Recently, I was talking to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and the name Senator Wynona Lipman came up. It occurred to me that many of the younger generation in politics might not know who Senator Lipman was. So, I will take a shot to educate, and do justice, to her lasting greatness.
I served in the legislature with the Senator and attended events with her back in the 1990s, but I was not fully appreciative then of her astonishing contributions.
Senator Lipman was born in LaGrange, Georgia where she attended public schools. She attended Talladega College at the age of 16 and was a French major. Senator Lipman received a master’s degree in French Studies from Atlanta University and then taught at Morehouse College. Evidently, Senator Lipman served one time as a tutor to Martin Luther King Jr., after being awarded a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. She obtained a Ph.D. from Columbia University and went on to study in Paris.
She studied at the Sorbonne for two years and met her future husband, Matthew Lipman, a professor at Columbia University. The two married in Paris. Matthew Lipman was white, Jewish, and sadly, at the time of this union, fifteen states in the U.S., including her home state of Georgia, would not have legally recognized this mix race marriage. The husband and wife educators returned to the United States and found jobs in New York, before moving to Montclair, New Jersey.
Wynona broke into politics in the 1960s. She started out as a Democratic committee person, and later ascended to the chair of the committee. Not exactly a surprise to many who knew her.
Candidate Lipman ran for a seat on the then-known Essex County Freeholders and won in 1968. In 3 short years, she was selected to be the president of the county’s legislative body. Freeholder Lipman ran for State Senate in 1971 and beat an incumbent, Milton Waldor, a Republican from South Orange, by some 900 votes (85,644 v 84,736). She was the first woman of color to be elected to the Essex Freeholder Board and to the State Senate. (She was the third woman to serve in the New Jersey Senate).
Senator Wynona Lipman served 27 years in the state Senate. After moving from Montclair to Newark (that damn redistricting), Senator Lipman won her next 8 races – all with over 83% of the vote and she died in office on May 9, 1999. Professionally, Wynona was a respected college professor at Essex County College.
Senator Lipman was nicknamed the Steel Magnolia. According to friends, that nickname was given because she presented as a beautiful flower, but if you stepped on her, the steel resolve would be seen. According to a testimonial from Senator Nia Gill, she contends that when she walks onto the Senate floor today, she is treated with respect and fairness only because of the ground breaking service of Senator Wynona Lipman. (Senator Gill started out her career as a legislative aide to Lipman.)
It is hard to believe, but during some of Senator Lipman’s time in the legislature, there were only men’s bathrooms. During those times of need, a state trooper had to stand guard in those restrooms to allow privacy for the only female legislator.
During her tenure, Senator Lipman was noted as a fierce advocate for child abuse and neglect, education, AIDS, and women’s rights. Over the years, Senator Lipman served on the following committees and boards:
Chair of Commission on Sexual Discrimination
Member of Board of Overseers of the Governor’s School
Member on the International Trade Commission
Director of the Order of Women’s Legislators
Member of the National Black Legislators
Life Member on the National Council of Negro Women
Life member of NAACP
Coordinator of the New Jersey Black and Latino Caucus
Member of the Governor’s Council on AIDS
Taskforce member on Child Abuse and Neglect
Board member of Worldshare and Share New Jersey
Perhaps the greatest and most enduring legacy of this trailblazer is WYNONA’S HOUSE. It was established in her honor in Newark as a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children who have been abused or neglected. This unique organization uses over 70 multi-disciplinary advocates to assist children. Much more needs to be done to raise awareness and bring in desperately needed funds for Wynona’s House. Joe D and I left our conversation with a commitment to plan a multi-year effort to support the efforts of Wynona’s House.
Recently, Senator Brian Stack said to me at lunch that times goes by fast and we need to slow it down and pay attention to the important things around us. I hope that after reading about this trailblazer legislator, folks will stop for a moment and think about the profound legacy Senator Lipman has left behind. While you’re doing that, make a donation to Wynona’s House to play a part in continuing that legacy.