WICHITA, Kan. - During the summer of 2008, two women, Lynn Stephan and Barbara Chamberlin, had a conversation in which they shared their frustrations at being liberals in a conservative world. Their conservative, right-wing friends assumed everyone was in agreement on issues that came up for discussion at social events. Stephan and Chamberlin spontaneously decided they'd "love to meet some women with like ideas," in Stephan's words.
"Let's do it," Chamberlin said. "Let's bring together who we know and see where it goes." They followed through and each of them came up with names of women who might be interested in such get-together. They then asked those women to contribute more names. Thus, the group known as The Group was born.
The list of participating women grew from forty to 225 in four months. Seventy women came to the first meeting. Those women stood up and talked, expressing ideas that they had never felt free to talk about before.
In fact, one member was so strengthened by The Group that she spoke up at her place of business when a political candidate from one party was invited to speak. Her boss agreed that showing such favoritism was not a good idea and said he would end the practice.
"Everyone was so reticent to say what they really felt. Finally they had a place to express themselves openly," Stephan said.
Chamberlin said, "Too many people assumed we agreed with them."
Two and a half years later, e-mail updates about politics and legislative action, dinners at which women socialize with other like-minded women and hear informative speakers bring The Group members together. Bridge clubs, book clubs, and Scrabble clubs -- these activities keep The Group informed, entertained, and energized in an era when the political climate is not welcoming to those with liberal leanings.
Neither woman wanted The Group name to have political connotations since the main purpose of the group was to allow women to socialize without "holding their tongues, Stephan said. While many conversations, even in a social setting, turn political, pushing a political point of view wasn't the original intent of The Group's founders.
Chamberlin said the idea of The Group was to keep it as unstructured as possible. It was to provide a chance for women to get together in a social setting with political underpinnings. She said many liberal women have felt isolated living in a predominately conservative state. The Group has provided an outlet for these women and opportunities for activism. For example, at the beginning of the legislative session when Gov. Sam Brownback put out an executive order cutting the Kansas Arts Council, members of The Group joined the "quarter campaign." This was a campaign in which each person sent a quarter to the governor to make up for the quarter in taxes each person pays to fund the Arts Council. Those who sent quarters asked for a tax receipt, but so far no one seems to have received one.
Even though the legislature acted to retain the Kansas Arts Council, it's still not clear whether Gov. Brownback will make sure it's funded or veto it when the budget bill comes to his desk. However, the collective action of The Group members did have an impact on this issue.
Program chair Alice Powell and treasurer Margaret Anderson are both volunteers. The e-mail duties are divided between the two organizers, with Chamberlin handling state and local issues and Stephan taking on communication about national issues.
Besides the monthly program meetings, The Group holds a once a month dinner that is primarily a social gathering. In the works are an investment club and a cooking club. The Group activities grow organically, depending on what the members want to do. Membership numbers one hundred active members. Dues are $5 a month, which pays for speaker stipends, office supplies, equipment rental, a holiday party, plus this year a spring get together and other expenses that might come up.
The immediate goal of The Group is to provide a safe haven for discussion. Stephan said some men have approached her about forming a men's group. She also has the long term goal of holding a rally in Washington, D.C., as well as here in Wichita.
Those who are interested in being part of The Group may contact Barbara Chamberlin at 316-617-2410.