Saturday, April 25, 2009

Remembering Three Political Pioneers: Midge Miller, Lea Zeldin, and Rebecca Young

(Pictured: State Rep. Terese Berceau, second from left, with her predecessors, left to right, former state representatives Rebecca Young, Mary Lou Munts, and Midge Miller)

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On the April 26th edition of Forward Forum:

One woman arguably contributed to a president's decision not to seek office in the face of opposition to an unjust war, against the backdrop of a lifetime dedicated to world peace. Another woman's contributions as a lifelong advocate for social justice, and a love of good food, sometimes combined in the form of some extraordinary community dinners where people from all walks of life broke bread together and forged relationships. And yet another woman never compromised her principles nor lost an election in 12 successful runs for political office--including county board member, school board member, and state legislator.

Midge Miller, Lea Zeldin, and Rebecca Young transcended simple descriptions. They defied boxes, and each was an individual with her own unique range of interests and accomplishments. And yet each of these women stepped forward into political life at a time when women were still too often invisible. None was particularly intimidated by the then male-dominated political landscape, but the obstacles they overcame were nonetheless quite significant. Each was a pioneer who helped forge the way for the many younger women who later followed, overcoming double binds and double standards, and pervasive notions that women just weren't cut out to for the rough and tumble political world. They managed to survive and thrive, and did far more than simply adapt to the realities of their day. Through their refreshingly inclusive and facilitative leadership, they inspired the involvement of countless other people for the benefit of women and men alike, from all walks of life.

Midge Miller passed away last week at the age of 86. As John Nichols wrote in the Capital Times, "Midge Miller changed America and the world. She made presidents quake in their boots. She made political parties reflect the will of their members rather than the bosses. She made a place for women in the electoral process -- and in the governing of the land. Then she got busy. " See John Nichols' tribute to Midge, and a later article with tributes from political leaders statewide and beyond. Midge's life is being celebrated at a May 10th afternoon memorial service at First United Methodist Church.

Lea Zeldin (photo above by John Quinlan) was not an elected official, but her grassroots political effectiveness was the stuff of legend. She also cut her political teeth on the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s, and her activism in later years continued into the realms of health care reform, and media reform. She was an early supporter and longtime host on both listener-sponsored WORT-FM, and Madison's new grassroots low power station, WIDE. Famous for beginning a tradition of community-based dinners during Martin Luther King weekends, it was fitting that hundreds gathered together to honor her on April 11th at "the mother of all potlucks," a four hour celebration of food, filled with memories of Lea's extraordinary activism and a lifetime of devoted friendships. The CapTimes' Nichols also wrote a moving tribute to Lea.

Upon her passing in November 2008, Rebecca Young was described by State Journal columnist George Hesselberg as "an approachable icon of achievement and congenial modesty for 30 years in Madison's political landscape, a steady and informed advocate with a welcoming ear for issues involving women, children, transit and the environment." As noted above, she led a diverse political life in many realms as a county board supervisor, school board member, and seven-term state legislator. As State Rep. Terese Berceau said at the time: "I really did feel like I was preceded by a giant. She didn't care if she got the glory or the attention; she just worked her tail off." Hundreds gathered to honor her at her memorial service.

Though each woman lived a long life, they left us too soon, each leaving in a way that reflected their ability to beat the odds, and to keep working on behalf of social justice right up until their final days with us. Midge and Becky left us after each had waged a decade-long fight with cancer. Lea suffered a stroke just moments before she was to begin her radio show, surrounded by friends and colleagues who had known her for years, and dozens later answered a family invitation to join her at her hospital bed to say their goodbyes by sharing memories, or reading poetry. Each woman's passing has been met with beautiful remembrances, wonderful streams of tributes pouring forth with resonant synergy upon the the Internet.

Forward Forum has extended an invitation via the Internet to many of their friends and colleagues to join us for the show, and some of those commitments are still pending. Joining us by phone is longtime peace and justice activist Nan Cheney, and joining us in studio is former Middleton mayor and longtime political activist Judy Karofsky.

John Quinlan here, with a personal note.... Each woman in her own way touched my own life as they did so many others, each guided and inspired me in my work as an activist at important times in my life. Did these remarkable women touch your life? Do you have another woman in your life, pioneering in her own time, from whom you take similar inspiration? Please join in our conversation at 321-1670 for a very special edition of Forward Forum.

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