Friday, February 10, 2006

A Personal Memory Of Helen Miller

In 1983, a young Plainfield woman was abducted and killed. She was last seen leaving a South Avenue restaurant, where she had auditioned to play piano.

I was then the leader of the Plainfield Area Chapter of the National Organization for Women and our members were outraged and sorrowed by the murder of Karissa Davis and several other assaults on women that year. Helen Miller and Theodota Muller had formed a Concerned Women group after the spate of sexual assaults, and Councilwoman Miller agreed to speak at our NOW chapter’s “Take Back the Night” rally on Nov. 11, 1983.

Carrying placards as well as umbrellas in a drenching downpour, about 20 women marched from the YWCA to the plaza at Park and Front streets. Nobody was out except us. Courier News photographer Vince Kremer snapped pictures and staff writer Jack Gill wrote the story of our protest, which ended with speeches.

“Take back the night for women pursuing their dreams as artists, as students. Take back the night for women who must work or travel. Take back the night for all women who choose to lead independent, active lives,“ I said.

But Helen Miller spoke as if she was addressing a crowd of thousands. Standing on one of the low benches that circled around Financial Plaza, she thundered out a denouncement of all those who would interfere with women’s rights or who would even think of violence against women. She called for women to have full access to power in society and demanded justice for Davis and all victims of violence.

That was my first encounter with Helen Miller as a force to be reckoned with. Once she took a stand, she was indomitable. If she was sometimes over-reaching in her views, it was only because she refused to back down.

A few years later, I was the one with the byline in the Courier News and had many an occasion to quote Helen Miller. Politically, she was a scrapper who took no guff from men. Among the growing ranks of strong women in Union County, she was in the forefront. There was a look she would get on her face - eyes cut sideways, mouth paused with unspoken words - that to me meant she was weighing her next move against those who were in her way.

It may have been her very toughness that led to her being sidelined eventually. But even from the sidelines, she was formidable in her commentary on the political scene. Back in the fold last year, she was part of a successful effort to seat the first female African-American mayor of Plainfield.

I wish I had saved a little of that November rain. I would pour it out as a libation to the ancestors - and to a memorable woman, Helen Miller, who has now joined them.

--Bernice Paglia
KEYWORDS: Helen Miller


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