Much has changed since a group of Davis women formed a local chapter of the League of Women Voters 57 years ago.
Davis was a small town back then — population about 7,000 — but already growing quickly, having doubled in size in just seven years.
The league women, who numbered 40 in their first year, would help transform the political scene in Davis by introducing regular candidate forums and voter information pamphlets for each election and serving as independent, nonpartisan watchdogs on governmental policy.
Some of those founding members would serve as trailblazers. Kathleen Green became the first woman elected to the Davis City Council and fellow co-founder Sandy Motley eventually would become mayor.
But back on June 27, 1957, when they held their first official League of Women Voters meeting, the women were known simply by their husbands’ names: Mrs. Preble Motley, Mrs. Robert Kasmire, Mrs. Raymond Coppack, Mrs. Robert Isaacs.
The national League of Women Voters chapter had been around since 1920, having formed in Chicago with the goals of providing voter service in the form of nonpartisan information about elections and advocating for or against policies in the public interest. The women of the new Davis chapter threw themselves into that effort with enthusiasm.
They were part of a new and rapidly growing vanguard in Davis, as described by author and historian John Lofland in his book, “Davis: Radical Changes, Deep Constants”:
“Members of this horde of newcomers tended to conceive of themselves as more modern than old-time Davis people and more cosmopolitan than the locals. A great portion of them were UC Davis faculty and administrators and their families,” Lofland wrote.
“More liberal than the ‘downtown crowd’ and the ‘old Aggie’ faculty, they began to think of reform and responsible government,” said Lofland.
“A sense of the need to prepare for a new era was expressed in the formation of a Davis chapter of the League of Women Voters. Among other innovations, the league organized the first public debate among City Council candidates (a practice that then became standard in Davis political life).
“In this shifting political milieu, in 1958, Kathleen C. Green became the first woman ever to run for City Council — and she won. Some viewed her election as a turning point in the process of wresting control of the council from the old-fashioned downtown and Aggie-faculty crowds,” Lofland wrote.
“As one might predict, numerically overcome by this flood of reform-minded new residents, some among the downtown and Aggie-faculty groupings were dismayed and a few were embittered. An old order was passing.”
Into the new order stepped Peggy Epstein in 1961.
Having recently moved to Davis with her family, Epstein was part of a boom in league membership, which numbered around 140 in the 1960s and 1970s. They were an active group.
“We did a lot of leg work for the City Council,” Epstein recalled recently. “Members were on committees and commissions. Studies were done.”
Epstein herself became focused on the need to provide sewer service to a growing population and her personal interest was in voter service — particularly important in a growing town where all newcomers needed to re-register to vote.
But the league was involved in all facets of government, regularly sending observers like Virgina Isaacs to City Council meetings and Epstein herself to Yolo County Board of Supervisors meetings, where they would learn what was going on and report back to the league, which would then turn around and educate voters, often taking positions on crucial issues.
Epstein looks back on the 1960s and 1970s as the best time for the league, “with many members and many exciting subjects.”
Their candidate nights before every election were always very popular, she said, as were the forums where ballot measures were discussed.
The league also published ballot pamphlets that listed the pros and cons of every ballot measure. They were so popular the league would run out of them as quickly as they were printed.
When an issue would arise of concern to the community, league members would leap into action, educate themselves, discuss the matter, take a position and present it to the powers that be, Epstein said.
The league was, quite simply, an integral part of civic life in Davis for those decades.
But in the 1980s, things began to change.
Many young women, Epstein noted, began going back to work once their children were in school and simply became too busy for public service. League membership began to decline and along with it, the league’s activities.
“The main difficulty has been that all the people who were interested and active are getting older and older,” Epstein said. “There was hardly a league get-together in the last five years when anyone was younger than 75, and most were in their 80s.”
They tried to recruit new, younger members over the years, “but we never figured out a way to get them into the league,” she said.
It has been many years since the remaining women have taken a position on a major issue, or undertook a significant study, Epstein said. And there have been no observers at City Council or county supervisors meetings in years.
The league still held candidate nights before big elections, but they were no longer the only group that did. Organizations like the Davis Chamber of Commerce began sponsoring their own candidate debates.
“They learned from us,” Epstein said. “But it’s too bad the league is not there in an impartial role because if, for example, the Chamber of Commerce runs a forum, they ask the questions they’re interested in, which is better than nothing, but doesn’t give a balanced viewpoint.”
Three times since the late 1980s, the idea was broached of disbanding the league. The first time, and again the second time, women stepped forward to keep the league going.
“The third time was the charm, I guess,” Epstein said.
She wrote a letter to the league’s board urging them to “do this with dignity” — to go out with the pride and recognition their legacy deserved, rather than simply fading away.
At the league’s annual May meeting, with membership now down to 30, members voted to disband.
“It was an emotional meeting,” Epstein recalled, and there were tears. With good reason: Epstein was among a handful of women who had been active in the league for 50 or more years.
“That’s a long time,” she noted.
But it’s possible, Epstein said, “that the league succeeded itself out of job.”
Registering voters in California is easy now — though actually getting them to the polls remains a challenge, she said. Other groups are stepping up to sponsor candidate forums and debates, and people, Epstein said, are probably better educated on the whole than ever before, but whether that knowledge translates into action remains to be seen.
“It kills me to say that there is this declining interest in democracy,” she said. “But people take for granted what has historically been their responsibility: to do the work, make the decisions and maintain the government.
“In the long run,” she said, “it will all depend on the people themselves. I would hope that those people who still care about democratic participation will use all resources available and continue to register to vote and vote.”
Because in Davis, they won’t have the League of Women Voters encouraging them to do so anymore.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter @ATernusBellamy