Harriett Friedman Woods, who started out as an ambitious journalist, and who later became a University City councilwoman to launch a career which would include both statewide and national prominence in major public office and national women’s leadership, died at her University City home last Thrusday night, Feb. 8, 2007, from complications from leukemia. She was 79.
Ms. Woods, a Democrat, became the first woman and second person of the Jewish faith to be elected to Missouri’s second highest executive position, Lieutenant Governor, in 1984, a victory considered even more remarkable in that Republican John Ashcroft won the position of Governor in the national GOP landslide led by President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign. A progressive Democrat, Ms. Woods earned the respect and admiration from members of her own party as well as from Republicans and independents during her long career in public office. (Kenneth J. Rothman, another Jewish Democrat, was elected lieutenant governor in the statewide election of l980, and he too would serve under a Republican governor, Christopher S. (Kit) Bond, who made a political comeback that year.)
In addition to her long service in journalism and in local, state and national politics, Woods was remembered with fondness for her devotion to her family.
“She will be remembered as a loving mother and grandmother, but we are also incredibly proud of her life devoted to public service and her passionate and determined efforts to aid society’s most vulnerable — the elderly, minorities and the homeless — to obtain equal opportunities for women…and mentor future generations of leaders,” the family said in a statement released after her death.
Vivian Eveloff, director of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life, named in honor of another pioneer Jewish woman officeholder, said, “The Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life is celebrating the life of a courageous woman leader, role model, mentor, board member and friend…For the past decade, she set the stage at the 21st Century Leadership Academy, leading college students through the journey of American women in politics, inspiring them with her story, enlightening them to the challenges and barriers women faced, and helping them understand how far we’ve come.”
Ms. Woods was remembered not only for her serious devotion to public service and to attaining rights for women and minorities, but for never taking herself too seriously, and for a warm and engaging sense of humor which endeared her to political allies as well as those who ran against her. U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said “it was good to see Harriett in Washington just a few short weeks ago as the 110th Congress convened; the historic dynamic of Speaker Pelosi at the rostrum relfected the lifetime of work that was truly Harriett Woods (who) will continue to be an inspiration for generations of young people — especially young women — to make a difference in public life.”
Ms. Woods was also a source of pride for the St. Louis Jewish community, and was the recipient of numerous awards and accolades from the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Congress, and many others through the years.
Ms. Woods was born in Cleveland as Ruth Harriett Friedman. Her family moved to Chicago, where she graduated from high school and attended the University of Chicago before graduating from the University of Michigan, where she was the first female editor of the student-run newspaper, according to an extensive article by Joe Mannies, political correspondent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last weekend.
Woods worked as a reporter for the Chicago Herald-American in 1948, and then moved to St. Louis, where she continued her journalistic career. Mannies reports that “she found the pickings slim. She applied for a job at the Post-Dispatch, which then had no female reporters. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat hired her as one of its first women on the news staff.”
In l953, she married Jim Woods, a reporter and editor at the Globe-Democrat and later at the Post-Dispatch. She left the Globe and gave birth to three sons in four years, Christopher, Peter and Andrew.
Mannies reports that Ms. Woods’ political career began “when she complained to University City’s elected leaders about a noisy manhole cover on her street that was disturbing her sons’ naps. When the City Council declined to act, she began a neighborhood petition drive that closed the street to through traffic, a ban that still stands.”
That early civic activism inspired Harriett Woods to seek public office. In l967, she was elected to the City Council of University City. In l974, Gov. Bond named her to the State Highway Commission, later called the Transportation Commission. In l976, she was elected in the Missouri Senate, where she pushed legislation to curb drunken driving and for nursing home regulations. She also was a strong advocate for Missouri ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, one of the few causes in which she was not successful.
In a statement, Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond said, “As someone who faced her on the campaign trail, I have a deep respect for her dedication to public service and commitment to making Missouri a better place for us all.”
State Rep. Rachel Storch, D-University City, recalled Ms. Woods as a loyal mentor and role model. “No call went unreturned. No request for advice was unanswered.”
In l982, Ms. Woods ran against incumbent Republican Senator John Danforth, losing by 27,500 votes out of l.5 million cast. In l984, she lost another Senate run against Bond. Ms. Woods left public office in l989, but soon founded the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. In l99l she became president of the New York-based national Women’s Political Caucus. She was a featured speaker at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. President Bill Clinton named her head of the Coalition for Women’s Appointments.
After completing her service as president of the national Women’s Political Caucus, she returned home to University City, where she began her long journalistic and political careers. She was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and in 2000 published a book titled Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women, described by Mannies as “part history and part memoir of her experiences.”
She continued to travel and teach university courses until her leukemia diagnosis last year. Despite her illness, she traveled to Washington to be on hand as Nancy Pelosi became the first woman U.S. Speaker of the House.
Ms. Woods husband, Jim Woods, died in 2002. Among the survivors are three sons, Christopher Woods, Peter Woods and Andrew Woods, all of St. Louis; a sister, Elaine Pearlman of Lafayette, Ind. and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service is being planned.