join these friends and allies each March to honor this pivotal moment in civil rights history. As we do so, we’re mindful that we’re part of a meaningful shift: we are not the League of yester-year, but the League of tomorrow.  

The League’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is a continued journey, and we have more work to do internally as we embark on the journey to become an anti-racist organization. I hope the allied steps we took in times of crisis for the Black community are not only continued but expanded by the next person in this position.  

No More Excuses! Pressuring the Biden Administration on Voting Rights  

In the summer of 2021, the League led a series of protests at the White House calling on the Biden administration to take immediate action for voting rights. In partnership with People for the American Way and Declaration for American Democracy, we organized a series of rallies at the White House, followed by acts of civil disobedience. Our message was clear: No more excuses. We demand voting rights now.  

[W]e are not the League of yester-year, but the League of tomorrow.  

What started as a modest protest with a couple dozen attendees grew into a coalition of more than 50 partners, with hundreds of thousands of online participants, hundreds of arrests, celebrity participation, and dozens of League leaders, staff, and board participating.  

And our message got through. The League-led protests at the White House received so much media attention that White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked every week during the campaign’s duration about the administration’s intention to put more pressure on the US Senate to advance voting rights, keeping the issue front and center in the briefing room.  

Mere weeks after the direct actions, President Biden directed the Senate to end the filibuster to pass federal voting rights. I was honored to attend the event where he made this call to action. It allowed me to see our impact play out in real-time, from the streets to the executive office. 

Transforming the League   

One of the things I’m most proud of at this organization is also one of the reasons I’m leaving.  

The League has been on a transformation journey for many years, strengthening our role in American democracy and becoming a more inclusive and welcoming organization at all levels. I am so proud of our progress and commitment to DEI, and I know we are on the right path to becoming the League of the future.  

This is a moment to double down on creating the League of the future, positioned for the challenges ahead and reflective of the multi-racial democracy we dream of. One of the reasons I’m stepping down as CEO is to create spaces for those who haven’t had the leadership opportunities I’ve enjoyed. Specifically, a culture shift in this organization requires centering more women of color in leadership.  

The organization is moving forward on the DEI journey because we know it is right for our democracy. I believe in this mission and this important work that must happen in the next few years for the League to continue empowering voters and defending democracy.  

To become a League member, join one of the 700+ state and local Leagues.

Final Thoughts 

While I’m leaving my role as CEO of the League, I’m not going far. I’m still a dues-paying member of my local League of Women Voters and will remain so for years to come.  

As my role evolves, I continue to believe in and support this great organization. I’m brought back to the sentiment I felt when I first addressed members at the 2018 Convention: women are our democracy’s superheroes.  

The women and our allies of the League are strong, powerful, brilliant leaders, and I can’t wait to see what they do next. I may be in the crowd in League rallies instead of on the podium, but one thing will always be the same: I still believe in the power of women.