Remembering Harriett Woods

By Phill Brooks
    As I reflect on the final months of term-limited state legislators who have made a profound difference for the state, I also remember Harriett Woods. While she gained national attention for her efforts for women, I think about what a superb state legislator she became on other issues.


    When she first entered the Missouri Senate in 1977, it was not a particularly positive environment for a metro-area, liberal woman legislator. The chamber was dominated by an old-boys' network of largely rural and very conservative male legislators.
    In the era before term limits, a legislator usually could not accomplish much until gaining significant seniority. But Woods had an advantage to quickly become a dominating force because, in part, she knew how to use the media.
    She had been a newspaper and TV journalist and, before that, editor of her university's student newspaper. In addition, she was married to an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and then the Globe-Democrat.
    So, she knew how to use the media to focus public attention on issues in ways I don't think the old-guard legislators of the past understood. Woods did not have media managers or spokespersons to issue releases. She knew how to be far more effective. Use of those skills led to public pressure on the legislature on issues including stronger protections for nursing home residents, consumer protection and tougher laws on drunken driving.
    My favorite memory of her involved drunken-driving legislation. Although I don't remember that drunken driving was a top issue for Woods, I interviewed her for the close of a multi-week KMOX investigative series on the loopholes lawyers used to help clients avoid drunken-driving convictions.
    During the interview, she quickly seized onto the issue as high legislative priority. In that interview, as in others, she sometimes would answer a question with a response to something else. That's a typical approach of politicians when asked about something they're not prepared to answer or do not want to address—just talk about anything else to avoid the topic asked.
    But that was not Woods' intention. She ultimately would answer my question. But her initial response usually was more news worthy. I became a far better interviewer from my sessions with her.
     Woods' historical legacy is focused on women's rights and women in public office. She came to the Senate during the height of the battle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
    It politically was a difficult time for women legislators. They were split on the ERA and many found themselves categorized by that one issue. Woods supported the ERA, but from the very beginning she made it clear she was not going to allow herself to be pigeon-holed as a single-issue legislator. But ultimately, women in politics and government became her signature issue.
    She was the first woman in Missouri history elected to a statewide office, although months before the 1984 election, another women—Margaret Kelly—was appointed to fill the vacant state auditor's position and became the first woman to hold statewide office.
    Twice, Woods was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, narrowly losing both times. Those races propelled her onto the national stage. She became president of the National Women's Political Caucus that helped political campaigns of women across the country. In an era before any woman held a statewide office or legislative leadership position, it's easy to forget what a trail blazer Harriett Woods had been.
    College football fans may remember Woods as the mother of MU's quarterback, Pete Woods, who became a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in large part for his 1976 upset victory over Ohio State, which was nationally ranked #2 and led by famous football coach Woody Hayes.
    Harriet Woods passed February 8, 2007—but not before being able to attend the swearing in of the nation's first female speaker of the U.S. House.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.