McEntee: Esther Landa's century of lifting up women
As we settled around her table, Esther Landa advised me that she had been a tomboy. So I told her I'd been one, too.
"Good," she said. "An honorable profession."
Forgive me for feeling just a bit proud. But that's how Landa has been for the past 80 years, encouraging and mentoring women on how to be motivated and successful in a nation that still hasn't quite managed to see us as full-fledged, competent citizens.
On Christmas Day, Landa will be 100 years old. She's not impressed.
"A lot of people grow to be 100," she said. "Why the fuss?"
Still, she remains the North Star to the women in Utah and across the U.S. she brought into the heart of 20th century politics. One was Karen Shepherd, who in the 1970s was editor of the feminist newspaper Network and went on to become a Utah state senator and a Democratic congresswoman.
One day, Shepherd said, Landa came to her Network office to talk about Title IX, the federal anti-sex discrimination initiative best known for putting girls on par with boys in school sports. At the time, Landa was living in New York City as president of the National Council of Jewish Women
"I fell in love with her immediately," Shepherd says. "Ever since then, I've done everything I could to know more about her, to stay in touch, to keep up with her. I pick her brain at every opportunity."
It stands to reason. Landa's rÃ©sumÃ© spills off the page: a graduate of the progressive Mills College, a co-founder of Utah's Head Start program and, to this day, an influential Democrat and indefatigable warrior for equal rights and women's rights.
"My parents," she said, "were very good. They didn't try to channel me in one direction. They kind of let you be what you wanted to be."
Landa, nee Rosenblatt, was born on Dec. 25, 1912, in her parents' home on 300 East between 300 South and 400 South in Salt Lake City. "And I'm mad because none of my children has put a plaque up."
Mills in Oakland, Calif., was a natural choice, she said, because it "gave you role models of what women could do, and what women could be."
During the Depression, though, she had to come home and attend the University of Utah before her father gathered enough money to send her back to Mills. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature and headed for New York City.
"At that time, if you thought to make your fame and fortune, you had to go to New York," she said.
She actually got a job at Bennington School of the Dance in Vermont, where she met luminaries such as Martha Graham and "learned how to drink martinis."
When she returned to New York, she went to work doing public relations for the Constance Hope Agency; one assignment was the opera singer Ezio Pinza. Hope made her Jewish employees change their names Landa chose "Norma Ross" because Hope didn't want her business labeled a Jewish agency.
After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Landa headed for Washington, D.C., and worked first at the Department of War and later in the Office of War Information.
It was there she met an airman, Jerry Landa, whom she married in 1943. Their daughter Carol was born in 1944, Howard in 1948 and daughter Terry came along in 1951.
Her husband died of Parkinson's disease in 1971. When I asked if she'd remarried, Landa said, "One was enough."
Landa was a member of the League of Women Voters of Utah, and in 1962, a University of Utah professor asked her and others to organize a women's conference, which Landa believes was the first of its kind here.
"The speaker was a Lady Reading of England," Land said. "I don't know what she was famous for. She must have been famous for something."
In time, Landa would serve on the Salt Lake Board of Education and return to New York City as president of the National Council of Jewish Women.
State Rep. Patrice Arent, a lifelong friend, said that for a woman in a state with a small Jewish community, that position was a "very big deal."
Then, of course, there was the 1977 International Women's Year, a United Nations initiative to consider discrimination, social and equity problems faced by women. Utah's convention was at the Salt Palace, where 300 women were expected.
But the proposed Equal Rights Amendment was much in the news. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposed it, and some 13,000 women and children, most of them Mormon, swarmed the convention.
"I don't know if it was the LDS Church officially or certain members that didn't want it to happen," Landa said. "So they had people, including men, walking up and down the aisles telling the women how to vote."
In fact, every motion in support of equal rights was voted down. In the end, Landa said, "the only thing that passed was we were against pornography."
Arent said Landa always "talked a lot about children and education, she talked about day care, reproductive rights. She's been a role model for so many of us. You're often told you can't do it. She could always do it."
In 1993, Arent was planning to be in Washington, D.C. She'd heard about a White House event and desperately wanted to go. She called Shepherd, then Landa, and suddenly there she was, talking with Coretta Scott King and Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the Interior.
"I would not have been there but for Esther," Arent said.
Pat Shea, a Salt Lake City lawyer and former Utah Democratic Party chairman, grew up with Landa's son, Howard.
Shea calls Landa the "steady rudder in the wild seas of Utah politics." And when he was party chairman and something came up, he was inevitably told, "Well, have you talked to Esther?"
He has another reason for revering her. When Shea's father died from suicide the summer before he was to go to law school, Landa and her sister "did the things that allowed me to go, as always behind the scenes."
Before I left Landa's home that evening, I asked her if she felt if women's status has improved.
"I think it's improved in a certain way. One thing is, young women today don't realize how lucky they are, and they don't realize how it was back then. They're just taking their status for granted, as if it's their due."
And here in Utah, she added, "the ideal in this society is to marry young and have kids. But you have to get as much education as you can, because you'll never know when you'll need it.
"You never know, when you step off the curb, if a bus will hit you," Landa said. "The main thing is, I've had some good role models, and that's important for girls."
A girl with role models became one herself.
Boiled down, it's simple: Got a problem? Talk to Esther. Problem solved.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at email@example.com