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League of Women Voters celebrates 90th anniversary

This past Sunday, the League of Women Voters celebrated its 90th anniversary.

Ninety years ago, Iowa native, Carrie Chapman Catt first proposed a League of Women Voters to “finish the fight” and work to end all discrimination against women.

And so the League of Women Voters was founded on Valentine’s Day in 1920, six months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. In 1920, after a 72-year struggle, passage of the 19th Amendment appeared to be imminent, and members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association met to form the League of Women Voters, the organization to educate the newly franchised women to effectively use the vote.

Today, League is a grassroots organization with more than 150,000 members and supporters and 850 Leagues throughout all 50 states. Though the League is known widely for voter education efforts, it also has brought expertise to critical issues facing our country.

The League of Women Voters (LWV) is a non partisan political organization that works to improve our system of government and impact public policies through citizen education and advocacy.

The history of

Jasper County’s LWV

The Newton unit of LWV was organized 1934 through the efforts of Mrs. E. L. Gladys Nelson, who lived in Grinnell. After she and her husband moved to Newton, Nelson organized a unit in 1934 in Newton at the urging of Grinnell League members.

Today most Newton citizens familiar with League associate it with Candidate Forums and Legislative Coffees. However League is organized on local, state, and national levels, with study items that may be initiated at any of those levels. Always, members study an item extensively before developing a position and working for legislative change. During the early years of the Newton League, members studied a wide variety of items, including such diverse subjects as Taxation, TB Testing for Food Handlers, working in Cooperation with the Department of Defense (during the war years), Housing, Revision of the Iowa School Code, State Aid to Schools, Water Quality, Child Welfare, International Trade, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and World Peace. Locally they studied county government and published a brochure named “Know Your County.”

Newton has benefited from many local Studies of the League: Support for a school counseling program, support for a community mental health center (culminating in what has now evolved , Capstone), help with a vote to extend natural gas to Newton (members called everyone in the phone book to remind them to vote), help in bringing voter registration books up to date at City Hall, and education of the citizenry concerning the need for voting machines.

A mental health study was first proposed in 1948, but the League did not get serious until 1960 when Gladys Otto co-chaired a committee to survey Jasper County. Capstone is a vital part of the community as a result. In later years, one League study culminated in the establishment of what now is Willowbrook, another in the modification of an existing urban renewal policy to make it equitable for all persons displaced by urban renewal (relocation benefits for tenants were granted in 1989).

An additional study supported federal, state and local programs that would improve the quality and quantity of housing available to low and moderate income families. Our current ban on leaf burning is a result of the work of our local League, Mary Manatt lead the effort when she was president in 1987-1989. A study of rural library funding helped educate the community about the need for an increase in rural library funding and encouraged cooperation between the Jasper County Board of Supervisors and libraries.

The contributions of Gladys Nelson, the Newton LWV founder, to League as well as to Newton and to Iowa were legendary. After being named fourth vice president of the state League, she almost immediately became president when the officers ahead of her all resigned. Later on, she was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives, winning by a very small margin over a very popular incumbent, to everyone’s surprise. The issues she worked on included many women’s and children’s concerns.

One example: early in the 1953 Iowa General Assembly, Representative Nelson introduced a bill to repeal the controls that kept oleomargarine white because colored oleo was taxed, making it higher than butter, and it was feverishly contested. Gladys enlisted the aid of her fellow LWV members, and they stood before the House members working the clear plastic bags of white oleo with their hands in order to distribute the yellow color encased in a capsule throughout the oleo to graphically illustrate how a housewife had to go about obtaining a more appealing colored spread at a lower cost than butter. Her efforts were successful in obtaining a repeal of the offending legislation and defeating the dairy lobby.

Today, the Jasper County League of Women Voters, (name changed in 1996) is active in presenting Candidate Forums, a Jasper County Political Directory, Legislative Coffees and also shedding light on contentious local issues. At the state level, members lobby on priorities which presently include: Mental Health Parity, Criminal Code Restructuring, Predatory Lending and Lobbyist Reform.

Our local League has three Fifty Year Members; Jeanne Bridenstine, Gladys Otto, and Loretta Wendt. They continue to actively provide leadership at our meetings and give their input to guide League. They believe in the League principles and honor the organization with their long commitment, support and guidance for our newer members.

Join us on Saturday, February 20, 2010 for our next Legislative Coffee at Hy-Vee at 9 a.m. and see the League in action.

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