In Memory of Michelle Madoff
Michelle Madoff was a force of nature. Passionate, outspoken, and committed, she was a warrior against injustice. She was willing to take on any fight and any person no matter how powerful, if she thought she needed to. And she was willing to risk whatever was necessary to achieve her goals.
I wasn’t lucky enough to work with Michelle at GASP, although I am forever grateful for her work there. I did work closely with her for women’s rights, and I supported her on City Council. She was perhaps the most courageous political leader I have ever known. She broke barriers for women, at a time when there were few women in office, and most owed their careers to the male establishment. She never hesitated to stand up for women – as candidates, as citizens, and as workers, regardless of the cost.
She could also be a helluva lot of fun. When I think back on my friendship with Michelle, I remember laughing a lot. She never failed to be amused by her opponents, nor to see the absurdity of the need to take on certain fights, like everyone’s right to clean air. When she was elected to Pittsburgh City Council, one of the first fights she had to take on was for her right to use a bathroom. As a female member, she didn’t have access to the Councilmembers' bathroom; she and other women members were to walk an entire city block to use the women’s staff bathroom. How ridiculous.
But it wasn’t just about her. Because the male members could just walk a few steps, use the bathroom, and quickly return to the session, women members and their constituents were disenfranchised by having to take more time. She also knew that many of her colleagues didn’t share her passion for justice and would cheerfully call for votes in her absence.
She won that fight, but at great cost. It harms your dignity to have to fight for the right to attend to nature’s call (as the women of the U.S. Senate found in 1993, where there was no women’s bathroom, and again in 2013, when their numbers swelled to 20 and they demanded that the bathroom be expanded from two stalls.) But it was fight she took on not just for herself and her constituents, but for the women who would follow.
Michelle was also a crusader for sound governmental practices and problem solving. She attempted more than once to end City Council’s policy to ask for proposals “not to exceed” a certain amount. She believed that the policy weakened the city’s ability to negotiate by stating what the maximum acceptable bid would be. And when our parking garages were increasingly crime-ridden during late hours, she took on the garage owners, a powerful lobby. She wrote and successfully passed legislation that required safe lighting and security in every garage. Anyone who has ever walked alone through a garage to her car late at night has Michelle to thank for ending the dark and dangerous conditions that used to be the rule.
Unfortunately, as happens all too often to women, the media and the political establishment derided her for her passionate advocacy. Even in some recent obituaries, her career was not honored, with quotes and verbiage deriding her style over her substance. But Pittsburghers have her to thank for our cleaner air, our vibrant progressive advocacy, and for blowing the whistle and opening up the political process.
Perhaps the great suffragist Susan B. Anthony said it best:
Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences...”
Thank you, Michelle. Pittsburgh is a better place because of you.