Harriett Woods, Missouri's first female lieutenant governor, dies

Friday, February 9, 2007

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Former Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, an activist Democrat who championed other women politicians after becoming the first to hold elected statewide office in Missouri, has died of leukemia. She was 79.

Woods had been diagnosed with leukemia in March while teaching political and community involvement in New York. She died about 10 p.m. Thursday at her home in the St. Louis suburb University City, surrounded by family, her son, Andrew Woods, said.

"She will be remembered most 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.

Woods, a Democrat, became Missouri's lieutenant governor in 1984 and served one term as the state's No. 2 executive. Before that, she served eight years in the state Senate, two years on a state transportation commission and eight years on the University City Council.

She also made two unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and 1986.

Andrew Woods said his mother maintained a keen interest in politics, especially in women in politics. He said she was especially pleased when Democrat Claire McCaskill in November became Missouri's first elected woman senator. Woods, in a wheelchair, was in Washington to see McCaskill sworn in as senator and Nancy Pelosi become the first speaker of the House.

"It was so fulfilling at this point in her life," Andrew Woods said. "To see a woman finally elected senator of Missouri and speaker of the House, she was really elated."

McCaskill called Woods one of the state's "most important warriors."

"She was an incredible leader in our state and very special to the women of Missouri because of her willingness to take risks and be bold and challenge the status quo when none of us could even imagine such a thing," McCaskill said.

Woods became ill while teaching courses at Pace University and Hunter College in New York. She taught the remaining coursework from her hospital bed in St. Louis, "during her first round of chemo," Andrew Woods said. She also taught at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Woods was born in 1927 in Cleveland. Her family moved to Chicago nine years later. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1949, and was the first female editor of the college newspaper.

She took a job at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and also joined the violin section of the St. Louis Philharmonic orchestra. She later worked as a moderator and public affairs director for KPLR-TV in St. Louis.

A noisy manhole cover spurred Woods into politics.

After marrying newspaper editor James B. Woods in 1953, Harriett Woods was a housewife. The noisy manhole cover near her home would wake her children from their naps. When the city wouldn't help, she persuaded neighbors to sign a petition.

That effort led her to join the League of Women Voters. And in 1967, Woods became a member of the University City Council, stepping down in 1974 when then-Gov. Kit Bond appointed her to serve as the first woman on the state highway commission. She went on to become a state senator and sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment, which was defeated (22-12) in March 1977.

Woods lost the 1982 Senate race against incumbent Republican John Danforth in a close election. She lost the 1986 race to Bond.

Emily's List, the national effort to provide early funding for women political candidates, resulted from Woods' failed Senate race with Danforth, her son said. "She had a lasting impact on so many things that don't even bear her name," he said.

"Harriet Woods was one of a kind," Bond said in a statement. "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 all. She leaves a lasting legacy that will not be forgotten."

Democrat Jean Carnahan, who was appointed to a U.S. Senate vacancy created when her husband, Mel, defeated incumbent Republican John Ashcroft despite dying in a plane crash weeks before the November 2000 election, called Woods "a role model for women."

"She broke the glass ceiling here in Missouri in terms of women's involvement in politics," said Carnahan. "She never gave up. Even after she retired, she was always there for other women involved in politics."

Woods served on the board of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life in St. Louis and the Bella Abzug Institute for Women in Public Life in New York City. She lectured widely around the country and recorded monthly commentaries for KWMU, the National Public Radio station in St. Louis. Her final commentary aired last month.

In 1991, she became president of the National Women's Political Caucus helping women seek and win public office.

"She always said, 'start with something you care about,"' he said. "All those lessons she'd learned, she wanted to give to other people."

Classes she taught at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, included "Risk Takers ... Who Changed History: The Modern Women's Movement" and "American Women in Public Life: Gender and Power in Today's World."

Woods was preceded in death by her husband, who died in 2002 at age 89. She is survived by three sons and nine grandchildren.

No visitation is planned, but a memorial service will take place later this month, the family said. A specific date has not been set.

AP reporters Cheryl Wittenauer in St. Louis, David Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo., and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this story.

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