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League of Women Voters notes 60 years of ‘meddlers’
What could a group of young women in the 1950s, most married with young children, do to shape the future for themselves and the generations to come?
A better question: what couldn’t they do, given some compelling goals, a bit of free time and a little moxie?
That’s all it took for the pioneers of today’s Roseville, Maplewood and Falcon Heights chapter of the League of Women Voters to put on their hats, gloves and walking shoes and get to work.
And if a few naysayers — perhaps female neighbors or even their own husbands — thought of them as “meddlers,” they’d adopt it as a badge of honor.
60 years of energy
“Last year, after our local league chapter celebrated its 60th anniversary, we decided to take a comprehensive look at our accomplishments,” says former state Rep. Mindy Greiling, a long-time League member who coordinated the development of a booklet to celebrate all the League had accomplished in its 60 years of existence.
“The League and the cities really grew up together,” adds Judy Berglund, editor of the booklet. “That’s what amazed me when I started getting into these stories — most of these women were stay-at-home mothers, but behind the scenes they were playing a very important role in developing the community.”
Among the women interviewed for “Meddlers, Acitivists and Watchdogs,” all familiar names from local efforts, are Ann Berry, Carolyn Cushing, Jackie Hayes and Lorraine Fischer.
“We wanted personal stories,” Greiling said. “So we interviewed 13 members who were active in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Some of their stories are hilarious, some serious, some revealing a very different era. But what hasn’t changed is our commitment to our communities, our concern for the democratic process, and our firm belief that we can make a difference.”
Ann Berry, though she wasn’t one of the original Roseville League members, joined early in the chapter’s story, some 48 years ago.
During her time, the League met at homes or church basements, scheduling a babysitter to look after the children while they tackled local issues.
One of the challenges the women saw in the post-war boom years was the danger of letting Roseville develop from border to border without setting aside space for the future.
“The League, in the early years, supported the purchase of the Central Park land — that beautiful stretch we have in the middle of the city,” Berry notes. “That was something they advocated energetically and something we all benefit from now.”
The women researched issues ranging from the need for new city halls, to school bond referendums over the years, and mainly put the League’s influence behind progress.
Other issues the League tackled may have had a less visible impact than new city halls or schools, but had a deeper and longer-lasting effect.
One was the national League’s support of Title IX, the federal law that guaranteed girls in K-12 schools equal access to sports and other activities traditionally offered mainly for boys.
In the early ‘80s, the local League began promoting recycling and organized the first hazardous waste collection event in Ramsey County. “All day Saturday, people came in with this toxic stuff, and we’d arranged trucks and recruited organization that would take it,” Berry recalls.
As the first of its kind, the cleanup brought in a staggering volume — and quality — of substances better kept out of garages and homes, she says. “All kinds of flammable stuff and toxic stuff — some of it from under their kitchen sinks!”
Among the local League’s accomplishments, Berry lists term limits for Roseville city commission members, to get new ideas in play and limit the influence of members who’d formerly served for decades. She also cites the League as helping to turn back a city charter movement after several contentious years.
Berry also points to Greiling — whose resume now includes roles as school board member and chair and state representative — as one of the League’s successes. “She was just a sweet little retired elementary teacher when she joined,” she chortles. “But after a while we backed her into a corner and insisted that public service was her role. She didn’t know what we were going to do with her when she joined!”
The idea that women had thoughts about how local government should be run and taxes spent was met with scorn in some quarters in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Berry and Berglund say.
In fact, some of the League’s early detractors were other women. The Roseville League responded by inventing a female character, “Rose Lee,” to serve as its mascot. It also challenged women with the motto “Don’t Squawk If You Don’t Vote,” leading to decades of chicken-themed posters and signs.
The League’s fundraising is now conducted via letters and emails, but at one time the women called on businesses and organizations in person to try to raise funds. Berry and her generation were thus brought face-to-face with people who’d rather they’d “stayed at home.”
“I had a friend in another community who approached the whole door-to-door thing with fear and trepidation,” Berry says. “And on her route was a restaurant where the owner would listen to her presentation about the League and then give her a little lecture about a woman’s place being at home.
“Well, we all knew the reason he had that restaurant company was his wife was chained to the kitchen there — he wouldn’t have had that business if she’d stayed at home!”
In another case, Berry approached a business owner who was active in local politics. “He threw a $10 bill across his desk at me.
“He knew darn well what the League did in local politics and he didn’t like some of it,” she explains. “But I got that $10!”
The League is ready to embark on its next 60 years with an infusion of youth and energy. Recent initiatives included supporting the state League of Women Voters’ stance against adopting the voter identification amendment to the Minnesota constitution in 2012. “The League saw it as detrimental to people who don’t have access to the ID that would have been required,” Berglund explains. In the League’s findings, that could be anyone from people without driver’s licenses to seniors who don’t have access to their birth certificates.
For decades, the League has also had a nationwide stance in favor of both recycling and organized trash hauling — an issue Roseville is currently studying. “It’s something we feel is both environmentally and economically sound,” Berglund says.
Talking about past victories and present battles gets 84-year-old Berry so enthusiastic she actually runs out of breath. Her zeal for the League is still as new as it was 48 years ago, when one of the reasons she joined was because she was a Girl Scout leader.
“They offered a number of ‘government’ badges, but the young women leading the Scouts didn’t feel capable of helping the girls earn them,” Berry says. “Figuring out how to fill that gap and teaching others about local government is what got me pointed toward the League.”
They may be dressed differently and convey their messages via Twitter instead of posters, but today’s League members are following their ‘50s counterparts’ example.
Those early days — which weren’t all that long ago — are inspiring on many levels, Berglund says. “We think of women in that generation as sitting at home changing diapers. But they were committed to making change. It’s something we’re really proud of — women can get together and make a difference.”
Holly Wenzel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 651-748-7811.
Booklets available May 1
The free 24-page booklet, titled “Meddlers, Activists and Watchdogs,” was produced with grants from the Roseville Community Fund of the North Suburban Community Foundation and the League of Women Voters Education Fund. It is available at the Maplewood and Roseville historical societies, the Roseville and Maplewood public libraries, and the Roseville, Maplewood and Falcon Heights city halls. Copies will be available starting May 1.
The booklet and video of the interviews are also available at the chapter’s website, www.romafh.org.
Get a sneak peek of the booklet at the April 30 annual meeting of the Roseville, Maplewood and Falcon Heights chapter of the League of Women Voters. It begins at 6:45 p.m. at Falcon Heights City Hall, 2077 Larpenteur Ave. W. The public is welcome.