Unsung Heroine

Behind every successful man, the old saying used to go, stands a supportive woman. No one has come up with an adage identifying who, exactly, stands behind a successful woman, so let me make a modest suggestion: Millie Jeffrey.

Mildred McWilliams Jeffrey, who died last week at a Detroit nursing home at age 93, was -- among many other things -- the great, behind-the-scenes strategist of modern American feminism. In the early '70s, during her final years on the staff of the United Auto Workers, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus and launched a decade-long campaign to have Democratic National Convention delegate slots divided equally between men and women. As Millie saw it, equal division wasn't just, or even primarily, an end in itself, recalls Joan McClain, a politics professor at Ohio Wesleyan, who made a documentary film on Jeffrey's life. "If the convention was divided 50-50," McClain recalls Jeffrey arguing, "that would percolate down to having more experienced women ready to run for office."

From her perch on several Democratic Party commissions, and using the contacts she'd acquired in 40 years of liberal activism, Millie built enough support for this wild-eyed notion that it was adopted by the 1980 convention. Millie then became "the unelected leader," in the words of her co-conspirator Joanne Howes, of a committee of seven Democratic women promoting the idea of a female vice presidential candidate on the 1984 ticket. "By the fall of 1983," recalls Howes, "we came to the conclusion that the right person was Gerry Ferraro" -- then an obscure member of Congress from Queens. That required augmenting Ferraro's visibility and bona fides, and as a result of "Millie's strategic thinking," says Howes, the group successfully pressured the party and Walter Mondale to make Ferraro chair of the convention platform committee. The rest is herstory.

When Millie died last week, both Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told the media that they would not be in their current positions without the decades of work that Millie had put in on behalf of equal opportunities for women. That work began in the 1930s, when Millie, a fiery young socialist, organized clothing workers in the South. In 1944, she became the first director of the UAW's Women's Bureau, working to secure child care and transportation for the quarter-million Riveting Rosies who had swelled the UAW's ranks -- and teaching the women the parliamentary and bureaucratic skills they needed to have a role in their union.

By the end of World War II, Millie had become one of a number of extraordinarily talented staffers whom Walter Reuther hired to help him mold the auto workers into the greatest force for social democracy that America has ever known. Under Reuther, the UAW became the anchor tenant in the house of postwar liberalism. Its contracts, and those of the steelworkers, set the standard for the entire manufacturing sector, and for the three decades after World War II, working-class living standards in the United States rose just as steeply as upper-middle class living standards -- an equality of economic opportunity that America has experienced only during this period of union strength.

More than that, though, the Reutherites saw it as their duty to bolster newer movements for social equality. They provided political and material assistance to the civil rights movement (it was the UAW that paid for the signs and sound system at the great 1963 March on Washington), for Cesar Chavez's farm workers, for the campus left in the early '60s, for start-up feminist organizations and the first Earth Day.

And for several decades, Walter Reuther's emissary to these groups was Millie Jeffrey.

And so it was that Millie trained activists from the National Council of Churches to lobby for civil rights, introduced the young Jack Kennedy to NAACP leaders, secured UAW support for inner-city community organizing, and obtained the UAW's campground at Port Huron for the founding meeting of Students for a Democratic Society. In the years before the New Left descended to ultra-left wackiness, there was no better emissary between the generations of '30s and '60s leftists. In the '70s, when many New Leftists began to re-engage reality, Millie was there to ease their reentry. "It was typical of Millie to bring skills from one movement to the next," McClain says.

Her energy was the stuff of legend. Determined to attend the inauguration of Madeleine Kunin as governor of Vermont, which occurred in the middle of the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike, the then 70-year-old Millie traveled from Detroit to Montpelier by bus. Two years ago, at age 91, she bused down from Detroit to Cleveland to witness Joan Campbell's swearing in as mayor. Not without some misgivings, McClain dropped her at the Cleveland bus station for the return trip. "I'll be fine," Millie said. "See ya."

"I'll retire when I die," Millie frequently said. Somehow, I don't entirely believe that.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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