I met Judy Smith when I was 23 years old and my life forever changed directions. I worked with her in a variety of projects for the better part of three decades. Judy died Wednesday evening. We will all miss her vision, drive, passion and brilliance. She was one of the smartest people you could ever hope to meet. She had her doctorate in Microbiology but devoted her life to social justice.
Judy was a commanding presence. It helped that she was six feet tall but it was more than that. She was a force of nature, she embodied power and confidence. Not the kind people have when they are trying to climb up the ladder of success, but the kind of confidence that comes from having faith in yourself. She trusted her ability and the ability of others to change the world. Her experience in the 1960’s in anti-war protests, working on an underground newspaper, and being involved in the early years of feminism shaped her personality for the rest of her life. She never really went legit. She was always looking for ways to change the status quo.
Judy was clear that for her feminism didn’t mean women being equal with men. She didn’t like the gender stereotypes that defined men either. She didn’t want women to have power over other people and she didn’t want women to fight for an equal piece of a dysfunctional pie. She wanted a different pie, one that was big enough for everyone to have power. Empowerment wasn’t a buzz word for Judy, it was her life’s work.
When I met her in 1981, she was travelling around the state distributing the Montana Divorce Handbook. Judy wanted women to know that they had rights and they did not have to be victimized by the court system just because they wanted out of a marriage. In the mid-80’s she convened a conference on incest, this was when no one was acknowledging that incest took place.
Judy had this amazing ability to anticipate the next wave of change. In the late 80s and early 90’s she was instrumental in making Montana’s welfare regulations as progressive as they could be. Women on welfare could attend college or start their own business along with looking for work.
Judy founded Montana Women Vote a coalition of women’s organizations dedicated to increasing low-income women’s participation in all levels of our democracy. Judy saw that public policy wasn’t going to change if elected officials didn’t see low-income women as part of their constituency and the way low-income women could wield power was at the ballot box.
I can’t do justice to all her accomplishments, she worked on environmental issues, was instrumental in forming the Smart Growth Coalition, was a founder of the Missoula New Party, a progressive third party that made quite a name for itself in the mid 90’s. That was a blast, talk about shaking up the status quo.
Judy could look beyond what was and see what was possible in people toshe. Sometimes she wasn’t discerning enough in who she trusted to carry out the work, but maybe that lack of discernment made it possible for people to shine who wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity.
She certainly did that for me over the years. She had infinite patience with my neuroses, my anxieties and my insecurities. She didn’t worry about whether you had the skills or knowledge, if you wanted to work on a project; she assumed you could do the task. She was willing to start things and learn on the way. She didn’t wait to make sure she had the credentials or ask for permission before she took on an issue.
Judy wasn’t perfect and she wasn’t easy. She didn’t have the same insecurities that many women had in the early days of feminism. She didn’t need to overcome social conditioning and find her voice. She always had hers. When people would criticize her leadership, she would say that she wasn’t going to apologize for being competent.
Perhaps the biggest gift Judy gave to people was her time. She took an active interest in helping the next social activist. She was never too busy. She never held herself above the fray. She was always building community. She wanted everyone to have the opportunity to make a difference.
Judy wasn’t all work and no play. She loved being out in nature, she loved to sing, she loved cats, and she liked to enter things into the county fair. She won ribbons for her flowers and a blue ribbon for a watercolor painting of a fish is prominently displayed in her house. She loved Montana.
It’s not possible to talk about Judy without also talking about her sister Lin -- The Smith Sisters. Judy spent her whole life with Lin. They worked together on many projects, shared lots of interests, and Judy was very lucky to have Lin for her big sister.
Countless people in Montana and around the country have been influenced by Judy. So much of my life has been shaped by just knowing Judy Smith. Perhaps Judy’s energy has been released by the limitations of this world and she is out there working to make the universe a better place. This is Terry Kendrick, thanks for listening.