Chat with... Sheila Ward, President of the League of Women Voters of Westport
WESTPORT — Founded in 1920, the League of Women Voters is one of the oldest grassroots political advocacy organizations in the country.
Westport resident Sheila Ward, 48, has led the town’s league since 2016 and stands ready to remake the organization for a new generation in the midst of abnormal political times.
Through the changes, Ward vows to maintain the league’s nonpartisan, inclusive, and consensus-oriented roots that have made the league a force in local and national politics for nearly a century.
Q: What is the League of Women Voters and what does it do?
A: The league is a national organization with national, statewide, and local chapters. The Westport league has been very active in political activities and pushing for governance changes for over 50 years, since the ‘60s. The league does a lot of voter services, such as running debates and voter registration guides and publishing voter guides.
Another aspect of it is advocacy. Aside from fighting against gerrymandering and for voters’ rights at the national level, locally and statewide we are advocating for gun safety, passage of the National Popular Vote Compact, and saving Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program.
We have local positions in Westport, too. They range from everything from the education system to public land-use, to transportation and senior housing — a lot of areas that come up perennially. We’ll take positions only after studying them very carefully and use them to pressure our elected representatives.
Q: Why did you decide to join a strictly nonpartisan organization?
A: I joined the league non-necessarily because of the importance of nonpartisanship but because it seemed like a great way to get more involved and learn how our town is run. It really does provide a great window into that — from brown bag lunches on different issues to meetings with elected officials, you learn a lot about what’s going on in Westport and Connecticut.
Voter participation is just so important whatever party you might be from. For me, that was just a priority to somehow get involved to advance that. I think the nonpartisan aspect has become maybe more important in the last year or two as our country seems more divided.
Q: Why do you believe non-partisanship is important?
A: In the summer of 2016, I attended the league’s national convention in Washington DC. There was an off-agenda session for people to openly discuss what to do in a political climate in which, at the time, we had the first potential women presidential candidate and, on the other side, somebody who tends to disparage women and minorities. It was a very emotional discussion, especially having a women candidate, many asked what our role was as the league of women voters. Some spoke about the importance of reinforcing nonpartisan positions because if we aren’t strictly nonpartisan, who is? There is value to that. It lends credibility to certain actions the league takes. The national league is involved in lawsuits about gerrymandering and voting rights. Nonpartisanship doesn't mean not advocating, but that the advocacy is consistent with the principle that in a participatory democracy, everybody should have equal rights to participate in government.
Q: You’ve expressed concern about our current political climate. What most concerns you?
A: I’m concerned about what appears to be the increasingly entrenched partisanship and what comes with that, which is a lack of civility in political discourse on both sides.
Q: What was your first experience with political engagement?
A: Probably when I was four, going door to door with my mother as she canvassed for candidates in Iowa. She was an active member of the League of Women Voters in Franklin County Tennessee, where I grew up, and both she and my father were political science professors, so following politics has always been an important part of my life.
Q: How did you end up in Westport?
A: In 2010, we moved from Singapore to Connecticut for my husband’s job, which is based in Stamford. We looked for a nearby town with good schools. My daughters are in fourth and fifth grade at Saugatuck (Elementary School.) They’re at the age I can start driving them around to league events, which is good for them to get involved.
Q: Do you have a day job and if, so, what?
A: I teach writing and research for Fordham (University) students doing a masters in law. I practiced law until we moved to Singapore where we had young children and it became tricky for me to practice. I started teaching then.
Q: You’ve said it’s important to have women in political office. Why?
A: I think women might have a tendency to seek solutions and compromise. I think we’ve seen that with the Republican women in the Senate. I think it’s important as an example for society and for our daughters that women can do anything and being a woman shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to office.