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The Group: A Safe Haven for Liberal Opinions

By Diane Wahto
News | April 12, 2011

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.


10 Comments

This is a great idea! Thanks for sharing, Diane. Here in Dodge we did a smaller, similar thing. We formed a group that we call Giraffes. We felt the need to let off steam with some thoughts that are perhaps even to the left of Dems. Originally, we thought there MIGHT be some liberal R's, too. So, we picked a symbol that was neither donkey nor elephant. A giraffe seemed appropriate. First of all, it stood tall, and could obviously see above the crowd. We even figured out a fitting acronym, but most of us can't remember exactly what it was. Maybe it was: Getting Involved Regarding Actions, Fairness, Freedom & Environment. The subjects changed as needed. The E could stand for Education, etc. We admit, there's a little nonsense in it, because we felt the need to sometimes even laugh at ourselves. We meet whenever one of us "needs" a meeting to keep from screaming at the stupidity on the political scene. Sometimes it's very often! Other times, we might last a couple weeks. It sort of depends on how often Boehner or Bachman get to the mikes. So, far it has just been a good way to get together, share ideas, exchange books and magazines and discuss whatever interests us. Our group is co-ed and involves people from several towns in Southwest Kansas. It's just kind of fun to know that some people are doing good things with their similar ideas. The Progressive Ideas just have to have a place to speak out, right? Again, thanks for sharing the ideas about The Group.


Ethel--Thanks for sharing your news about the Giraffes. What a great name. I forgot to say that The Group is non-partisan. I'm sure many of the women who are involved are Republicans, but no one cares about party affiliation. The aim is to bring about good government and preserve those institutions that are important to us.

Yes, we progressives need a safe place away from the discord that seems to define politics today. From discussion comes actions, which is what will result from these group efforts.


Diane, I'd like to ask, even though you say your views are similar, what happens when an issue comes up you disagree on? Ex. You might agree on gay marriage but disagree on abortion. I have both liberal and conservative friends because I can never totally agree with either side and some people can get quite angry if you disagree with them.

What amazes me is you found so many people willing to set aside time to actually get together. Everyone I know is so busy that it's enough just to post on websites.

Finally, the good thing about modern communications like the internet, Facebook, and Craigslist. One can always find a group of like minded people.


Christy--I think the reason the group works as well as it does is that moderate to liberal women who join The Group do so because they agree on most issues. The issues of reproductive choice and gay rights haven't come up in our meetings, but the organizers do send pro-choice and pro-gay e-mails to the list. I don't know all the women who make up The Group, but I think they all knew before they became involved what stands most of us in The Group would take on such issues. We did have a short e-mail dialogue about something Frances Kissling had written on abortion. The disagreements centered not on whether abortion should be legal, but on whether pro-choice people should give up the fight for late-term abortions. Most of the time, though, we don't have those online discussions.

I think people are willing to get together for meetings because they have been so frustrated when their conservative friends assume everyone agrees with them. The Group gives women a chance to socialize and share their liberal opinons without fear. We've also been able to take action on issues that we care about. The emphasis of The Group is on socializing, not politics. However, the women who joined The Group have been interested in liberal causes for a long time, so it's no surprise that issues related to those causes would arise. The Group is non-partisan, so we try to avoid party politics.

Both abortion and gay rights are hot-button issues. I happen to think women are capable of making their own reproductive decisions and I think gay people should have the same rights as straight people. Even so, I try not to engage people who disagree with me unless they become pushy about it.

Diane


Most all of us are associated with groups that give us opportunity to share concerns that are related to everyday life. We generally get more involved in those groups of people who share our values and aspirations. That doesn't require us to agree or adhere to a set of rules that doesn't allow latitude in priorities. The secret to success in social networking is how we tolerate minor as well as major differences. I should be allowed to defend my, sometimes, narrow standards so long as I don't disrespect others in the group who don't quite agree with me.

Regardless of how narrow and restricted we are in our religious or political doctrines, we have tremendous opportunity to share areas of mutual concern and passion with others who maybe don't agree, lock step, on either religious or political doctrines, with us.

We used to champion the 'melting pot' analogy of our nation. Now, it appears to me, we are becoming more exclusive, rather than inclusive of diversity of culture and ethnic backgrounds. It is a battle of 'either/or' and survival of the fittest.


Ken--I agree that the "melting pot" concept has merit, especially as it relates to culture and race. However, I would find it difficult to barter away women's reproductive rights or equal pay rights in the interests of a "melting pot" society. It's been my experience that when people say "compromise" to liberals, what they really mean is that we give up what we believe in and the other side doesn't.

I see that at play now in what's going in Congress and the debate over Planned Parenthood funding. What is interesting to me is that Republicans like Richard Nixon and the first Bush supported Planned Parenthood wholeheartedly. Now politicians feel free to lie about its work to get their way.


Diane, the concept of melting pot doesn't "really mean is that we give up what we believe in and the other side doesn't."

What I mean is that we are all free to be ourselves and discuss the issues without fear of ridicule or rejection. When we are able to share our opinions, we all benefit.


Ken--As usual, you're right. I'm willing to discuss issues in a civil way with anyone. People do have a right and an obligation to hold to their convictions. In fact, I have empathy for people who abhor the idea of abortion. One of my good friend, a Catholic woman, is against abortion personally, but she doesn't think she has the right to tell anyone else what to do when it comes to this extremely personal decision.

Years ago, in one of my English Comp II classes, the subject of abortion came up. It was the so-called "Summer of Mercy," so it was on everyone's mind. The discussion was going along in a fairly civilized manner until one young man spoke up and accused those who had abortions of being murderers. I had no way of knowing how many women in my class had had abortions, but I decided to let everyone take a break and I talked to the guy about avoiding such accusations. That's the kind of hateful speech that stops civil discussion in its tracks.


Hi, Diane,
Lacking an email address, I just wanted you to know that we are looking forward to hearing your poetry in Salina next week. Glad to be "acquainted" with you through KFP and some Democratic functions, back when, I believe. Anyway, keep up the good work. In regard to your last comment, at the Poetry series tonight, there was a wailing and gnashing of teeth about our newly "enlightened" restrictions on abortion in Kansas. Matches the philosophy of Rep. Huelskamp, whom I have treated enough in my recent post on his NPR vote. Hopefully, see you next Tues.


Thanks so much, David. I hope I live up to the hype. Ruth has bowled me over with her enthusiasm, which I love but sometimes I wonder who in the world she's talking about.:-)

It will be good to meet you at again at the reading. Some of the women in my writing group will be there to cheer me on, so I can count on a few friendly faces in the audience.


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