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Celebrating suffrage: Retired college professor digs into Iowa archives for new book

Linda Meloy of Iowa City dresses as a suffragette at a Feb. 19 book launch event at the Old Capitol in Iowa City. Meloy
Linda Meloy of Iowa City dresses as a suffragette at a Feb. 19 book launch event at the Old Capitol in Iowa City. Meloy has written a book about the impact of the League of Women Voters in Iowa over the past 100 years, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Photo by Liz Martin, The Gazette
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For Linda Meloy, writing a book about the impact the League of Women Voters has had in Iowa during the past century was “like putting together a thousand-piece puzzle with 300 pieces missing and a lot of clouds.”

Despite the project’s complexity, the three-year commitment to writing the book turned out to be a saving grace. The Iowa City woman was leaving her career in higher education and also facing a personal challenge.

“I needed to fill two voids in my life — one due to retirement from a professorship that I loved and another due to my longtime partner moving to be nearer his family as he moved into the long and dark path of dementia,” she said.

So she was ready for the challenge of a book she would title, “... And They Persisted ... Century of Impact of Iowa Leagues.”

Meloy brought a research background, scholarship and writing skill to the job — plus more than 40 years as a League member. From arranging refreshments to serving as the League’s Johnson County president, Meloy had shown her commitment to the nonpartisan civic organization.

Today, she still wears many hats.

“I am treasurer of the state League and thus on the state board,” she said. “I am also chairperson of See Yourself Here, a behind-the-scenes look at the governmental process held at the State Capitol each spring during the legislative session. It’s designed for women who think they would like to run for a state-level office.

“The League has never been an organization to toot its own horn,” Meloy said. “It is about time that we did. And a 100th anniversary is a fine time to do so.”

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The book, she said, is about honoring the thousands of League members who have worked for the betterment of their communities, counties and state.

The book also shares with a larger audience “the League’s study and action processes and shows how we maintain nonpartisanship, which is so respected by decision-makers in government.”

It also shows, she said, “all that we have accomplished” in regard to legislation in Iowa — 314 bills — in the past 98 years.

The book includes a chapter on those laws, divided into six categories, along with an appendix listing them in chronological order.

On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was certified, giving women the right to vote. The amendment reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

This year, Iowa — the 10th state to ratify the amendment — is commemorating that ratification with a number of activities, including ones hosted by the League of Women Voters. For more information, see the “Hard Won. Not Done” website at 19th-amendment-centennial.org.

“The League provides an opportunity to learn about the workings of government and about topics such as water quality and juvenile justice,” she said. “And it is also a leadership building organization, if that is what you want from it.”

Meloy grew up in the 1950s in a small central Illinois town, with a riverboat captain father and a “domestic engineer” mother. It was a culture, she said, that did not encourage girls to strive for careers.

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“So, it took me a long time, and a lot of pain along the way, to discover my personal strengths and set career goals for myself,” she said.

Trained as a teacher and then as a school psychologist, Meloy became a professor in special education at Western Illinois University at its campus in Moline, Ill., raising two of her three children in nearby Muscatine. She lectured and worked in other countries — Lithuania, Sweden and Australia — and was a Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria.

Meloy drew from her years as an academic to map out the League book, approaching it like a graduate level course or research project. Her objective was to honor League members, the organization’s processes and “the products of our labor and persistence.”

She hired a research assistant and tapped into resources from the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center at Iowa State University, the State Historical Society, League materials provided by members and books like Louise Noun’s “Strong-minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-suffrage Movement in Iowa.”

Meloy said she is encouraged by the increased number of women running for political office.

“In 2009, 21 percent of the members of the Iowa Legislature were women,” she said. “In 2019 to 2020, there are 44, for a percentage of 29 percent. Slow growth, but growth. And with the increase in membership by women in the U.S. Congress this past election year … women are taking more of a center stage.”

Meloy credits Mary Rae Bragg of Dubuque, former president of the state League, for perfectly capturing why women should be involved in the political process.

“Don’t let anyone tell you gender doesn’t matter. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that issues inherently important to women are going to be given more attention when their voices are being heard in the assembly,” Meloy quoted Bragg as saying.

And then there’s Meloy’s favorite T-shirt: “If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.”

TO PURCHASE

* Linda Meloy’s book, “... And They Persisted ... Century of Impact of Iowa Leagues,” will be available for purchase later this year at LWVIA.org.

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* The Iowa League of Women Voters plans to place a copy of Meloy’s book in every high school and public library in the state, along with a teacher’s guide.

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