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Women’s History Month 2017: Norma Dobler, Champion of Service

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

In 1980 a group of educators began agitating for national recognition of the historic contributions made by women. The handful of high school teachers noticed that their social studies textbooks devoted less than 3% of pages to women’s experiences and accomplishments. That year President Carter proclaimed the week of March 8th – International Women’s Day – as Women’s History Week. By 1987, the movement had gained enough traction among legislators that the entirety of March was declared Women’s History Month. In every subsequent year our President has recognized March as a month to celebrate all that women have done and continue you do for America. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, throughout March we will be celebrating women who called Latah County home.  

Norma Dobler was a mother, wife, volunteer, politician, activist, and concerned citizen. She was not, by her own admonition, a “women’s libber.” (1) Yet when all of Dobler’s accomplishments and contributions to her community are added up, it is clear that regardless of labels she was a champion of equal rights, which is the core tenant of feminism.

Norma Woodhouse graduated from the University of Idaho with a business degree in 1939, married Clifford Dobler in 1941, and spent much of that decade as a housewife. She dedicated herself to the activities of her three children, volunteering time to the 4-H Club and Campfire Girls and serving as the superintendent of Sunday school at the Methodist Church. She performed the duties of a faculty wife for her husband, who taught business law at UI.

In 1950 Norma Dobler joined a another group in Moscow, and that new affiliation would prove to be a turning point in her life. Along with six other women, Dobler set out to obtain a charter for a local League of Women Voters. The national organization is a successor to the women’s suffrage movement and was first organized in 1920, following the passage of the 19th Amendment. Dobler was impressed by the League’s commitment to research and consensus building. (2) She and her fellow co-founders believed a local League could provide a venue for the exploration of common concerns, such as school funding or government accountability. Within two years the charter for League of Women Voters of Moscow was awarded, and Dobler’s commitments grew.

League members were encouraged to attend the meetings of boards, commissions, and councils which handled public funds and made decisions that impacted voters and citizens. Dobler began attending Moscow School Board meetings regularly around 1960 as a citizen observer and invested parent. Her presence was noted and in 1963 she was encouraged to run for a seat on the board. She served for six years in that capacity. In an additional act of service to her fellow community members, she and Clifford produced an accurate map of school board precincts for the first time. (2)

From 1969 to 1972 Dobler was the president of the state’s League of Women Voters. Throughout Idaho League members were agitating for causes that some legislators deemed radical. In 1966 the League adopted a position in opposition to loyalty oaths, which the Young Republicans of Coeur d’Alene asserted was “of great assistance to the Communists in the spread of their seditious propaganda.” (2) Although League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan organization, membership provided Dobler with a background in politics. In 1972 former Latah County Commissioner and Democrat Donna Bray encouraged Dobler to run for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives. Her victory that November added one more title to Dobler’s resume – elected official. Upon her arrival in Boise she was greeted with skepticism, both for her affiliation with the “rabble-rousing” League of Women Voters and for her age. According to Dobler, a young Rep. “Butch” Otter even patted her on the head and told her she reminded him of his grandmother.

For 14 years Norma Dobler served her community as a Representative (’72-’76) and a Senator (’76-’86). During her terms, she gained respect as a Democrat willing to reach across the aisle and she often built bi-partisan coalitions to further the legislation important to her constituents.  The efficacy of her leadership is manifest in a list of accomplishments that is long and included the adoption of a state-wide kindergarten system (Idaho was the last state to adopt such a model), requiring the disclosure of campaign contributions by lobbyists, ensuring water quality, and preventing road building in wilderness areas. During Dobler’s final year she was also part of a bipartisan group of Senators urging their colleagues to adopt Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an official state holiday. At that time Idaho was one of only a handful of states that had not done so. Although the Senate passed the 1986 bill, it was killed in the House of Representatives. MLK, Jr. Day was not recognized in Idaho until 1990.

In an interview many years after she left the Idaho Senate, Dobler remarked that her proudest accomplishment was the creation of a displaced homemakers fund. Although she lived a happy, “traditional” married life, she was keenly aware of the hardships faced by women after a divorce. The displaced homemakers fund, which was sustained by the fees collected by courts to process divorce filings, allowed women to attend one of Idaho’s vocational schools and learn a trade to support themselves and their family. (3)

Even after her retirement from the legislature, Norma Dobler was not content to rest on her laurels. From 1987 to 1996 she served on the Idaho State Board of Tax Appeals, hearing cases in the ten northernmost counties. Dobler also acted as a representative for the American Association of Retired People at the state and national levels. She was a faithful member of the League of Women Voters until her death in 1998.

A few months before her passing, a profile of Norma Dobler was published in the local newspaper. The piece opens with the line “If an election were held today to choose one of Latah County’s most respected women, Norma Woodhouse Dobler would likely win hands down.” (3). Her commitment to service made her a remarkable woman.

At the same time, her record of volunteerism is representative of the role that women everywhere play in their communities. In several interviews Dobler insisted that she was just a housewife and mother before she got into politics. Yet we know that she was volunteering and a school board member and a community activist. Although those roles did not come with a paycheck, she was contributing important work to her family and to her town. Women’s work is too often unpaid and therefore undervalued. It goes unaccounted for in our economy. That is just one reason why Women’s History Month is so important. When we neglect to take the time to look at the accomplishments that cannot be easily quantified in textbooks, we neglect the experiences of wide swaths of our population. Women’s contributions to American history, politics, culture, and the economy are undeniable.

(1) “Idaho Senator, Grandmother Norma Dobler,” Palouse Empire News: A Weekly Supplement to the Idahoan, April 24-25, 1982.

(2) “League of Women Voters: National Group Celebrates 75 Years of Political Stands,” Moscow-Pullman Daily News, September 23-24, 1995.

(3) “Retirement Not an Issue for Dobler,” Moscow-Pullman Daily News, February 1-2, 1997.

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