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Wendy Reuer, Published July 14 2012

League of Women Voters has strong roots in North Dakota

FARGO – North Dakota may be a considered conservative in the ballot boxes, but when it comes to leading the way for equality, the state has consistently moved forward.

The League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley remains both a strong advocate and educator on issues of voting and women’s rights.

Many of the women who were at the forefront of the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s remain committed to staying abreast of today’s issues.

They’re a part of what has come to be known as the “Second Saturday” group, an informal but informational meeting of those interested in national issues relevant to today’s women.

Among those women are ladies such as Jane Skjei, Lois Altenburg, Leah Rogne, Bonnie Askew, Alice Haun and Susan Helgeland.

The group of ladies meets on the second Saturday of each month in the Radisson Hotel library in Fargo.

“Sometimes it’s four, five, six people, sometimes it’s 18 to 20,” Skjei said. “You’re invited the first time and from then on you’re just expected show up when you can.”

Those same women were on the forefront of the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, an equalizing amendment to the U.S. Constitution that still remains in limbo today.

“It’s not an issue that is often discussed. People just assume that women have equal rights,” Rogne said.

What would be the U.S. constitution’s 28th Amendment would read “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The ERA was first proposed in the 1920s and the U.S. Congress passed it in 1972, but before it will actually be added to the federal constitution, the ERA must be ratified by 38 states. Only 35 states have passed the needed amendments.

It was in the early ’70s that the now-members of Second Saturdays stood in the face of naysayers and demanded North Dakota pass the amendment, which it did.

“A lot of people were open to it. At the time I didn’t consider North Dakota a particularly conservative state. It has a strong progressive history,” Rogne said. “The backlash to women’s rights hadn’t really hit in the mid-’70s, and women’s rights were really riding high.”

Skjei, like many of the women now in the Second Saturday group, said she first got involved with the fight for equal rights as a chance to change the world.

“I saw a chance to do something good,” she said.

For Rogne, the desire for women’s equality is in her genes. Her mother, Katherine Rogne, was a founding member of the state League of Women voters. She traveled the state teaching women and men about the issues facing the nation at the time.

“I grew up thinking that is what women did,” Rogne said.

Rogne said it is funny North Dakota is often considered to be such a conservative state, when historically, Democratic representatives have been sent to Washington, D.C. but more than that, Rogne said the residents have always been open to new ideas.

“It’s too simplistic to call North Dakota a conservative state,” she said.

Altenburg, a current member of the state League, said that while the League started as a mode of education for not just women’s issues but world issues such as open trade, today’s League remains focused on education but narrows it down to voting rights and information.

Altenburg said many young women tend to join more special interest groups such environmental advocacy or health groups, but the League still plays an important role in informing lives of local issues.

Mary Tintes, a current League director said that whenever the group is struggling to find new members, they simply look to what the women of the Second Saturday group have already achieved.

“All we have to do is remind ourselves of how difficult it was for these pioneer ladies to get the League started,” Tintes said. “So many of those women were role models for many of us, the inspiration that they have provided to us is something we are constantly reminded of. It’s our compass.”