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Mildred Jeffrey, 93; Feminist Fought for Civil, Labor Rights

March 29, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Mildred "Millie" Jeffrey, a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus and a behind-the-scenes strategist for 70 years in campaigns to advance not only women's rights but organized labor and racial equality, died of natural causes Wednesday at an assisted-living facility in Detroit. She was 93.

Jeffrey was a diminutive dynamo, barely 5 feet tall, who blazed trails for women in the United Auto Workers union in the 1940s, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Meredith in the 1950s and 1960s, and became a key backstage advisor to women seeking political power in the 1970s and 1980s. She played a pivotal role in Geraldine Ferraro's historic quest for the vice presidency on the 1984 Democratic ticket.

"She may be small in stature and humble in manner, but she is very strong," President Clinton said when he awarded Jeffrey the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 along with such better-known honorees as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

Jeffrey accepted the medal with a mock curtsy that drew laughter from the president and his guests.

She was born in Alton, Iowa, into a family of gutsy, hard-working women. Her grandmother was a widow with 16 children who ran the family farm after her husband died. Her mother became Iowa's first female registered pharmacist in 1908 and raised seven children on her own after her husband abandoned them. Her mother later moved the family from their small Iowa town to Minneapolis so Jeffrey and her sisters could attend college.

At the University of Minnesota in the late 1920s, Jeffrey was exposed to socialism and became involved in progressive movements. She joined a radical campus chapter of the YWCA that had taken a public stand in support of racial integration. With an African American classmate, she helped desegregate restaurants near the university that turned away black diners. She would later become a lifetime member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

After getting a bachelor's degree in 1932, Jeffrey attended Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, earning a master's in social economy and social research in 1934. Finding few job prospects in the Depression years, she plunged into union work. Soon she was organizing millworkers for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and directing educational programs for the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Shirt Workers.

In 1936, she met fellow organizer Homer Newman Jeffrey at a picnic of necktie workers. After marrying that year, they traveled the country to conduct organizing campaigns. They divorced in the 1950s.

In 1944, she moved to Detroit to direct the UAW's newly formed Women's Bureau, becoming the union's first female department head. She organized the UAW's first women's conference to grapple with massive layoffs of female factory workers who were being replaced by returning World War II veterans.

Over the next three decades, until her retirement in 1976, Jeffrey served in a variety of other union posts, including directing community relations, consumer affairs and the UAW radio station.

During those years, she also was deeply involved in political action.

Jeffrey played a role in the birth of the antiwar Students for a Democratic Society when she arranged for her daughter and a group of fellow University of Michigan activists, including Tom Hayden, to gather at an AFL-CIO camp on Lake Huron in 1962. The meeting resulted in the Port Huron Statement, the founding manifesto of the SDS and perhaps the most widely read document of the American Left in the 1960s.

Appalled by the paucity of women in leadership positions, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971 and served as one of its first national chairwomen. In the mid-1970s, she led a caucus task force that successfully pressed for a change in Democratic National Convention rules to require that women make up half the convention delegates. The 1980 convention was the first to come under the equal-division rule.

The change "had a profound impact," Joanne Howes, a Washington, D.C., public policy consultant who worked with Jeffrey at the caucus in the 1970s, told The Times last week. "It gave women another entry point into politics. And it really created the right atmosphere" for the 1984 convention, when Walter Mondale began soliciting recommendations for the No. 2 spot on the ticket.

Jeffrey became the chief strategist behind a small group of politically active women who, in late 1983, began to stealthily promote the concept of a woman for vice president.

The group, which called itself "Team A," meticulously combed through the records of every possible female candidate, eventually focusing on Ferraro, then a little-known congresswoman from New York. This group of women, Ferraro wrote in her 1985 autobiography, "probably had as much to do with my nomination as any single group."

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