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LWVO Celebrates One Hundred Years of Community Service

By Abby Cohn

Oakland was booming in 1924. The copper-crowned Tribune Tower had opened downtown just as car and truck assembly plants were fueling a population and economic surge throughout town. Meanwhile, a group of forward-thinking women made a historic contribution of a different sort—launching the predecessor of today’s League of Women Voters of Oakland.

Called the Oakland Forum, this organization was an auxiliary of the national League of Women Voters and was inspired by the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920. Aligning with the national League’s mission to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters, the local forum sponsored prominent speakers addressing many big issues of the day.

This year, the LWVO is proudly celebrating our centennial. Our 100th anniversary kicks off with a June 13 gala. Throughout the year, we will feature special tributes on our website and elsewhere to honor the women and achievements reflecting our mission to empower voters and defend democracy with informed and active civic participation.

Since our founding in the days of elegantly dressed ladies in fashionable hats, our organization has grown and changed with the times. But we have never wavered from our commitment to protect and expand voter rights.

With some 300 members, the Oakland League, like our national counterpart, is nonpartisan. We never support or oppose candidates but will take stands on issues after careful study and member input. Our all-volunteer corps is pursuing a broad agenda of voter services and advocacy that includes:

·         improving the workings of local government via detailed studies, advocacy, and regular attendance at city meetings

·         conducting voter registration and educating young people and others about the importance of voting

·         sponsoring candidate forums and explaining ballot measures in videos and newsletters

·         producing digital and print election guides

Bonnie Hamlin, a 42-year league member and past president, says,  “It was exciting to sit in a crowded community center at a candidate forum facilitated by our Voter Services team and realize that we were helping the candidates get their message out and giving a roomful of voters an opportunity to see and hear candidates.”

The League has been a political and professional springboard for members, including Wilhelmine Yoakum, who in 1931  became the first woman elected to the Oakland City Council, and former Councilmember and Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Designed to inform and educate women (and men), meetings in the 1930s and ’40s elucidated ballot measures and election procedures, and delved into issues such as Prohibition and low-cost housing.

The League also pushed for good government measures, including a 1940 city measure requiring that all liquid milk products be made with Grade A milk from sealed and approved containers.

Over the years, the League expanded its reach, including our work to monitor and improve the transparency and integrity of Oakland city government. We have long strived to make Oakland a better place.

For instance, our 1993 waterfront study called for coordinated planning and the creation of assets such as a shoreline trail, miniparks, and housing along this important resource.

Thanks in large part to League efforts, Oakland voters in 1996 established the Public Ethics Commission, a citizen-led watchdog agency. In 2014, we advocated for the voter-approved measure that gave the commission more investigative and enforcement power.

We helped draft the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, which improves the openness of government by requiring that the public get timely notice of forthcoming public meetings and their agendas.

We have long sponsored forums where Oaklanders can meet candidates for local office. In 2014 we added online videos of the pros and cons of local ballot measures to our Voter Services portfolio.

Our easy-to-read Oakland Easy Voter Guide makes voting more accessible for underserved communities and lower literacy residents. Since 2006, we have distributed hundreds of thousands of guides in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

Some years ago we started visits to local high schools and community colleges to

teach young people about the importance of voting, create a culture of voting, and register new voters. Student volunteers help plan and deliver these voter education presentations through our YOUth Decide program. 

Currently, two of our priorities involve redistricting and an innovative program called Democracy Dollars.

Demonstrating our belief that electoral districts should be drawn by a citizens’ redistricting commission instead of elected officials, we helped write Oakland’s 2014 ballot measure creating that independent body. We monitor the commission’s actions and are seeking a charter amendment to make necessary improvements.

Oakland voters in 2022 approved the nation’s second Democracy Dollars program as part of the Fair Elections Act that the League helped propose. City budget woes have prevented the launch of the program, which gives voters four $25 vouchers to donate to local candidates of their choice. The League continues to advocate to make this valuable effort a reality.

The League has “a unique profile,” says league president Gail Wallace. “No other groups have that combination of nonpartisanship combined with deep Oakland roots and a focus on governmental process particularly as it relates to voting, citizen participation, and transparency. It’s all about making the process work better.”


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