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‘A positive force’ Grandmas for Love in Warwick form as counter to Moms for Liberty values, ideals

  • By Ashley Stalnecker/LNP | LancasterOnline
Shirley Showalter, right, leads a Grandmas for Love meeting in Lititz Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023.

 Chris Knight / LNP | LancasterOnline

Shirley Showalter, right, leads a Grandmas for Love meeting in Lititz Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023.

This story is published in partnership with our sister newsroom LNP | LancasterOnline. 

The Moms for Liberty organization was new to Shirley Showalter, who had returned to her hometown of Lititz in 2021, after 55 years living throughout the country from Texas to Virginia.

Showalter, 75, returned to the town that was home to the previous nine generations of her family, hoping community relationships had recovered from fighting over whether to mask or vaccinate students.

Instead, Warwick School District school board meetings grew more contentious and the district became the target of the conservative political organization founded in January 2021, Showalter said.

“I care about education and I care about this town,” Showalter said. “And, I began to see that there were black clouds on the horizon for both.”

She thought she could help by forming a new group: Grandmas for Love.

The group, which defines itself as a nonpartisan counter to Moms for Liberty, has as its purpose advocating for school board candidates who it believes want to take the politics out of education, Showalter said.

Less than a year ago, Showalter began working alongside Jeanette Bontrager and Lynette Meck, who came to Grandmas for Love feeling similar sentiments of hope for the community and concern over Moms for Liberty. All three – and several of the group’s members – live in the Lititz-based senior living community, Moravian Manor.

“I’m just incensed at this whole Moms for Liberty endeavor,” Bontrager said. “It just makes my blood boil. I want to do what I can to keep it out.”

Joyce Nolt, right, talks about her motivation during a Grandmas for Love meeting in Lititz Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023.

Moms for Liberty’s Lancaster County chapter has taken root in the Warwick School District, with its chapter chair, Rachel Wilson Snyder, residing in the district. That chapter has produced a long list of “inappropriate book resources” they’d like removed from the district’s high school library and has called for more stringent policies surrounding library book content across the county.

“Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a coming-of-age novel by Stephen Chbosky, appears on the Moms for Liberty list and was one of the most challenged books nationwide in 2022, according to the American Library Association due to its depictions of sexual abuse, LGBTQ content and drug abuse.

Moms for Liberty, which describes its efforts as championing parental rights in schools, was against masking and school closures throughout the pandemic. The group was recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group earlier this year.

Snyder, who referred to Grandmas for Love as a campaign manager for the Democratic school board candidates, wouldn’t comment on Grandmas for Love’s apparent opposition to the conservative group.

Showalter is a registered Democrat – as is Meck – but Bontrager is a registered independent.

Louise Sitler, who lives beside Meck in Moravian Manor, is a registered Republican who belongs to the group.

“Moms for Liberty scare me,” Sitler said. “Because (Warwick) is heavily Republican, I am so afraid that those people will get on the board.

Sitler, who was a faculty member in the Warwick School District from 1973 until 2004, said she always does her research before voting and does not vote for a candidate simply because they belong to the same party as her.

“I worry about the children, the teachers, the families and the community,” Sitler said. “I worry that these people will hurt all of those groups should they be elected.”

Chocolate chip cookies made with Wilbur Chocolate at a Grandmas for Love meeting in Lititz Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023.

Chris Knight / LNP | LancasterOnline

Chocolate chip cookies made with Wilbur Chocolate at a Grandmas for Love meeting in Lititz Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023. (Chris Knight/ LNP | LancasterOnline)

She urges others to forget whether a candidate is Republican, independent or Democrat and instead look beyond to how they can best serve the students.

“Read and listen and make wise choices – not party choices,” Sitler said.

Grandmas for Love chose to support the seven Democratic Warwick school board candidates, but Showalter said that they support the candidates for their willingness to take politics out of education – not their party. The Warwick Area Republican Committee has endorsed seven Republican candidates for school board.

“We feel we’re united in our philosophy and in our values,” Showalter said. “Many of us are supporting the Democratic candidates, which means supporting the Democratic party, but that is not the thing we have been leading with. We are supporting the people this party has selected because of their philosophy.”

‘The backbone of American democracy’

In under a year, Grandmas for Love amassed more than 100 supporters: Democrats, Republicans and independents.

“We uphold the values of diversity and inclusion” reads a statement on the Grandmas for Love website. “We believe parents of all religious faiths and no religious faith all have the right to guide their children including the right to ‘opt out’ of certain books or activities. This system of respect for religious differences, based on the important American principle of separation of church and state, has worked in public schools for decades.”

Members of the group have canvassed for and mailed out individualized postcards for the Democratic candidates in the Warwick School Board election.

At a September meeting of 15 Grandmas for Love members in Meck’s house, Showalter asked for a show of hands of those who had worked in public schools. Almost every hand in the room went up with some boasting experience teaching at schools across the country and as far as Japan.

Showalter herself has worked in public schools and in higher education. Most recently she was the vice president of programs at the Fetzer Institute in Michigan, which is a philanthropic group that funds innovators and organizations researching spirituality, and previously served as the president of Goshen College in Indiana, where she also served as an English professor.

Her children attended public elementary schools.

“I know from my study of American culture that a strong public school is the backbone of American democracy,” she said.

But, at a national Moms for Liberty conference in Philadelphia this past July, Showalter said she noticed frequent talk of private school vouchers – a form of utilizing taxpayer dollars to fund religious or for-profit private school tuition for students.

“When public funds begin to be used for religious purposes, you no longer have a strong central support for public school,” Showalter said.

Despite her disagreement with Moms for Liberty’s message, Showalter attended the conference because she believes in education through putting oneself in uncomfortable situations.

Margaret Thorn answers a question during a Grandmas for Love meeting in Lititz Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023. (Chris Knight/ LNP | LancasterOnline)

Chris Knight / LNP | LancasterOnline

Margaret Thorn answers a question during a Grandmas for Love meeting in Lititz Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023. (Chris Knight/ LNP | LancasterOnline)

As a national organization, Moms for Liberty has chapters sprawling across almost all 50 states.

That’s not the plan for Grandmas for Love, Showalter said, but she is taking requests to speak to other Lancaster County communities about her group.

Grandmas for Love is one of many similar groups, though, forming in opposition to the growing presence of conservative groups that emerged nationwide during the pandemic.

Freedom Readers and Common Sense 2.0 formed in Elizabethtown as a response to the threat of book censorship and far-right Republican values present in the Elizabethtown Area School District.

Across the country, liberal groups like Stop Moms for Liberty and Red, Wine and Blue have organized around candidates who also oppose the values of Moms for Liberty members.

An elephant guide

Though subtler than Stop Moms for Liberty, the name Grandmas for Love was meant to play off Moms for Liberty’s title.

“We were quite aware that our name is consciously choosing a different perspective,” Showalter said.

Not all of the members – who are on average 70 years of age – are grandmothers biologically, but all have a passion for protecting public education, Showalter said.

“We want to be a positive force,” Meck said.

Not long after its creation, Grandmas for Love decided a grandmother elephant reading a book to her grandchild would be a fitting symbolic image. That image was drawn by the group’s own Margaret Thorn.

“Moms for Liberty is always talking about mama bears and using the obvious analogy to the fierce protection that most mother animals have for their young and that’s the way they describe why they are fighting for liberty,” Showalter said.

Grandmothers, however, are more rare in the animal kingdom as many species die soon after they’re no longer capable of giving birth. Families of bears break up less than two years after cubs are born.

“There’s a hypothesis about the human species that we became who we are, in part, because our mothers live long enough to help their children with their young,” Showalter said. “There is the example of the grandmother elephant and the special role that grandmothers play in being the memory of the group and guiding the group.”

Showalter realizes that the elephant in the room is that the group shares its symbolic animal with the Republican Party.

But it’ll be hard to confuse the two, joked Meck, because the Grandmas for Love elephant has rainbow-painted toenails.


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