The League of Women Voters Eastern Carver County was founded as a way for women to get involved in politics.
Fifty years after 17 women met on April 21, 1968 in Mary Smith’s home, the group has grown to include dozens of members, two of whom are men.
It started in Chaska and has enabled numerous women to run for office. Membership now encompasses Carver, Chanhassen, Laketown Township, Norwood Young America, Victoria and Waconia.
President Maria Moeller became involved in the group as a child, tagging along with her mother to meetings. She started going to meetings in the 1970s, but didn’t officially become a member until she finished college at the University of Minnesota with a degree in political science in the early 1990s. Moeller credits the organization for sparking her interest in politics at a local level.
The League of Women Voters studies community issues, observes city councils and the Carver County Board of Commissioners, and sets up forums between local politicians for the public.
The League also helps new voters find their voices and has registered over 100 students in area high schools.
“It’s focused on making democracy work,” Moeller said.
The Chaska Historical Society is commemorating the League’s 50th anniversary with an exhibit documenting the organization’s past, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday, July 27 and Saturday, July 28 during River City Days in conjunction with its other exhibit “Ninety years of Knocking ‘em out of the Park!” celebrating the Chaska Cubs.
The League isn’t just a place for intellectual conversations and debate. It’s also a place for kinship and community.
At the Chaska Historical Society’s grand opening for the League’s exhibits, members were hugging and catching up with one another on upcoming vacations, community events and family members.
Longtime member Mary Stapleton said the group helped her find friends when she first moved to Chaska from the East Coast in the early 1970s.
“They’ve been so instrumental in my adjustment to Chaska,” she said, explaining she first felt a bit overwhelmed because many of the women questioned issues and opinions and could explain two sides of a problem. “They are intelligent, loving and caring people.”
The National League Of Women Voters grew out of a movement protesting women not being able to vote.
“Even in Chaska, suffragettes were not highly looked upon,” said Lisa Oberski, Historical Society president.
One editorial cartoon at the Historical Society depicting disapproval of the movement shows a man dressed as a maid with his wife pulling on his ear and presumably telling him directions. The photo is captioned “My wife’s joined the suffrage movement. (I’ve suffered ever since).”
With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women were granted the right to vote. By the mid-1930s Louise DuToit started the League of Women Voters in Chaska. The group eventually disbanded due to World War II, according to Herald archives. The second league was started in 1968.
While the 19th Amendment allowed women to vote, a family was still, in large part, known by the husband’s name. That’s why the original 17 women who gathered for the League’s first meeting in 1968 signed their husband’s name, followed by their names in parentheses, noted League member Alice O'Donnell.
So Mary Smith signed her name “Smith, Mrs. Julius C. (Mary).” Another member signed their name “Tadsen, Mrs. Robert (Jeannie).”
“It was a different time,” O'Donnell said, noting she joined the year the second League was started, but was not part of the original 17. She worked as a government and history teacher in Chaska.
“It was a strong love for me,” she added.
Louise DuToit’s daughter, Tracy Swanson, joined the second League and chose to be a part of the Observer’s Corps – a group which would attend local government meetings and write reports on them.
“I just got fascinated by all of it,” said Swanson, who later served as a Chaska mayor and Carver County commissioner. “If I hasn’t been an observer for League I don't think I’d have been county commissioner or councilor. It helped me get involved.”
Looking back, Swanson said she thinks her mom would be proud of the League and what it has become.
“She would admire the women who are continuing to be involved in League and all that League does. She would feel really good about where the club is now,” she added.
One of the projects the League started still affects every resident to this day – recycling.
The program officially started in 1982 out in a Carver shed, Stapleton recalled. At the time, the concept of taking plastics, paper and metals to make into something else was new.
“I didn’t even know the word 'recycling!'” Stapleton recalled, but nevertheless the League members knew it was an issue that needed to be sorted out.
“We were the manpower to recycling,” said Stapleton, remembering cold winter days out by the shed waiting for people to drop off their recyclables. “Everyone of us wanted to do something.”
Other notable studies includes a survey of senior girls at Chaska High School. Based on that data, the League worked with the school district for speakers to go into classrooms and help girls build self-confidence and realize they had a voice, Stapleton said.
All the studies help members dive into issues that they may not know much about, whether that means looking into the finances of local government bodies, housing issues or diversity.
Up at the national stage, the National League of Women Voters will be trying to address a number of issues, including voter suppression and concerns that a “citizenship” question will be added to the 2020 U.S. Census.
That brings up questions over whether non-citizens will be included in the census and if respondents will even report their families if they are undocumented, Moeller said.
The League will also be in full swing this fall, planning candidate forums.