The Woodbury-Cottage Grove League of Women Voters Celebrates 50 Years of Civic Engagement

Michelle Witte, Mary Jane Rohde and Phyllis Letendre look through a scrapbook with newspaper clippings, flyers and photos that depict the history of their chapter.

For nearly as long as Woodbury has been a city, it has likewise been home to an active chapter of the League of Women Voters. The national organization was founded in 1920, the same year in which the 19th amendment finally granted women the right to vote, and began as a means of helping women fully understand their new civic responsibilities. Even nearly a century after women’s suffrage was won, the League—and especially its Woodbury-Cottage Grove chapter—remains as active as ever.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodbury-Cottage Grove League of Women Voters chapter. It was founded in 1968, just a year after Woodbury Township became the City of Woodbury. It has deep grassroots, as its founding was simply the result of women coming together around a shared belief in the value of civic engagement.

Phyllis Letendre is a longtime Woodbury resident and a founding member of the Woodbury chapter. In 1968, she and her husband moved to Woodbury from New Jersey, where she had been involved in another League of Women Voters chapter. Letendre says that one of the first things she did upon settling in her new city was to call the state office to figure out where the Woodbury chapter met. But, as she was told, there was no such chapter.

“They suggested the St. Paul League or the St. Croix Valley League, which was in Stillwater,” Letendre says. She and two other women, who were also new to Woodbury and previous members of other League of Women Voters chapters, visited the St. Paul and Stillwater Leagues, but neither felt quite right, because neither was home.
“Stillwater seemed too far away for us to get up there for a meeting, and we decided that Ramsey County isn’t Washington County,” Letendre says. “This is where we live, and we wanted something in this county.”

So, they decided to start a league of their own. They began by calling women in the area to inform them about the League of Women Voters and gauge interest in starting a chapter. Word spread quickly, and soon enough they had the 40 members necessary to make it official.

The energy around Woodbury becoming a city helped fuel excitement for the League of Women Voters. Mary Jane Rohde, another founding member, says that most initial members were young women new to the area. “I think they were eager to get to know their neighbors and other people, and so they signed up like mad,” she says.
Rohde also served as one of the League’s first presidents and saw the group through its early days as a provisional league through becoming a full-fledged chapter, which later merged with the nearby Cottage Grove chapter.
Much has changed throughout the past 50 years, and the League has grown and transformed right alongside Woodbury itself. Since many members were stay-at-home moms, meetings were held during the day, and they rotated between members’ homes, as there were few public meeting places around back then. Now, with more women working outside of the home, meeting times have had to change to non-working hours.

“We’ve changed, because we’ve had to change with the times,” says Letendre. “We’ve had to not be that intensive in terms of time, because people just don’t have the kind of time that they used to have.”

But despite that, the League remains just as active as ever, if not more so, and currently boasts more than 60 dues-paying members. Michelle Witte, a Woodbury-Cottage Grove member who is also the executive director of the League of Women Voters Minnesota, says that there has been a surge in participation since the November 2016 presidential election. “The state [league] as a whole has grown by 20 percent, actually, in the last year. We’re almost to 2,000 [members] throughout Minnesota.”

The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization, but Witte emphasizes that non-partisan isn’t synonymous with non-political. “We don’t endorse candidates or parties, but we’re very political in that we have issues that we advocate for. To me, the issue part is that if one party or another is smart enough to pick our issue, that’s up to them.”

Chapters throughout the country get to choose what issues to focus on. “If you go up to Duluth, mining is a big concern ... and Roseville recently did a study on policing and the issues they have there with racial profiling,” says Witte. Major areas of focus for the Woodbury-Cottage Grove League include immigration, education, the environment and aging. “There’s a lot of autonomy for local leagues to respond to the issues that are in their communities,” Witte says.

The League also helps register new voters, educate citizens on public policy issues and hosts events like candidate forums and legislative breakfasts to help connect community members to their elected officials.

For those interested in becoming more civically engaged, the League is always open to new members—the only requirements are to be at least 16 years of age and able to pay dues. And, despite the name, it’s open to all genders. Witte encourages anyone interested in getting involved to consider joining. “That personal grassroots testimony has always made a big difference to legislators. It still does today. Picking up the phone and being there as a local community member and not a lobbyist. It matters.”  

Members of the Woodbury-Cottage Grove League of Women Voters share photos and clips from their chapter’s 50-year history in the area. The chapter was founded in 1968 by several women who had recently arrived in the newly minted City of Woodbury and were eager to meet their neighbors and get involved in local issues.

To learn more, visit the website here.