THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Mildred “Millie” Jeffrey
(1911 – 2004)
”My Underlying Goal Was Always to Empower Women. Get Them to Learn Their Rights, and to Exercise Them!”
Veteran Feminists of America honors labor leader Millie Jeffrey at the Seventh Regiment Armory, New York City, April 1998
I’m Nikki Beare, and I am from Florida. And I can tell you right now that Florida is in deep trouble and Millie is going to come down and help us solve the problems. What can I say about Millie Jeffrey? Well I can say a few things. I can say, committed, powerful, fun loving, feisty, hard driving, gutsy, activist, labor organizer, first Woman labor official as a special assistant to UAW president Walter Reuther from 1944 to 1976, feminist, political strategist and friend.
Millie’s passion – and she’s very passionate for women’s causes – and her political activism has not been diminished over the years. In fact, I think it’s more than it was 15, 20, 30 years ago. She uses her passion for good. And she uses her influence for political candidates. She was the President of the National Women’s Political Caucus from 1975 to 77 and she pushed President Carter to appoint women into powerful positions in government. And with that power many, many women moved on to other things that were important to women.
She reared two children. A daughter who is a community consultant and a son who was a professor at the University of Montana. If you are looking for clout in politics, Millie Jeffrey is the one to see. I give you “Thoroughly Modest Millie.”
I just have to tell you, when Millie arrived in town yesterday she called and she said, “What can I do to help?”
Nikki, thank you for that lovely and generous introduction. I know now why I said thank you to Jacqui when she told me you were going to introduce me. No one would have given me greater pleasure or honor than hearing from my good friend Nikki. Thank you. And Jacqui, I just want to say thank you a million times. I would say more, but I can’t take away from my precious two minutes. I am so honored and delighted and excited about being in this wonderful gathering of trouble makers. Women who have been troubling the conscious of the world. Women who are stirring the waters of dissent and rebellion. It is a glorious and grand team, band of women who have made a difference in the lives of women in this century. Thank you. I, like everyone in this room, was so moved and inspired and challenged by Gerda Lerner. Could we give her another hand?
I won’t say anything about that challenge. You remember she said to us we are living in a moment of history. For some reason, I never thought of this before, but while you were speaking, it came to me. And I may never say this again, that I am a product of the Ku Klux Klan and a student of the YWCA. Rather strange bedfellows. I was raised in a small town in northwestern Iowa. During the 20s, the Klu Klux Klan was very strong in the Midwest. Particularly in Indiana and Iowa. In our little town, there were no blacks, so the target was Catholics and Jews.
And I remember so vividly men marching in their robes and regalia and their hoods and their masked faces and the burning crosses. The burning cross. And as a 9 year old it terrified me. I do not recall that there was any violence. I know kids threw stones at us and called us cat niggers. I do remember that no Catholic in our town or county could be elected to public office and I thought that was wrong and unjust. I was enraged.
And I think that’s where I got my underpinning. My fundamental belief in our system of government. Our system of democracy. And the electoral process and the power of the vote. Especially the women’s vote. The YWCA opened when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. It introduced me to magnificent women and men. It opened up a whole new world of discovery of radical politics of new thinking of social justice and world peace.
We campaigned against color barriers in restaurants and hotels. Against sweatshop labor and against the anti-union corporate power. I think I developed a system of values. I used to think it was like a rope that enabled me to climb the mountain of obstacles that one faces in life. That’s enough of where I came from. I just want to say in my couple more seconds two things.
Where do we go from here? Which is one of the questions you raised, Gerda. These are like pronouncements, forgive me. Wherever you go in the United States of America, anywhere, small town, village, hamlet, big city you find wonderful women of all ages and particularly young women. They are committed to feminism and philosophy – ready to join in the continuing struggle. In new ways, in a new society, in a new century.
And the second thing. I wish to announce tonight that the first woman president is alive and well. I do not know where she lives. North, South, East or West. I do not know her color, or her religion, or her lifestyle, or her socio-economic or cultural background. But sisters, she is alive and well and will be the first woman president of the United States.
Now the question is for each and every one of us – to use an expression – will that first woman president be a feminist? That’s the challenge. So just let me say as I thank you again for this wonderful honor, I hear the voice of Bella. She said so many things. We have one of the words she said, “Now we need music. Music is action. Never ever give in or give up!” Hats off to Bella. Hats off to you wonderful feminists. Thank you.