Dorothy Eck, who represented Bozeman in the Legislature for 20 years, said she wasn't always all that political.

In 1958, she had some friends who were forming a League of Women Voters chapter in Bozeman.

"It was good," Eck recalled. "I liked the idea of the kind of gathering where we would really study issues then take a stance on them."

On March 14, 1960, the local League held its first official meeting and elected its first president. In the 50 years since, it has weighed in on property taxes, parks, growth planning and the minimum wage.

And, it has served as an incubator for some of Bozeman's politicians, Eck being one of the most prominent.

"They've been influential on a number of things," said Anne Banks, another longtime member of the group. "I first got actively involved through an interest in the land-use plan Bozeman was putting together in the early 1980s. (The League) was the first group that commented on it."

The U.S. League of Women Voters formed in 1920 in conjunction with passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The organization's purpose, according to its Web site, is to "improve our systems of government and impact public policies through citizen education and advocacy."

Montana had allowed women to vote since 1914, and had already elected a woman to Congress, but chapters of the new club began popping up around the state.

Bozeman's first effort started in the 1920s, but died out in the 1930s, according to a history compiled by local members. In the late 1950s, a group of women started talking about resurrecting the chapter.

Almost immediately after re-forming in 1960, the local League began publishing voter guides with profiles of candidates and information about ballot issues, as well as holding public forums for candidates to share their views, both of which it still does today.

But the League has also been active in the halls of the state Capitol and city hall, Eck and Banks said.

"The League really has two functions," Banks said. "One is voter education on public policy issues and getting people involved in public policy. "The other is advocacy.

"The League nationally has positions on quite a wide variety of public policy things, from arms control to land-use planning to health care. ... But they don't do it off the top of their heads. They do it after formal studies"

In the 1960s, many Montanans were lobbying for a minimum wage, but it was considered a long shot. Eck said she and other League lobbyists were able to convince an influential farmer from eastern Montana to support the bill, and with him came enough votes for it to pass.

"There were advantages to working with a lot of different people," she said. "The League probably deserves credit for passing the first minimum-wage bill."

And the group continues to take positions "on issues that are important," Eck said.

Most recently, it lobbied for a trio of mental health bills that sought to give Montanans experiencing mental crises better access to help. The laws passed.

"I think people who worked on that recognized that the League support was really important," Eck said. "They are good at making calls, getting letters out, finding good stories that support their position.

The Bozeman Area League of Women Voters will mark its 50th year at an event at Riverside Country Club. Joining members of the club will be Mary G. Wilson, president of the U.S. League of Women Voters.

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.