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League of Women Voters inspires

Joan Rich remembers when some local leaders thought that a woman’s place was at home with her husband and children, not standing before them asking tough questions about important community issues.

The 1960s and 1970s were decades when women were making inroads in the workplace and starting to have more of a voice in civic life. Still, there was resistance to the work members of the county’s League of Women Voters were doing, said Rich, local president in the early 1970s and state president for two years later in the decade.

“Women were flexing their muscles as some women had in the past with suffrage,’’ she said. “But to have a women’s organization that would take positions and come to the City Council or Board of Supervisors or the school board and say, ‘Well, here’s what we think you ought to do and not do,’ was controversial.”

The League of Women Voters, a grassroots organization well-respected and regarded for its track record of getting the public involved in the democratic process, has come a long way since those early days.

As the national organization celebrates its 90th year today, its members, which include women and men, are proud of its legacy of activism and educating voters.

The group takes positions on a host of issues — never supporting or opposing political candidates or parties — after careful study and member consensus.

The national organization was founded Feb. 14, 1920, after the 19th Amendment passed, giving women the right to vote. Women’s and children’s rights, the legal status of women and social hygiene were early action items. In fact, the organization’s first legislative success on a national level was passage of a federal act to provide aid for maternal and child care programs.

In the era after World War II, its members also helped to establish the United Nations.

Locally, the League was established in 1962, and in the 1960s, one of its first moves was to encourage unified school districts. A decade later, it pushed for the construction of a new county juvenile hall and conducted workshops on offshore drilling.

Rich was part of the group — disrespectfully called Rich’s Raiders by some — in the 1970s that rallied against cementing San Luis Obispo Creek downtown. The League’s position prevailed, but not before a few members of the council — all men at the time — took exception to their opposition.

“They thought we were meddling in things we knew nothing about,’’ Rich recalled.

Adele Stern, a 50-year member of the League, said the pushback she experienced came from people who didn’t have a problem with women speaking out, but rather from those who didn’t like the idea of the group making it easier for everyone to vote.

“They didn’t want everybody to register,” she recalled. “People in power felt like they wanted to control things like that.”

Thankfully, attitudes changed, and the League and its mission gained greater acceptance, even if people, including politicians on both sides of the aisle, continue to bristle at their positions.

“We’re equal opportunity disliked,’’ Stern said.

But members like Rich and Stern, while confident in the League’s future, fear that complacency and apathy will continue to hamper democratic participation.

When asked how those in the younger generation like me can show gratitude for those who were jailed to get women the right to vote, she said simply: go to the polls.

“And think about your vote and make your vote count.”

With life moving at lightning speed, and both parents working outside the home to make ends meet, it’s easy to turn on the television or the computer and make a decision based on a 30-second sound bite or blog posting.

The women and men of the League of Women Voters are heroes in my view because they remind us that we can be better citizens if we stop for a second to listen to both sides of the argument, not just what we want to hear.

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