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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gladys Avery Tillett, March 20, 1974. Interview G-0061. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Becoming head of the women's division of the Democratic Party

Tillett explains how she became head of the women's division of the Democratic Party in 1940 until 1950. Following in the footsteps of Molly Dewson, Tillett had risen to prominence within the party. She describes why women were becoming particularly important as party leaders by the late 1930s and early 1940s and she explains why she demanded that she be elected to the position, rather than appointed. Finally, she addresses her need to balance her political work with her family responsibilities and how the support of her family was central to her success in public service.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gladys Avery Tillett, March 20, 1974. Interview G-0061. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
Well, you became head of the women's division of the Democratic Party in 1940?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
1940. See all these… I knew how a state thing was run. And then running this speakers bureau. I had pride in that, that the women should do as well as it could be done [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
come back. In the meantime Dorothy McAllister of Michigan was taking over what they called head of the women's division in the 1940 campaign. Molly Dewson was vice chairman of the Democratic Committee but she wanted Dorothy McAllister (very able) to run the 1940 campaign. Molly Dewson asked me to run the speakers bureau again in 1940. I had worked as hard as possible and succeeded in getting to every engagement. I knew 1940 was going to be a tremendously important campaign. So Molly Dewson asked me to come back. She was still vice chairman of the Democratic National Convention. Said "You know how to do it and you've done it. And the people know you." You see that she thought that was tremendously important… I got acquainted, through the speakers campaign, with leaders in the various states when I was arranging their meetings and talking to them and setting it up. And if you got your speaker right they thought you were competent and interested in their success—naturally they wanted to have successful meetings. And I thought about it carefully. And my husband said "They need you. Go on up there and do this." He wanted me to do it because he felt like it was of great interest to me and I could do it. So he was right behind me. And I went and I did run it and it came out very well. And Ed Flynn, from the Bronx, boss of the Bronx, was the chairman and I thought, "He'll wonder about somebody from down here in the South, having the organizing experience and ability." But I did do it and we didn't have any difficulty. And I understood the need of the party leaders for speakers and we had good and friendly relations… In a big organization there's negotiating and sometimes I was called onto do it. I got to know the other leaders working. When I left I went around to see Mr. Flynn. He was an interesting person. You might think he would be aloof. He was easy to work with and had many interests. For example, he was a great flower grower. He'd bring in the most beautiful flowers. Always had one on his desk, which impressed me as unusual. That the leader from the Bronx had this sort of interest in beauty and so forth. I got to know him pretty well. So when I left and went around and told him that I had come up there and known that I was going to have the boss of the Bronx there and I was going to run the speakers bureau. And here I found somebody who had fresh flowers on his desk every morning and I was very much impressed. We laughed gaily about it and I told him goodbye and came on back. And then later on he called and told me he'd like to talk over some things with me and would I come up there and see him. And nobody would believe me but I didn't think he was calling me up to ask me me to be vice chairman. I thought he really respected my judgment and wanted to ask me who in New York or Philadelphia or somewhere—not the South—would I advise. But I went up there and when he asked me I said "Why Mr. Flynn, you know I can't do that. I have a family and I have a husband" and I said "I don't know how I could work it out." He said, "Well, you could do some of the work at home." He said "Now remember…"
JACQUELYN HALL:
Had a woman been vice chairman before?
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
Molly Dewson was one of the early ones in 1932, but not the first. Emily Newell Blair of Missouri had served and I think a woman from Tennessee… You see, people became more interested in women's meetings as they learned the value of them—after two campaigns with women leaders men learned the value of women's leadership and political action and after Pearl Harbor women were needed as men went off to war. And so, and I… all the way along I thought the women should be elected, not appointed. And I had Miss Dewson to stand with me, that if I were I would want the Democratic National Committee to elect me just as they elect the chairman. And that was done. I thought that was an important principle to establish. And so it was… I said, "Well, I'll tell you. I'll go home and if you'll give me about a month on this, I'll tell my family and I'm going to let everybody in the family vote on it. And if I get a hundred percent of the vote—I give everybody twenty-five percent of the vote—why I'll let you know." He said "That's all right." … again, talked about Jim Farley. "Look what he did. Ran the post office and ran the committee. And all you've got to do is just run your home and then you can go out and speak and go back home and do some of your work.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Nothing to it. [Laughter]
GLADYS AVERY TILLETT:
No, no. [Laughter] Nothing to it. Of course my husband was interested in it. And the whole family was. And Gladys had been up. My oldest daughter had been with me and she was very interested. She had been with me, you see, the first campaign just in prep school and went up and had her little job. So it was, they were conditioned, interested, and understood what it was all about. And found it fascinating. So I did. This was in '40. And then the convention in '44 of course was a tremendously fascinating one. Interesting.