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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

September 18, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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