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Celebrating LWVO Life Member Mary Strauss

Updated: Apr 30

By Bonnie Hamlin

 In honor of LWVO’s Centennial, we are documenting our past with interviews, archival excavations, and blogs. See LWVO Celebrates One Hundred Years of Community Service, LWVO 1924-2024.

NATO, arms control, and Russian aggression are in the news. So they were 40 years ago, when 50+-year League member Mary Strauss visited Belgium and Italy as one of 10 League leaders on a NATO-sponsored trip  to learn about arms control and defensive weaponry, then a subject of study by the national League. They met with generals and admirals, government officials, an ambassador, journalists, a peace movement activist, civic leaders and diplomats, visited an F-16 base, lunched aboard the flagship of the Sixth Fleet, dined at the Allied Forces’ commander’s villa overlooking Naples Bay, and partied at the ambassador’s residence in Rome.  

As Dorothy Ridings, then President of the League, wrote in a National VOTER article describing the trip, they “returned with enough new facts and perspectives to stuff a League tote bag.”  Along the way there were opportunities to raise the consciousness of men they met, like the air force general who asked whether their husbands had given them permission to take the trip.

Mary first encountered the League at a Pros and Cons presentation in Los Angeles in 1960. She and her husband Phil had recently moved there from San Francisco. Realizing that they knew no one in LA, she followed up on  a friend’s suggestion that she check out the League as a place to meet interesting people.

Phil’s LA job didn’t pan out, so they returned to the Bay Area, settling in Oakland. The League of Women Voters had made a good impression, though, so Mary joined the Oakland League  in May 1961.

Like many new members, one of her first challenges was to draft the Pros and Cons  of a ballot  measure, this one  proposing the development of the Oakland/Alameda Coliseum - what became the longtime home of the Oakland A’s. Within a couple of years Mary was serving on the LWVO board. She remembers bringing her newborn, Kathy, to Board meetings, and fellow board member Betty Ann Bruno bringing her two little boys also.

With three children in Oakland public schools, Mary became deeply involved as a classroom volunteer.  But she maintained her ties with the League, and in 1982 was one of several delegates from LWVO to the 1982 LWVUS Convention in Houston, Texas. The Oakland League made its mark on that Convention, donating to LWVUS an ERA-themed quilt made by LWVO members.

Which brings us back to NATO and arms control. In preparation for the Convention, the LWVUS board had recommended a study of the United States’ defensive weaponry. League members around the country discussed a broader study of national security that would include looking at diplomacy, arms control and social welfare issues that undergird true national security. Once in Houston, LWVO’s delegation strategized with others to have the delegates vote on the broader study before the narrower one. As a result, the expanded study proposal gained the support of the required 3/5ths of delegates, and replaced the narrower recommended item.

Adding to the drama of the experience, the staff-written draft of the study proposal, received 6 days before Christmas 1982, didn’t include the critical additions to the study adopted at Convention. Mary spent the holidays re-writing it.

Later that summer, Mary received a call from the LWVUS inviting her to serve on the study committee for the new study. She demurred, recommending others she felt had better credentials. But the LWVUS staff member persisted. Mary agreed and pledged to herself that she would get up an hour earlier each morning to read the voluminous study resource materials!

One thing led to another and Mary found herself part of the NATO delegation described above. She recalls in particular overhearing Admiral Crowe, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces Southern Europe, remark that the League delegation was “one of the toughest groups we’ve met.” As Mary observed, her fellow Leaguers knew what they were about and asked  really good questions!

Mary would continue to be on LWVO’s board of directors, chairing the Action Committee in 1987-88 and leading a feisty campaign against Measure V, a “Full Time Mayor” proposal. Mary was not shy about getting her point across. At a news conference before a City Council meeting in December 1988, she expressed the League's “outrage” about the way the majority of the council had “hoodwinked voters'' by putting Measure V on the ballot with a deceptively “innocuous” title and a ballot booklet text that did not fairly represent its substance. Mary made it clear that the title “Full Time Mayor” didn't begin to describe Measure V's huge salary jump, removal of the mayor from the non-interference clause, and assignment to the mayor of new budget powers, all of which the League opposed.

She served as President 1989-91, when she proposed that LWVO sponsor  an All-City Luncheon. That luncheon became an annual Oakland  landmark event until Covid forced a cancellation in 2020. 

In addition to her LWVO work, Mary served on the Child Care Commission, appointed by Mayor Lionel Wilson in 1989. She became involved with Soviet/American people-to-people efforts during the 1980s.  This work inspired three years of college-level Russian study, and took her to the Soviet Union six times with various organizations. One of these groups supported Oakland’s Sister City relationship with Nakhodka, a port city in the Soviet Far East. 

She keeps busy. Up until the last several years, Mary was part of a team of LWVO volunteers who maintained boxes of voter registration forms in post offices and libraries throughout the city. In addition, she’s been deeply involved with Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and the Ecology Committee at St. Paul’s Towers,  where she has lived in retirement since her husband died.


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