March, Women’s History Month

A Salute to Aunt Hazel and the BEEPS

I am writing about my dad’s family, the Palmers, from Sedalia, Missouri, and am amazed at the treasures I’ve found among the memorabilia I inherited. I’m sifting through stacks of articles, journals, newspaper articles, photos and memoirs dating from 1888-2002, a remarkable journey of discovery which I consider a blessing. 

Hazel was one of my dad’s 3 older sisters, the one who read aloud to him from the silent movie screens of the day when he had to sit on her lap to see the action. She was an unforgettable person then just as she is now, 21 years after her death.  

I remember the first time I heard Aunt Hazel give a speech. It was during her senatorial campaign 1958. She was the first woman from Missouri to ever seek national office, the U.S. Senate. There was only one woman serving there at the time, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. 

It was in late summer when she spoke in my hometown, St. Louis.  I was 18, soon to head off to college as a freshman, and my aunt was a perky 54, speaking to an enthusiastic audience at the Chase Hotel ballroom, which I thought was an elegant backdrop for her.

Hazel wasn’t intimidated about running against a Democrat incumbent, Senator Stuart Symington.  “He’s a millionaire, a former Secretary of the Air Force, and I say, so what? Being Secretary of the Air Force makes him vulnerable and I can hardly wait to get to those vulnerable spots.” She didn’t have a chance, however, because he refused to debate her.

Miss Palmer the candidate, astonished me at the podium with her command of serious topics such as the strength of our country’s military capabilities, which she felt was being outpaced by the Russians. (The Soviets had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, in October of 1957.) Hazel had once pointed out that the sputniks and nuclear weapons that any enemy might achieve in the long run, won’t be what destroys America. “It will be our lack of courage, self-reliance, and inner faith,” she said. 

Hazel projected energy and vitality when she spoke, as she had done often throughout the U.S. and Europe as national president of the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs of America. The well- known national organization, named the BPW, listed 175,000 members. When I was a kid, I used to refer to them as The Beeps. 

I never thought Aunt Hazel would lose the Nov. 2nd election, but she did. She had beaten three men to win the primary and seemed invincible to me. It was a doubly painful loss, as her father, my grandpa, John Palmer, died the night before the election, at age 93.  A lifetime lawyer and a former U.S. Congressman, he was hoping to cast a vote for his daughter, but it was not to be. 

During her long, formidable career, Hazel campaigned to guarantee women’s legal rights. The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923 and was kept alive through the years by enthusiasts like Hazel, who knew that legislation was the only way to guarantee permanency.  She was instrumental in getting it added to the Republican Party platform at two of their national conventions which helped to keep it in the limelight during the 50s and 60s.

Three fourths (38) of the states had to ratify the ERA, and there were many “protectionists” who were against it. As time passed, the amendment was reintroduced in Congress year after year to no avail. Today, the ERA still has not been formally instated as the 28th Amendment of our Constitution, but in 2020, it moved closer to its goal.    

Hazel served on committees of three presidents, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan. Among her papers, I’ve found telegrams, invitations, and letters from those former presidents, and it gives me a rush just to hold them as I slide them to plastic sheets for preservation. Hazel possessed a personal charm and gracious spirit which endeared her to all who knew her. 

Aunt Hazel was in law practice with my grandpa, John W. Palmer, in Sedalia, Mo.  She eventually became a judge and died in 2002, at the age of 99. Hazel was loving and kind–my inspiration, a woman who championed women’s rights before it became fashionable. 

My Aunt lived a long life but never married. When asked “Why?” by a reporter, she said, “Mister Right just never came along.”

A colleague remarked upon her retirement, “Judge Palmer set an example of female initiative and activity that would amaze the most energetic corporate CEO today.” When I read that, I wondered what man could ever have kept up with her. 

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