My good friend, Helen Rudee, died two weeks ago. This is not news, I know, and tributes have been paid. Nonetheless, I have some things about Helen I want to say, about her generation and mine, and the women who came from those years.
She was 17 years my elder, and more than 17 years wiser about the politics of being female in our times.
She was never militant, but always determined.
It never occurred to her to think anyone considered her less because of her sex, so, if that did happen, she simply refused to accept it. She was rarely angry (and if she was, only family and very close friends knew it).
But it wasn’t a cakewalk. I heard men, community leaders, men I respected who had yet to come to terms with the “women’s issues” that were just over the horizon, say, “Mrs. Rudee is a nice lady.”
Some actually meant it as a compliment — a sentence that today could result in a flock of protesters or a panel discussion on NPR about our changing language. Then came the “Buts…” “But nice ladies don’t belong on the board,” or “But we can’t support her,” or “ But … I can’t vote for her.”
Indeed, she was every inch a lady in the most positive sense of the word. And there was no doubting that she was nice. But it didn’t stop there, as the men in question thought it should. She wanted to “be useful” she told interviewers.
And not all men were opposed. Certainly not her husband, family doctor Bill Rudee. “He urged me on,” she told KBBF’s Elaine Holtz in 2017. “Anything I wanted to do was OK. He had a very busy medical life and was happy to see me involved. And I was.”
SHE CAME INTO politics “through the chairs” of the Parent-Teachers Association. In the 1960s, she was a doctor’s wife and a trained nurse no longer nursing, with children in school. She was holding a state office in the organization when stalwart Alice Zieber, also a physician’s wife, retired from a decadeslong tenure as the only woman on Santa Rosa’s Board of Education.
Faced with appointing a replacement, the men on the board offered the seat to Helen. She became the secretary, as Alice had and other women members (one at a time, always) had been before her.
“After eight years,” she told Holtz, “I told them, ‘It’s time, really. It’s time!’ ” And she became the first woman to serve as president of the school board. There are times she often recounted, that she found herself “the only woman in a room filled with 11 men.”
The odds didn’t change in her next venture.
In 1976, at the urging of friends — and at a propitious moment in county politics — she decided to take a mighty leap.
She put her name on the ballot for Third District supervisor, and despite all the “nice lady” stuff, she narrowly defeated a short-term incumbent.
WE LOVE TO say “the rest is history,” but there’s so much more to say about Helen. First, she was righteous but certainly not vindictive, as victims of wholesale dismissal can be. And, in several ways, she positioned herself as a local leader of the burgeoning “women’s movement.”