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This photo represents the time when the 19th amendment was ratified. Courtesy of Lane County History Museum.

Although the pandemic has wreaked havoc on in-person museum visits (among other things), the exhibits have continued in many cases.

At the Lane County History Museum, the exhibit for the past three months has been “Equality and Nothing Else: 100 Years of the League of Women Voters.” The museum has been closed to visitors, but some items are available to peruse online.

The League of Women Voters was founded in 1920 by leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, just six months before the 19th amendment was ratified and women won the right to vote on Aug. 26, 1920. It reads, in part, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Sounds simple enough, right? Yet, it actually took decades of fighting before the government even started to take the idea seriously that women should vote. For 72 years, women petitioned, marched, picketed and lobbied Congress for an amendment to the Constitution to enfranchise women. Under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women’s rights pioneers, the women’s right to vote became a mass movement, finally winning approval by the 35 states required to ratify it.

Having reached their initial goal, the organizers now needed to help the 20 million newly-enfranchised women become informed about issues. They formed the League of Women Voters to help women get involved in politics. State and local chapters soon followed as women applied their new power to influence public policy.

The League of Women Voters of Lane County was founded in 1939 with an ambitious program of improving general welfare, raising the standards of government and providing a system of finance that is adequate to meet the state’s needs.

“The Lane League has addressed a wide variety of issues in its 80 years, from juvenile delinquency to providing affordable daycare to opposing a nuclear power plant on the Oregon Coast,” says Kathy Madison, chair of the Centennial Celebration Committee of the Lane County League.

The national and local leagues that formed in the wake of the voting activism were intended to give a framework of support to women across the country who wanted to exercise their right to vote. In fact, though “women” is still in the name, the organization has been open to men since members voted to admit men in 1974. The change, which passed by a margin better than 2 to 1, was controversial because some members believed that female members would feel intimidated by a male presence in its ranks.

Others believed that there was a hypocrisy in fighting for equal rights for women but not extending membership rights to men. In a 1974 New York Times article, League President Lucy Wilson Benson said, “Exclusion of men perpetuates a form of discrimination which I believe it’s time to end. There’s an element of hypocrisy in our fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment when we continue to deny equal league rights to men. If we’re ready for the ERA, then we darn well ought to be ready for men.”

The league is nonpartisan, but it has always worked to educate its members and the general populace about issues that are important to democracy and public policy.

“Initially, important issues were child labor and working hours in general,” Madison says. “But that agenda soon broadened.

Over its 80 years, the Lane League has taken on a variety of issues, including advocating for Eugene’s city manager model of government, long-term support for prevention and control of air pollution, addressing the need for affordable day care and opposing a nuclear power plant on the Oregon Coast,

Today, the local league is focused on issues such as funding the public library, pesticide use in Oregon and climate change.

Another issue the members are tackling is how the legislature draws political boundaries for congressional and legislative districts. “We study the issue, write a report and reach a consensus on what our position will be before taking action,” Madison says.

“We don’t dictate to our membership what our position will be. On a national issue like climate change, we coordinate efforts with local, state and national organizations each working at their level.”

Madison has been a member for 25 years and became more active since retiring about six years ago.

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