When women won the vote in 1920, the two primary goals of the newly formed League of Women Voters were to make sure that women had the opportunity to cast an informed vote, and that they would use their new voices to amplify the messages that were most important to them.
“Your vote is your voice” has been a useful slogan in advancing this effort over the years, conveying both the power of electoral participation and the need to wield it carefully — a voice can say both wise and foolish things, simply parrot another voice, or contradict other voices.
In 1960, local Leagues in the Bay Area found that they needed a unified voice, particularly for dealing with regional agencies such as the newly formed Association of Bay Area Governments. They created a coordinating committee, which became an official “inter-League organization” called the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area in 1967.
“The League does its homework” has been quoted proudly for decades by League members, and the launch of the Bay Area League is an apt example in support of this claim. League members set out to learn about regional and sub-regional agencies and government bodies, producing an annual publication called Bay Area Decision Makers. This directory listed multi-county and regional agencies with information about their mission, budget, and board members; the directory served as a tool to empower both League members and the public concerned with regional government. It was published biennially until much of the information became available on the internet in the early 2000s.
In 1970, as the Association of Bay Area Governments produced the first comprehensive regional plan, LWVBA members created teachers’ packets on the plan in addition to study and consensus materials for member discussions. A description of regional governmental structure titled Know Your Bay Area was published in 1974. This evolved into a KQED television program, teacher workshops, and citizen education workshops.
Also in the early 1970s, LWVBA received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to carry out citizen education on the relationship between transportation and air quality, and the need for more public transit to meet new clean air standards. Given the California love affair with cars, this was going to be a hard sell. Starting with a filmstrip and script, enthusiastic members appeared at every community group and public body where they could wrangle an invitation; they soon moved to a slide show and trained speakers as they refined the message.
The project grew into a newsletter reporting on transportation and land use decisions around the Bay Area related to the progress toward clean air. A growing network of League members attended government meetings and sent in notes, learning more about their local boards and commissions in the process. In 1975, the newsletter became the Bay Area Monitor. For 45 years, it has been the LWVBA’s premier tool for educating and empowering the public to participate in government decisions.
As League members were educating themselves and the public about regional government, transportation, and air quality, they were also educating and lobbying public officials. Many times, League members were the elected officials. Elected school boards were already seen as natural fits for women, but League members around the region used their knowledge of government gained from League studies and advocacy to win spots on city councils and county boards, and were appointed and elected to regional boards as well.
Mary Ellen Calfee, who served on the East Bay Regional Park District board of directors in 1964, was the second woman and first member of the League on that board; she was followed by many others. League member Helen Burke was elected to the East Bay Municipal Utility District board in 1974, becoming “the first woman and died-in-the-wool environmentalist ever to sit on the governing board,” as the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 1978.
Attitudes toward women in these public roles were noticeably changing, although Dorothy Duffy, second LWVBA president in 1962-64, was still “Mrs. Ward Duffy” when listed as chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Bay Conservation and Development Commission in the 1979 Decision Makers. Janet Gray Hayes, president of LWV San Jose and then of LWVBA from 1966-68, was elected in 1974 as the first woman mayor of San Jose, becoming the first woman mayor of a city larger than 500,000 in the U.S.
Women running for office turned to women voters for support. Barbara Boxer, elected as Marin County’s first woman supervisor in 1972, was appointed to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board; as board chair she was a vocal advocate in Sacramento for a pioneering smog inspection program strongly supported by the League statewide. In her biography, Boxer has talked about how she was stunned by the sexism in her first campaign, not just from voters but from other candidates. She won her first Congressional race with 43 percent of the male voters, but 57 percent of the women. “She faced a lot of adversity from people who didn’t treat her the way they would treat a man,” according to a long-time aide, Sam Chapman, quoted on her archived House of Representatives profile page.
Boxer was not a League member, but in Contra Costa, Sunne Wright McPeak ran her first campaign for county supervisor in 1979 with a group of women she had met in the League. Her opponent told a radio interviewer, “I don’t know who is going to take care of her children if she wins.” After beating him to become the second-ever Contra Costa woman supervisor, she was a major force in the campaign to defeat the Peripheral Canal and later served as Secretary of the California Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency.
Many other Bay Area women educated themselves with the League and used that background as a springboard into politics. In addition to numerous city councilmembers and county supervisors, a few at the regional level have been: Jean Auer, Hillsborough councilmember who served on the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the State Water Resources Control Board; Katy Foulkes, Piedmont city councilmember and East Bay Municipal Utility District board member; Sue Lempert, president of her local League in 1967, City of San Mateo councilmember, and longtime member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission; and Delaine Eastin, Union City councilmember, member of the Association of Bay Area Governments board, and eventual State Superintendent of Education.
In recent decades, there has been less need for the League as an incubator for women planning to run for office. More women moved into the workforce, adding to their resumes but leaving less time for volunteer organizations. However, League members have continued to volunteer as watchdogs for councils, boards, and commissions; to sit on non-elected bodies and represent communities as stakeholders and “good government” representatives; and to advocate for issues to elected bodies, using their knowledge to educate League members and government representatives.
Regionwide studies by Bay Area League members have produced informative publications on transportation hubs, LAFCO commissions, and regional planning. For many years the League has also held an annual Bay Area League Day conference on a timely regional issue. Meanwhile, the Bay Area Monitor has expanded coverage, looking at open space, water, and housing, and has moved from a tight focus on government plans and meetings to more comprehensive coverage of some of the topics associated with policy decisions by regional agencies. The League of Women Voters of the Bay Area continues on its dual mission to educate and empower the residents of the region.
Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.