Changes in High Places as Tradition Takes a Beating in Executive Suites : In League of Women Voters, the Top Job Has Gone to a Man From South Pasadena

Times Staff Writer

When it came time to hire a new executive director for the national League of Women Voters, the selection committee slogged through 120 applications and found that the best woman for the job was a man.

For the first time in its 65 years, the organization that grew out of the women's suffrage movement filled its highest administrative position with a male voter, South Pasadena native Grant Thompson.

Some of the league's 110,000 members--of whom 105,000 are women--wrote to complain. But for the 45-year-old Thompson, this small step for mankind brought him his "dream job"--a description that might sound strange coming from a corporate lawyer who studied at Yale and Oxford.

Memories of Mother

It has something to do with how he remembers Mom. The son of the late Lynn Thompson, a California league board member, Grant Thompson remembers that the league was always a part of the household. It "was sort of like a flush toilet. It just sort of existed as something you had in the house." Grimacing at his analogy, Thompson added, "Like having a stove or a roof."

One day when young Thompson came home from school to find his mother once again on the telephone with the league, he decided he would not put up with it any longer. He needed her attention.

He did what any devoted son would do. He stuck a horned toad in front of her face.

"She was lying on the bed, talking on the phone and I put it on her chest," Thompson recalled. Without flinching, his mother said, "Grant Phillip Thompson, take the horned toad off my chest immediately." And then, Thompson recalled, "she went back to league business."

It was Thompson's sweeping familiarity with the league, along with his previous experience in fund raising for the Washington-based Conservation Foundation that, he thinks, gave him the right combination of qualifications to get the job, which consists mainly of raising money and hiring, firing and running the paid staff of the mostly volunteer organization.

The selection committee also liked the fact that, like his mother, Thompson has long been immersed in volunteer projects. He heads the board of the Sidwell Friends School (a prestigious Quaker school for youngsters age 4 to 18 in the Washington area) and participates in Quaker church activities, giving him, they reasoned, more than a theoretical appreciation for volunteerism.

League president Nancy Neuman, who--like Thompson--did undergraduate work at Pomona College, was head of the selection committee that hired Thompson last January. "We were rather surprised that we had a man as one of our finalists," Neuman said. "We chose the best candidate. He's doing an excellent job.

"He is a feminist, which helps. . . . He can be humane and tough," she said, recalling when he had to lay off some employees and helped them with their job searches.

And, Neuman added, "he has a wonderful sense of humor." His quick wit surfaced shortly after his hiring, when he told a reporter, "I type 105 words per minute, I take shorthand and I make great coffee."

Thompson insists this rare combination of qualities does not make him the epitome of the new man.

"I'm not the epitome of anything," he said.

But he does admit that his energetic, no-nonsense mother was the greater influence of his parents, drilling the family on current events, politics and ethics while his father poured himself into his small manufacturing job.

Lynn Thompson read aloud during car trips. When blacks were effectively barred from the municipal swimming pool by new residence requirements, she would not allow her children in the pool, either. The first time Thompson saw television was when his mother took him and a brother to a neighbor's house to see the McCarthy hearings.

"She said, 'This is history, you've got to watch it,' " Thompson recalled.

It is no surprise that his mother's activities left an impression on Thompson that lasted through his years as a corporate lawyer and, then, an environmental activist and fund-raiser. Thompson enjoyed the intellectual aspects of corporate law but found himself asking, "Are you going to leave the world better for having merged this company into that?"

Daughter and a Son

Thompson's 12-year-old daughter, Carrie, was named after Carrie Lane Chapman Catt, a women's suffrage leader and a founder of the League of Women Voters. He and his wife, Sharon, an engineer, also have a 15-year-old son, Ben, named after Dr. Benjamin Spock.

"My mother was a piano teacher, a special-education teacher and like many women of her generation, she was really barred from the labor market," Thompson said. "She would talk about her life in a kind of interesting way. She would say, 'I've had a good life because your father and I made a kind of bargain about the way we live, that I would do the dishes, I would do the laundry, I would clean the house, do all of that, and in return I could do the volunteer things I wanted to do.' "

Most important among them to her was the League of Women Voters.

"In the '40s and '50s women didn't have work colleagues," Thompson said. "Suburbia was growing and the connections you made were through school and your children, and you talked about diapers. The league really played an enormous role in bringing women of intelligence and integrity together and giving them a vehicle for doing something."

Of course, society has changed since those days, and the league finds itself caught in the transition, trying to bolster a sagging membership at a time when a gender-based voter-education group doesn't make as much sense as it used to. No longer are most members non-working housewives with time to hold long, weekly meetings and participate in the activities.

Now half the members of the league work outside the home, which would seem to eliminate the main reason it had been a women's group. The organization does take stands on women's issues, supporting the equal rights amendment and the legal right to abortion. But those who want to focus on those issues can find more aggressive lobbying groups to join, such as the National Organization for Women.

Even the league's most visible activity, sponsorship of the pre-election presidential debates, is now in jeopardy, as both political parties have signed a memo--in response to a recommendation by the Commission on National Elections--to run the debates themselves, an undertaking Thompson sees as unlikely.

Struggle to Define Itself

The league "has the patent" on voter education, as Thompson said, referring to the pamphlets that come in the mail explaining objectively what the election choices are. But in the '80s there is no reason to define that as women's work. Although the group has admitted men since 1974, the adherence to the name League of Women Voters has naturally discouraged men. And so the league seems to be in a struggle to both define itself, preserve its historic traditions, modernize and increase membership.

How the league relates to women (and men) of the '80s "is an interesting question the league is confronting," Thompson said.

"Basically if you're asking, 'Why don't we change our name?,' the answer is, someday we might. But our name is so well-known. Somebody told me there was a survey done and we have better name recognition than Jell-O. I don't know if that's true or not but it's such a great story.

"Different members feel differently about it, and the league is the quintessential consensus organization. We take a long time making up our mind on big issues. I've grown up knowing and loving the league for so long I would feel a sense of sorrow and nostalgia to see us change our name. And frankly I get kind of a zip out of telling people I work for the League of Women Voters."

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