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A tribute to Harriett Woods, the new Harriett's List hopes to help elect more women to office

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 3, 2009 - On June 2, on what would have been Harriett Woods' 82nd birthday, Andy Woods led a  group that honored his mother by announcing the creation of Harriett's List.

Earlier Beacon article: Family, friends and political allies of former Missouri Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods -- the first woman elected in Missouri to statewide office and a nationally known political activist until her death in 2007 -- will soon announce a new political group aimed at promoting the election in Missouri of women who share Woods' vision.

Called "Harriett's List,'' the political action committee will be patterned after the national PAC known as "Emily's List." It will join almost a dozen other "List" PACs in various states.

The official kickoff for Harriett's List will be June 2 at University City's City Hall, where Woods got her political start with her 1962 election as a councilwoman.

The mission for Harriett's List: "To elect progressive women to the state legislature and statewide office,'' said soon-to-be executive director Stacey Newman.

Newman has held the same post for the Missouri Women's Coalition, which promoted various progressive issues and candidates. The coalition will disappear, Newman said, but she emphasized that Harriett's List will have a more targeted focus.

As a political action committee, Harriett's List will donate directly to candidates. Its aim will be to encourage and assist the election of women who mirror Woods' commitment to "reproductive freedom, equality for women and social and economic justice,'' Newman said.

Newman contended that a look at the current makeup of the Missouri Legislature underscores the need for such a PAC. Of the 197 members of the state House and Senate, only 21 are held by progressive women, she said. "Our voices are pretty small."

On the statewide level, the numbers are bit better, she continued, because two of the six statewide offices are held by like-minded women -- Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and state Auditor Susan Montee, both Democrats.

"These are the (types of) women candidates we'll be looking for and supporting,'' Newman said. A website should be operational within a few weeks, she added.

Three of Woods' relatives -- son Andy Woods and granddaughters Reina and Lea Woods -- will serve as honorary chairs of Harriett's List. The advisory board includes 32 women who are current or former officeholders or elected officials.

A tall, athletic woman, Woods exuded boundless energy and made no apologies for her strong views in favor of women's rights and other admittedly liberal stands. She served 15 years on the University City's council and left only when she moved on to the state Legislature. Woods was elected to the Missouri state Senate in 1976 and won re-election in 1980.

In 1982, Woods narrowly lost a U.S. Senate bid to then-Republican incumbent John C. Danforth.

That loss was largely blamed on Woods' lack of campaign money. Within two years, her experience helped lead to the creation of Emily's List, a national political action committee that has since helped bankroll dozens of women candidates for congressional offices around the country.

In 1984, Woods bounced back by winning election as Missouri lieutenant governor. That victory gave her a place in history as the state's first woman elected to statewide office.

(Republican Margaret Kelly, who served as state auditor form 1983 to 1999, was the first woman to hold statewide office. She initially was appointed to the post by then-Gov. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo.)

In 1986, Bond and Woods squared off for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo. Woods again narrowly lost.

Within a few years, she had bounced back by becoming the president of the National Women's Political Caucus, a nonpartisan group aimed at promoting and encouraging women candidates and public officials.

Woods became a national figure when she took on her old nemesis, Danforth, during the explosive 1991 Senate hearings over Clarence Thomas' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Woods was arguably the chief defender of Anita Hill, a law professor who accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

After helping in the 1992 elections, which saw a record number of women elected to office, Woods was named by new President Bill Clinton to a cabinet-level post overseeing the appointment of women within his administration.

Woods spent the next 14 years writing books and teaching at various universities, including the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Woods' archives also are preserved at UMSL.

Even during her treatments for leukemia, Woods managed to get to Washington D.C. in January 2007 to witness the swearing-ins of the first woman speaker of the U.S. House, Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Missouri's first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

(For the record: Jean Carnahan, who served from 2001-2203, had been appointed following the posthumous election in 2000 of her husband, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, who had died in the crash of his campaign plane.)

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.