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Harriett Woods

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ST. LOUIS - Harriett Woods didn't set out to be a political pioneer. She just wanted someone to do something about the noisy manhole cover near her suburban St. Louis home.

Woods, who died Thursday of leukemia at age 79, got neighbors to sign a petition to fix the problem. She was eventually elected to the City Council herself in University City, the first step in a career that opened doors for women in politics in Missouri.

Woods had been diagnosed with the disease in March while teaching political and community involvement in New York, her son, Andrew, said Friday. She died at her home, surrounded by family.

Woods won election as lieutenant governor in 1984, becoming the first woman elected to statewide office. She remained active in Democratic politics, especially in efforts to better women in politics, long after leaving office.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle on Friday recalled her tenacity and dedication.

"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," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said Woods was "one of a kind."

"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," Bond said. "She leaves a lasting legacy that will not be forgotten."

Woods was elected to the city council in 1967 and served eight years. She later served on a state transportation committee and spent eight years in the Missouri Senate. She was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and 1986, losing both times.

"She was brilliant, inquisitive, and persuasive," former Sen. Tom Eagleton, D-Mo., said. "She broke through the glass ceiling and paved the way for a woman like Claire McCaskill to become a U.S. senator."

Woods, gravely ill and in a wheelchair, still was able to make it to Washington last month to see McCaskill sworn in as Missouri's first elected woman senator. She also watched as Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as 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."

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.

But for a time after marrying newspaper editor James B. Woods in 1953, Harriett Woods was a housewife. That noisy manhole cover was a nuisance that kept waking her three young sons from their naps, spurring her involvement in politics.

After her election to the city council in 1967, Woods stepped down in 1974 when Bond, who was then governor, appointed her to serve as the first woman on the state highway commission. From there she won election the state Senate, where she sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment, which was defeated (22-12) in March 1977.

Woods lost the 1982 U.S. 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.

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, a cause that always remained with her.

"We'd go on these walks and inevitably the topic would always return to how we could get women more engaged, how could we get more women to care about the process," state Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis, said. "There was an urgency to this cause that never lessened."

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, even as she underwent chemotherapy, Andrew Woods said. She also taught at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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.

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

Published in Belleville News-Democrat on Feb. 10, 2007
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