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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2004

Activist found purpose in the struggle for justice

DETROIT - Years ago, Bella Abzug put it best, at a roast for the most influential behind-the-scenes woman in Michigan history.

"In the beginning, God created man," she said.

"To make up for this, She gave us Millie."

If that were true, it seemed like, for once, men got the short end of the stick. Mildred Jeffrey, tiny, elfin, somewhat less than 5-feet tall, was, simply put, perhaps the most amazing person I have ever met.

She was one of Walter Reuther's closest aides, and the first woman to head a major department of the United Auto Workers union. She had helped secure equal pay and equal treatment for the thousands of women who worked in the war plants during World War II, when she was head of the UAW's women's department.

She helped a young Democratic candidate for president, a fellow named John F. Kennedy, win over suspicious labor and black support in Michigan in 1960. She ran his brother Bobby's presidential campaign in the state in 1968.

Years later, at a feminist meeting, she told a female member of Congress that the time was right for a woman on the national ticket. She then threw herself into making that happen, and it did. "Without Millie, a woman candidate for vice president could never have been possible," that same woman, Geraldine Ferraro, would say.

Millie Jeffrey's motto could have been "You can do whatever you want, as long as you don't mind who gets the credit."

But in fact, it was deeper than that. "Some of the candidates I've been proudest to work for, like Geraldine Ferraro, lost," Millie told me a couple years ago over a glass of wine one night at a hangout near campus.

"You learn in losing, and you build on it, and you never give up."

That morning, she had walked across campus to visit one of my classes to say hello to a speaker she had known years ago in the UAW. She asked me whether I had any promising young women students, and chatted with some of them. When I asked her if she wanted a ride somewhere, she said, no, she felt like walking. "How old is that lady?" a student asked me.

"Only 90," I said.

Last Wednesday, her heart stopped beating at last, a few months short of her 93rd birthday. Among her last visitors were two other promising young women: Jennifer Granholm, the governor, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Both had said publicly they would never have gotten where they were without Millie.

Four years ago, I got a call from the White House. One of President Clinton's speech writers had been told I knew Millie pretty well, and wanted some advice. The President had decided to give her the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he wanted some ideas on what he could say.

That August, 6 feet, 5 inches of Bill Clinton bent down to place the medal around the neck of Millie Jeffrey, all of 4 feet, 11 inches."

She whispered something, and he looked startled - then threw his head back, gave her a big hug, and laughed with genuine delight.

"OK," I asked her later. "What did you say to him?"

Millie grinned. "Mr. President, many say that if you were the candidate, you'd have been re-elected."

As usual, she knew her man.

But unlike many older people, Millie doesn't dwell on the past. She always wanted to talk about what was going on now. On one of the last times we talked, I asked what she thought the future would hold.

She smiled, looking a bit like Ruth Gordon in the movie Harold and Maude. "More of the same. Tougher questions than we faced in the '30s, in a world infinitely more complex, more dangerous, more challenging."

When the Equal Rights Amendment failed it had been, I knew, a terrible blow. She shrugged. "We were devastated at first. But then I said, this is not the end. And it made me want to fight all the more."

"What brings me comfort and courage is to continue the struggle, the struggle for truth, justice, and freedom."

Final victory, she knows, will never be won.

"But the struggle itself gives meaning and purpose to life," she said.

How much of the same, I thought, had she given to us all.



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