Harriett Woods; Inspired Creation of Emily's List

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

Harriett Woods, 79, whose narrow loss of a U.S. Senate race in 1982 sparked the creation of the politically powerful Emily's List, died of leukemia Feb. 8 at her home in University City, Mo.

Ms. Woods, who subsequently became a two-term president of the National Women's Political Caucus, stunned the political establishment in 1982 when she came within 27,500 votes, of 1.5 million cast, of beating incumbent Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.). Running neck-and-neck in the final weeks of the race, she was forced to cancel TV ads because she ran out of money.

The defeat was heartbreaking to her supporters; Ms. Woods had won the Democratic primary without party support, and she was the only Democratic woman in the nation running for the Senate that year.

"Out of that, I brought a group together and said: 'This is crazy. How do we elect a woman to the Senate?' " said Ellen Malcolm, founder of the progressive women's campaign fund that she dubbed Emily's List, for Early Money Is Like Yeast. "In 1986, we supported Barbara Mikulski in Maryland and Harriett in Missouri."

Despite that support, Ms. Woods lost a race for an open Senate seat to Republican Christopher Bond. "She lost," Malcolm said, "but her Senate runs gave political women a cause we were all excited about, and it was the inspiration from her Senate runs which ended up giving women power."

Between those elections, Ms. Woods won a 1984 race for lieutenant governor and became the first woman elected to statewide office in Missouri. After her term as lieutenant governor expired, she was elected president of the nonpartisan National Women's Political Caucus. That position provided a bully pulpit during the period of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings, Sen. Bob Packwood's sexual harassment hearings and the appointment of the first female attorney general, Janet Reno. Ms. Woods also led the Clinton administration's Coalition for Women's Appointments in 1993.

Ms. Woods encouraged younger women to run for office, teaching them the hard political lessons she learned on the job, and exulted in the 2006 election of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). She came to Washington last month to celebrate McCaskill's swearing-in and that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Born in Cleveland as Ruth Harriett Friedman, Ms. Woods moved as a child to Chicago. She graduated from the University of Michigan, the first female editor of the school's well-regarded student newspaper.

"All the men who worked on the paper were getting jobs at the New York Times and The Washington Post," said one of her sons, Andrew Woods. "She could only get society writer jobs. The old St. Louis Globe-Democrat was the only newspaper to offer her a news job, and that inability to get the job she wanted because she was a woman had a huge impact on her outlook."

She worked at the paper until she married and became a mother. Her political career began in University City when she complained to the City Council of the St. Louis suburb about a noisy manhole cover that was disturbing her children's naps. The council members disregarded her, so she launched a petition drive that closed the street to through traffic. A local television station hired her to run a community public affairs panel.

She was elected to the council, appointed to the highway commission and elected to the state legislature, where she concentrated on drunk-driving laws, nursing home regulations and home health care. She was also a leader in the Missouri effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment at the state level.

But when she wanted to run for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1982, the local party leaders told her to wait her turn -- a rural banker who had raised money for the party but who had never held public office was their choice to challenge Danforth.

"I think it was the most difficult night of my life, deciding whether we would go it alone," she told The Post in 1982. "I really felt strongly that if I backed off when I felt I was the most prepared person to run, it would be impossible for any woman to run statewide in Missouri without being handpicked. I'd made all those speeches to women's groups about taking risks. I just couldn't let everyone down."

In four months, Ms. Woods built a statewide organization and raised $250,000 from more than 4,000 donors. In the primary, she scored a stunning 2-1 victory. Danforth, considered an overwhelming favorite, found himself in a dead heat.

After her political career, Ms. Woods taught at various universities and published "Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women" (2000). Her book party at the Watergate drew a star-studded audience including Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and feminist Betty Friedan, among others. Hillary Rodham Clinton had just announced her run for the Senate from New York.

"I was touched by the film in which [Clinton] told us what a great salad- and omelet-maker she is," Ms. Woods said with a dry chuckle. "I think it's sad that women still have to prove that they're fulfilling traditional stereotypes."

Her husband, James Woods, died in 2002.

Survivors, in addition to Andrew Woods of St. Louis, include two other sons, Christopher and Peter Woods, also of St. Louis; a sister; and nine grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company