WILLMAR — The spirit of the suffragettes was palpable Monday evening at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, as dozens gathered to celebrate the opening of an exhibit that marks the centennial of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota.
As part of the celebration, the historical society and the League of Women Voters of the Willmar Area partnered to bring the traveling exhibit, created by the state League of Women Voters, to the museum. The exhibit dives into the history of the League in Minnesota, as well as honors the Willmar chapter's longest-serving members. The exhibit will be available for view through Sept. 27 during regular hours at the museum.
"It is important for the people to know, to know the long history we have," said Jan Dahl, former president of the Willmar chapter.
The League of Women Voters of Minnesota was established in October 1919, following the state's ratification of the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution on Sept. 8, 1919. The 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote became law in August 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment.
The League of Women Voters of the Willmar Area was officially established on Aug. 8, 1961, though as early as March 1920 there was a presence in the area. Nearly 60 years after its first official meeting, Willmar is still a very active chapter in the state.
"The Willmar League is noticed," said Laura Hemmer, state president.
Willmar also has a place on the national stage, as former Willmar League president Jessica Rohloff is now a member of the national board of the League of Women Voters of the United States.
"I look around this room and I look at so many women in this room that have mentored me, willing to sit down, willing to teach me and support me. I wouldn't be anywhere without you," Rohloff said. "That is really the heart of the League: People helping people, women helping women."
The League at all levels has been very busy and it will continue through 2020.
"We have a little election going on in 2020," said Michelle Witte, executive director of the state League. "It is going to be an exciting year."
The League chapters will continue to conduct voter registration drives, candidate forums, new citizen ceremonies, as well as lobby for or against legislation based on the League's non-partisan priorities.
"We want people voting," said Jan Forkrud, president of the League of Women Voters of the Willmar Area. "It is important to be active in the political discourse, no matter our opinions."
Upcoming events in Willmar include a series of pop-up picketing events to publicize the need to register to vote. The first will be on Sept. 24 just south of the First Street bridge during rush hour. A picketing event will take place once a month.
At 6 p.m. at the Oct. 14 Willmar League meeting, a representative from the Better Angels Eagan Alliance will discuss political partisanism and ways to help bridge those red-blue divides. Members of the public, of all political persuasions, are invited to attend.
Going forward, the League wants to make sure all of its decisions and programming meet standards of diversity, equity and inclusion. Forkrud said that in the League's early days, it was not as active as it should have been in assisting other disenfranchised groups, such as racial minorities, to secure their voting rights. This new focus will help the League meet its overall mission of supporting enfranchisement of all citizens.
"It acknowledges we have a lot of work to do yet," Forkrud said. "Here in Willmar we have a great opportunity. We want to work on that."
The League will also continue to support the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, both at the state and national level.
"We need an equal rights amendment in the state of Minnesota," said Willmar League member Suzanne Napgezek. "It is a no brainer."
The League has also decided to focus on redistricting and gerrymandering. The League feels this issue is a threat to democracy and citizen voting rights.
"If we truly want to uphold democracy, we need to uphold the vote," Rohloff said. "We will be fighting this unfair redistricting that is going on. It is a big task."
Overarching all of what the League does is the importance of it continuing to be non-partisan, meaning it does not support or oppose any candidate or political party at any level. While some might consider the League progressive, everything it chooses to do goes back to its vision statement of a "democracy where every person has the desire, the right, the knowledge and the confidence to participate."
"We cherish it, we live it, " Rohloff said, adding no League chapter was in favor of becoming a partisan organization. "We have strong, strong consensus, even in times that are pushing people to be very partisan."
As the state League's membership celebrates 100 years and the nation as a whole marks 100 years of women's right to vote, there is also the knowledge that there is still much to be done, issues to be resolved and voters to register.
"Always celebrate what has been accomplished and make sure we are always looking ahead," Rohloff said. "We're not done, ladies."