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Madame Chair The Political Autobiography of an Unintentional Pioneer
By Jean Miles Westwood
Utah State University Press Copyright © 2007 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One McGOVERN CALLS
Over the holidays-from December 15, 1969 to January 15, 1970-my husband Dick and I visited our daughter Beth and our son-in-law Vern Davies in balmy Hawaii. Our festivities included attending a New Year's Eve party; and then, on New Year's morning, the telephone rang.
A voice said, "Hello, Jean, this is George."
"Oh, are you here in Hawaii for some reason?"
"No, I'm calling you from Washington."
"We had a meeting of all my major advisors over the holidays to decide if I was going to run for president. We decided to go ahead. We want to start out in the spirit of our reforms, and would like to have a man and a woman cochair our campaign committee. So we decided we would ask John Douglas (a creative Washington lawyer and former congressman) to be chair, and we would like to know if you would be his cochair."
After a stunned silence, I said, "Well, I'm not sure what that means, but I'm honored to be asked. I think I had better check with my husband, the governor, and our senator first." (I was still a good establishment Democrat, not to mention a devoted wife.)
George said, "I want to announce it in the next couple of days. Can you call them and get back to me?"
"George, it's New Year's Day. I don't think I can get them today. But I'll try." So I did.
Dick said yes immediately, once again amazing me at how liberated he was for a man of his day, not only allowing but actively helping me with whatever I wanted to do.
I called both Senator Frank (Ted) Moss and Governor Calvin L. Rampton in Utah. I knew Ted liked McGovern. They often teamed up in the Senate with the apparent frontrunner for the Democrats' nominee, Edmund Muskie. Ted supported Muskie, but he was not utterly committed anywhere. Regardless, he thought I definitely should go to work for McGovern. He was pleased because he knew of no other woman, or Utahn, who had headed a nominating campaign.
Rampton was far less impressed with McGovern, and he heavily supported Muskie. But, he said, "Nobody from Utah has ever been asked to do anything of this magnitude in a primary campaign, and there's no way you can turn it down. It will be a benefit to you and to our state party, to have somebody in that kind of a national position."
When I accepted McGovern's invitation, I could not anticipate all the changes 1970 would bring. Dick and I would pelt our last crop of mink on our ranch that autumn. We lost our foreman, Dick Wilkes, to an automobile accident, and my husband had never fully recovered from a fall, which aggravated his arthritis and aged him.
Vern, too, was rehabilitating, enduring a series of surgeries to repair his right arm following shrapnel injuries received while serving as an officer in Vietnam. The four of us would spend another holiday season in Hawaii before the army awarded Vern a medical retirement, and he and Beth moved to Utah.
Those future changes seemed to gather and disperse like the cloud patterns outside the airplane windows as Dick and I flew home. Foremost in my mind, of course, was the call from McGovern. I was still stunned that he would ask me, an experienced party worker who hailed from an unfortunately small state. Later I learned that he had shielded me from the reactions of other party workers as I shouldered that important position.
Born on November 22, 1923, I grew up where vast coal deposits darken the hills. Price is the county seat of coal-mining Carbon County, Utah, and far from the sophistication of metropolitan culture. Even in one of the state's most ethnically diverse areas, I felt the pervasive influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (usually shortened to LDS or Mormon). While my parents were not overly devout, much of our life as children did center on the church and its activities.
The church is run by a male hierarchy and a lay priesthood, which includes virtually all males age twelve and above. Later, when all but the most authoritative religions began to consider opening their hierarchies to women, the Mormon leadership launched a covert and effective campaign to defeat the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Resistance by a few Mormon women near the nation's capital sparked a long-running curiosity in the media regarding Mormon practices toward women. Like fundamentalist Christians and certain other authoritative religions, Mormonism teaches that a woman's chief role is to be a partner and mate to her husband and a mother to their children. Then, obedient families may reunite after death-literally living happily ever after. Yet, hailing from coal-mining Price and a conservative church with a powerful pioneer heritage, I became a symbol of the independent feminist.
I could not deny that I was a born nurturer, desiring love, marriage, and close friendships with other couples. I wanted to be a good daughter, wife, and mother, which meant struggling to become a good laundress, janitor, cook, bargain hunter, seamstress, hostess, companion, and lover.
Yet my nurturing self was matched by a fierce desire to be myself, to achieve for myself. I wanted to learn all there was to know. I wanted to help decide what was best, not only for myself but for the wider world. I hoped to contribute to the rise of leaders and to the shaping of ideas through writing and speaking, as well as participating in politics and in my community.
Guilt dogged me when one or the other side of my persona dominated my time. Working with Dr. O'Connell, I finally recognized a link between nurturing and self-realization, and I saw how fiercely I wanted each component. Put simply, if you do not feel good about yourself, you cannot adequately care about others.
How much, I then wondered, did my physical health reflect my inner conflicts? Prior to my strokes, I experienced several serious illnesses, beginning with rheumatic fever and an overactive thyroid in my early teens. I suffered from toxemia with my first pregnancy, which led later to other "female problems," requiring a medical abortion and finally a hysterectomy, all during my twenties. Ten years later I experienced a four-month siege by the most serious form of hepatitis. Then came twenty years of good health, with only a tendency to pick up the annual variety of flu.
My healthy phase ended in spring 1974 when I fell and suffered a double concussion, entering a coma for several weeks. That concussion foreshadowed the strokes, but so did my lifelong inability to rest long enough to fully recover. Later Dr. O'Connell helped me see how I drew on my innate stamina and my impatience with anything that interfered with my plans. Inevitably I sprinted in metaphorical marathons long before my doctors gave permission for me to reenter the race.
The first minor stroke arrived in 1982. The complete paralysis on my left side eased after forty-eight hours, and my neurologist placed me in physical therapy right away. My expectations for recovery were high. I could only walk a hundred yards when I left the hospital. As the winter deepened I practiced walking farther and, by spring, I was making two miles a day.
But I kept having momentary blackouts, so I was not allowed to drive. Now, that's depressing! Finally I hired a driver. More difficult was explaining my frequent waterworks by citing the frustrations of poor health. Then, at summer's end, Dick and I joined dear friends to relax for four days on a houseboat on gorgeous Lake Powell in southeastern Utah. The outing over blue waves between red sandstone cliffs was a disaster. I picked at Dick until I drove everyone to distraction although they tried to be patient and sympathetic.
On the way home, I told Dick, "I can't keep on this way. I need either a different neurologist, or a psychologist, or both."
Our family doctor immediately sent me for a consultation at the heart and stroke rehabilitation program of St. Luke's Behavioral Health Center in Phoenix. I went home with their long questionnaire and awoke two mornings later with a familiar numbness on one side of my face and around my lips, a sensation that preceded blackouts. But this time I ended up back in the hospital with another small stroke. Now I was really depressed!
The cause of the strokes remained unknown; I had neither high blood pressure nor any heart problems. So the doctors decided to perform more computerized axial tomography (CAT) and magnetic resonance images (MRI) scans, which turned up a pituitary tumor, a possible cause for the strokes and certainly another problem.
Later, Dr. O'Connell helped me unmask other well-disguised suspects. She combined a real understanding of the feminist movement with plentiful common sense. Together we examined my touchstones and turning points against the backdrop of momentous change in the nation. Despite later health issues, which required a series of surgeries, my depression vanished. My career and my close relationships flourished, side by side. As my mother's daughter, I should have known they could coexist.
My mother, Nettie Potter, was born near Price, in Sunnyside, on April 26, 1903, the daughter of Mormon converts who had emigrated from England and Scotland. She grew up in a devout home but, as an adult, paid little attention to the church's stricter tenets. However she insisted that her children participate regularly in ward meetings and functions. Her mother always quoted to her, "Sunday's child is full of grace, wise, and bright, and fair of face." No wonder Nettie grew up a giggler, outgoing and self-confident. Grandmother Potter insisted that all five of her daughters learn to sew, cook, clean, and entertain properly-achieving the ladylike graces. Grandfather, on the other hand, insisted that his girls learn some kind of salable skill. Mother became a beautiful seamstress, but she sewed gifts for those she loved, thinking it demeaning to be a paid seamstress.
During her high school years she worked as a bookkeeper, and she later clerked in department and specialty women's stores. Most of her married life, she worked outside the home. She sold dresses and then sold dress materials, instructing others. But none of her students' creations compared favorably with those she sewed for her daughters.
Mother cut her hair short, wore flapper clothes, and loved to dance, to play the piano, and especially to sing, even performing in public. She supported woman suffrage, but so did the Mormon church in those days. Mother read more than most of her friends, but also enjoyed attending gossip-rich sewing bees and card games. She even had the chance to go to college, an opportunity not often available to young women of her time. Had she been interested in academics, she could have been a top student.
Mother was also one of the town's better cooks, bottling countless jars of fruit, tomatoes, and spring beans each autumn. During the early years of the Depression, Mother rose every morning at five o'clock to bake in our old coal stove six pies for the drugstore. Then she roused the rest of the family. In the cellar, Mother and Daddy brewed root beer-and the stronger kind!
Grandfather Potter hated the mines and, in England, had studied to become a minister. Since the Mormons had a lay clergy, Grandpa had to work in the mines initially. He soon became a town clerk, and then the juvenile officer, and finally an accountant.
My grandparents built one of the first big houses in Price, two stories tall with seven bedrooms. All our aunts, uncles, and cousins visited on holidays, and they all loved to sing and recite poetry, especially Shakespeare and Scotland's own Bobbie Burns.
My father, Frances Marion (Dick) Miles, grew up in Huntington, a few miles away from Price. His ancestors had been Puritans who joined with Roger Williams in settling New England. The Miles family questioned the precepts of established religions and converted to Mormonism, joining the westward trek to what became the Utah Territory. Settled in Huntington, Grandfather Miles established a freight business, hauling goods northeast to Fort Duchesne, which later became the Uinta-Ouray Reservation, an enforced home for three bands of Northern Utes, including two bands native to Colorado.
Dad said the Miles men fought in every war the United States waged, yet made it a practice to question both church and government and decide issues for themselves. Dad said that Mormonism was a good religion, offering its members the right to sustain those called to lead them. The church taught free agency and did not impose original sin. You paid the consequences for your own sins, Dad said, not for sins committed from the Garden of Eden forward.
Dad had observed the church's struggle with the federal government over polygamy, which sent some families fleeing to Mexico or Canada. He felt that the Mormon leaders' final abandonment of two defining principles-plural marriage and a communal economy-allowed statehood but altered the church irrevocably. It turned inward, Dad said, and became too "hidebound." Because Dad smoked, drank, gambled, and loved high living, he did not feel welcome at church meetings and functions, usually attending only if we children performed. Nevertheless, he believed in the "original thought" behind Mormonism.
When Dad was small, the railroad bought out Grandpa Miles's freighting franchise, so Grandpa moved his equipment to Arizona, where sprouting Mormon colonies needed freighters. Grandma Miles refused to move anyplace hotter in the summertime than central Utah, so she and their children stayed behind. Her parents had been sent by the church to help develop the Huntington area, and after Grandpa left Utah, the church helped Grandma rear her family. Dad was born when his mother was suffering what was then called a nervous breakdown, due to Grandpa abandoning her. Dad watched Grandmother struggle to keep the farm and her children. He graduated from the sixth grade just before Grandma lost her struggle for independence and married a man that Dad didn't much like.
Dad moved in with his grandparents for a while and then joined his brother Sam, who owned a combined barber shop and pool hall in Price. Dad attended school part time, cleaned the shop, dealt cards in the pool hall, and slept above the barber shop. Understandably he became a father who was determined that his daughters would learn skills to sustain their independence and that we would be as well educated as we wanted to be.
Sam moved to California at the beginning of World War I, and soon Dad enlisted in the army. After the war Dad tried chicken farming but it didn't work out, so he returned to Price. He began taking meals at the local café where Mother worked after school. After a year of acquaintance, he asked Grandpa Potter for permission to marry Nettie but was turned down because he was a gambler.
Dad quit gambling and went to Salt Lake City to barber school, even as Grandma and Grandpa Potter sent Mother, ten years younger than Dad, north to Brigham Young University in Provo. Over the Christmas holidays, Mother and Dad met in Salt Lake City and married-Mom's one act of rebellion against her concerned parents. Eventually the newly-weds moved back to Price, bought some land from Grandpa Potter, and built a house. Their elopement forgiven, Mom and Dad grew close to all the Potter family.
I was reared as the Mormon version of a small-town WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) with the strong influence of Grandfather and Grandmother Potter. I also intuited a type of non-militant feminism as I observed my mother's life and heard both parents' stories. I grew up with siblings-a sister and two brothers-as well as many friends. I felt shy, for my sister was much prettier, and I had spells of ill health. Still, I excelled in my school subjects and took drama lessons. In the fourth grade I bet Jerry Olsen that President Herbert Hoover (who I felt could solve the nation's economic woes, given enough time) would beat Franklin Roosevelt. Jerry and Roosevelt won.
Excerpted from Madame Chair by Jean Miles Westwood Copyright © 2007 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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