Jo Anne Trow grew up in what media portrays as a typical postwar American family in the industrialized Midwest city of Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown. Her mother’s involvement in local politics, including serving on a precinct committee, perhaps influenced her later civic work. Certainly, Trow grew up believing that women were capable of doing whatever they wanted to do, a sentiment that societal norms did not generally encourage in the postwar era.
Like a growing proportion of women in the 1950s, she pursued higher education, earning a Bachelors Degree from Denison University in Ohio and a a Master’s Degree at Indiana University. She launched a career in student affairs at Washington State University before earning a doctoral degree and moving to Oregon in 1960 to work at Oregon State University. Despite her generation’s growing access to education, her achievement was nonetheless exceptional; in 1961 women made up only 11% of all people earning PhDs, and less than half of all women graduating from college had plans of going on to higher education.
Trow began her career at a time when women faced numerous barriers in professional employment. Women who worked full time in 1963 typically made 60 percent of what men made, had little legal protection from discrimination, and faced strong cultural and social pressure to focus exclusively on home, children, and volunteer activities. Trow recounts some of her initial experiences at Oregon State University, where, as elsewhere, women faced formidable barriers in gaining professional opportunities. Trow was able to overcome the odds and these expectations that were set for her and the women around her. At OSU, she rose to the position of Dean of Women and, when that position was discontinued, she served as Vice President of Student Services. In a time where women were encouraged to focus on marriage and to contain their labor market ambitions to “pink collar jobs,” she defied those expectations and launched a long, impressive, and influential professional career.
Trow joined the League of Women Voters when she lived in Pullman, Washington and continued her involvement in subsequent years. The fact that she could find strong communities in such different locations – Michigan and Oregon – demonstrates how widespread women’s civic groups such as the League were during the postwar era. These groups offered women a way to become involved in politics and make a significant difference; they also served as a way for well-educated women to learn about problems and issues within their city or state. The League engaged women, those who were in the labor market and those who were not, in research, organizing, and lobbying work as a means to affect government policy.
The Corvallis League attracted many highly educated women because Oregon State University did not allow both a husband and a wife to serve as faculty members. The League therefore served as a way for women to still engage in serious work outside the house. While these faculty families could maintain good middle-class lifestyles on one salary, many of the wives sought ways to employ their education and intelligence in constructive ways. League members during this time were part of a new generation, one that placed emphasis on careers and activities outside of the private sphere.
Trow sees the political context of the 1950s and 1960s as one basis for the League’s broad reach and large membership. American involvement in World War II and the Cold War made foreign policy and politics applicable and important to the average citizen. Trow credits these events with helping her to grow up with an understanding and interest in politics and equal rights, interests that made the League a natural fit.
While describing her beliefs and attitudes towards the political, social, and academic arenas it was clear to see how well the mission of the League of Women Voters fit in to her ideology. She believes deeply in equality and the power of education. The League is also strictly nonpartisan; it focuses on educating citizens and encouraging them to make informed decisions. Trow believes in equality but distinguishes her political style from a more radical feminist politics. Trow has always accepted being called a feminist, because in her opinion she just simply believes that woman should be equal to men.