WASHINGTON -- The League of Women Voters, known best for sponsoring presidential debates, is struggling to overcome the image as a club for the cookies and punch set.
While the league has been an advocacy group since its founding in 1920, its officials say it has been tough persuading people that it does other work besides voter register and good government issues.
When 1,800 league members meet in Washington this week to elect a new president, they will be talking about a host of important public policy questions and discussing the league of the future.
'The league has always been much more of an advocacy organizaton than anyone gave it credit,' said outgoing president Dorothy Riding, the league's first top official to hold down a full-time job and spend most of her week lobbying for the league's causes in Washington.
'It is possible to be non-partisan and political,' she said. 'It is possible to be good government and advocacy. It is certainly possible to be a women's organization and one involved in numerous public policy issues.'
While Riding acknowleges the league's image is that of the ladies in straw hats at garden parties and that it is known best for sponsoring presidential debates, she said the mandate of the league has always been much bigger.
In the last year alone, the league hired its first male executive director, began divesting its stock in companies doing business in South Africa and lobbied lawmakers against such diverse issues as aid to the Nicaragua Contras, funding for the MX missile and increased defense spending.
The league also has been lobbying Congress in support of tax reform.
The league's average age for members is over 50, mostly women, and its membership rolls have been stagnating. There are 110,000 members, including 5,000 men, and 250,000 'friends' of the 1eague who work on various issues.
In the past, the league has depended on volunteerism, but with so many women in the workforce today, the number of volunteers has fallen sharply.
Nancy Neuman, 49, of Lewisburg, Pa., is expected to be elected unopposed as the league's 12th president Wednesday. She intends to focus on attracting younger members and making it easier for full-time working women to participate.
'I would like to get more younger women involved,' said Newman, a mother of three who holds a master's degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, has worked in the public and private sector and first joined the league in 1966.
She also intends to turn the league's attention to the 'feminization of poverty' -- an issue that continues to come back to haunt the league since its founding by suffragettes 66 years ago.
'That was the first issue the league took up in 1920 and the issue then was whether the federal government had any responsibility,' she said. 'The league fought for a federal role and we're back arguing the federal role once again.'
In January, the league made headlines when it hired lawyer Grant Thompson as its first male executive director despite protests from some members that the job should go to a woman.
'People tend to forget that the league was born out of a political fight,' Thompson said. 'But people need better to understand that we lobby, we litigate, we advocate.'
A new fight just may be in the wings for the league that has sponsored presidential debates in the last three elections. Both the Democrats and Republicans have been talking about taking on the job themselves.
'People simply depend on the league for doing debates because we're an honest broker,' Thompson said. 'I always say to people -- Who do the American people trust -- the League of Women Voters or the parties?'