“Voting is the whole basis of democracy. What makes our country work is to have people find out about the issues and the candidates and vote accordingly. The main thing is to know the facts,” says Evelyn Christman, who served for years as president of the New Orleans, Jefferson and Louisiana chapters of the League of Women Voters.
Born in 1919, the year Congress ratified the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, Christman dedicated much of her life to encouraging citizens to be informed voters. At age 96, after a lifetime of supporting civil rights, women’s rights and higher education, Christman still advocates for social justice. For example, she supports gay marriage and denounces new voter ID laws.
The League of Women Voters was established in 1920 to encourage women to exercise their newly won power to shape policy by voting. It’s been active ever since across the nation. In addition to publishing information and volunteering as poll watchers, League chapters sponsor political candidate debates.
“The League, of course, is nonpartisan and doesn’t support candidates,” stressed Christman. “They do take stands on issues, and study them at every level. But the principal product that I’m really interested in is the voter services – getting out unbiased information on candidates and issues to help people vote. The purpose of the League is to promote informed and active participation of citizens in government and that’s where my efforts went.”
In Christman’s day, the League published and distributed written materials for voters; more recently, the organization provides information online.
Christman has reached at least 10,000 individuals through direct voter advocacy and women’s rights training. She was a central voice in the Equal Rights Amendment movement in Louisiana and set an example for women in business when she took over her husband’s construction business upon his early death in 1976.
Christman has inspired countless members of the community with her support for civil rights, women’s rights and education. She hopes most of all to have inspired her three children, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. One of her granddaughters, Beth Hester, says “Mimi” led by example. “I always thought of her as an amazing example of just always learning,” said Hester. “She would travel in her 60s and 70s. She was always reading, and now she listens to audio books. Every time I’ve talked to her she has something new; for example, last week she learned about the history of teacups and how they once had no handles. Now that I’m a mom, I try to teach my kids to be like that. I say, ‘Look at Mimi, she never stops learning.’”
Christman attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., from 1936-1940, at a time when few women pursued higher education. After working on her master’s degree, she taught 7th and 8th grade English for several years. After her first husband, Fred Landis, died at age 56, Christman once again tackled a challenge just opening to women in the 1970s: she took over as chairman of the board of her husband’s construction firm. “I was able to participate in business activities at a time when people wanted to appoint women to boards of companies and organizations and so on,” she says. After she remarried, to Ralph Christman, she continued her involvement in the community, becoming the first lay woman to become the chairman of Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black, Roman Catholic institution.
Christman still keeps up with the news, and votes in every election. Because she now lives in a retirement community, she votes via absentee ballot and encourages fellow residents to do the same.
Even today, Christman remains concerned about voting rights and social issues. She disapproves of recent moves by some states to require a photo ID to vote. “I think those efforts are clearly a move in the direction of making it more difficult to vote and I don’t like that,” she says, adding, “There are other things, too, such as cutting voter hours, changing registration hours and so forth.” Christman volunteers that she approves of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
“I’m hopeful for the future, and I hope the younger generation will do a better job than we did,” she says. “They’re more accepting of different lifestyles and races. My grandchildren’s ages range from 28 to 43, and there’s just absolutely no racial prejudice, and I know they’re bringing up their own children in the same pattern. They’re on the right track.”