A year ago on the anniversary of my mother’s 100th birthday, I paid tribute to her trailblazing spirit and pioneering leadership. Many of you responded and expressed an interest in learning more about her extraordinary life.
Today would have been my mother’s 101st birthday. Frances Lillian Gibson Ross was a compassionate woman with a strong social conscience. She was involved in many of the critical social causes of her day.
The prospect of interning American Muslims and barring the door to desperate Muslim refugees of war would outrage her and spur her to take action for justice. She would challenge with great relish the modern day demagogues who promote racial bigotry and prejudice, and engage in shameless fear-mongering.
Solidarity and Compassion for Refugees
From 1939 to 1941, my mother was a community health educator in the Yuba City, California labor camps. It was here where she met my father. Years later, she recalled, “I learned so much from the men and women who had fled from the Dust Bowl – from their courage in keeping families together in terrible circumstances.”
She organized support for Spanish refugees during the Spanish Civil War, and on the eve of World War II she helped get sponsorship in the United States for Jewish physicians fleeing Nazi Germany.
In 1942, she accompanied my father to Cleveland, Ohio. She interrupted a teaching career to work as a drill press operator at the Warner and Swasey airplane manufacturing plant to support the war effort.
A few months before her death in 1998, I gave her a Rosie the Riveter poster that said “We Can Do It.” When she saw it, she said with spirit and pride, “You’re Damn Right We Can!” She and her fellow Rosies were an important part of the “Greatest Generation” and their successful battle to defeat Fascism.
During this period, she was also a union activist who organized her coworkers to integrate a racially segregated work place.
While in Cleveland, she strongly supported my father’s work combatting racial prejudice and war hysteria against the Japanese-American community, A close friend, Anne Kunitani Howden recalled fifty years later: “Our situation was fraught with uncertainty and anxiety. How could the people of Cleveland regard us strangers who physically resembled the Japanese enemy and whom our own government seemed to view as suspected aliens?”
“At the personal level my husband Mitch and I were fortunate to have many good times with Fred and his lively, sensitive wife Frances. We shared strong views on Anti-Fascism, ciivil liberties and the need for empowerment of Japanese-Americans and other minorities. Fred and Frances provided a warm haven of good fellowship, hope and laughter.”
My mother was a gifted storyteller and had a rich sense of humor and an infectious laugh that could fill a room.
In 1947, at the age of 32 and pregnant with me, my mother was struck with polio. Partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair for three years, she demonstrated tremendous courage and will power. She regained full mobility five years later.
Frances Ross: Earth Mother or Wicked Witch of the West?
One of her most significant professional accomplishment was her pioneering leadership in community mental health. She served for 18 years as Director of Conard House in San Francisco, a psychiatric half-way house for young adults to provide a bridge between the hospital to independent living in the community. She once said “This was the best fun of all.”
Women Can Do It
For the final thirteen years of her life, she resided in Villa Marin, an independent senior living community in San Rafael, California. She asked me to help her prepare a get out the vote plan in a campaign she led to make sure women were elected to the Board of Directors. At that point, women outnumbered men at Villa Marin by 5:1 margin, but had no representation on the Board. Her organizing efforts paid off – two women were elected. She later served two terms on the Board of Directors.
At the December 19, 1998, memorial service for my mother, one of her nurses aides said that “I thought your mother was Italian because she had that beautiful thick hair. Frances didn’t take crap off anybody.” At this service, I used the words love, laughter and justice to describe my mother. She demonstrated her love by devoting herself to her family and as a healer of broken spirits, bodies and minds. She uplifted our spirits by regaling us with wonderful stories. No matter how bad the political climate was, she maintained her optimism. She would often say, “Our side is winning.” We all wanted to be on her side. She exposed us to political satire by taking us to see Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl. She taught us by example the importance of fighting racial bigotry and prejudice.
On March 25, 1999, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi paid a tribute to my mother in the Congressional Record. “Frances Ross exhibited early in life the qualities we associate with leadership. She was a relentless champion of social justice, peace, equality, democracy and freedom. And in the pursuit of these values, her perseverance was legendary.”
Finally, and perhaps the most impressive, Frances also had the exquisite ability to balance an active life in the public domain with an equally impressive dedication to family and friends in the private domain. My brother Bob and sister Julia, and I were blessed to have her love, fierce devotion and support for our family.
Her compassion and commitment to justice and human rights continue to inspire us and new generations of the Ross family.
Frances Lillian Gibson Ross
Fred Gibson Ross