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Michael Miller

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By Michael Miller
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Yellow Margarine And A Pitch For The Ages

In early 1946, a brouhaha erupted between the AFL and the CIO, the state’s rival federations of labor groups. Republican leaders in the state legislature endorsed the upstate-oriented AFL’s proposal that New York license and regulate barbers and cosmetologists. The downstate-oriented CIO, which had members who couldn’t document the required formal education, launched opposition so fierce and threatened political retaliation so severe that the legislation was considered dead. And then, as the 1946 session was drawing to a close and the CIO was concentrating on other things, the “barber and hairdresser bills” started moving through both houses, with almost total Republican support and Democratic opposition. Member of Assembly Genesta Strong, first-termer from Nassau County, dependable, safe and already expected to step aside, was asked to be the official sponsor of the cosmetologist licensing bill.

Governor Dewey’s signing of the bill cemented support for his re-election from the powerful AFL, which had been the whole point. To those in political inner circles, Mrs. Strong had proved herself a reliable team player whose dignity was useful in deflecting potential attack.

She proved it again with margarine.

Since the 1880s, New York law protected dairy farmers by banning the sale of colored “oleo” (an old word for margarine), on the pretext that consumers could be easily fooled and cheated if it looked too much like butter. In New York, margarine was an unappealing white, and housewives, or whoever, spent millions of hours a year mixing in yellow coloring.

For generations, a significant caucus of dairy farmer-legislators blocked free trade in margarine. Merchant, labor and consumer advocacy groups called for an end to the ban on butter-colored margarine. Dewey made it a priority in his 1952 legislative program, but farm organizations, including the Honest Butter Association, worked to keep the bill bottled up in committee.

On the evening of Lincoln’s Birthday that year, Genesta Strong stood at Desk 98 in the Assembly Chamber, the one on the aisle where she sat for 15 years, and with a few legislators from dairy counties openly jeering and a gaggle of newsmen scribbling away, she gave a pitch for the ages.

Wearing a large, bright yellow apron and holding a wooden spoon, a pan, a plastic bag filled with margarine and some color capsules, Assemblywoman Strong demonstrated the “needless, dirty, messy work” of making margarine yellow.

As the wispy Senior Citizen mixed, she spoke calmly about the details of the bill, about the consumer protections that were built into it, and about what a shame it was that women should be forced by the butter industry to do this work: “Isn’t it time this Legislature gave a little time to the women who are trying to keep their homes going?”

She spoke for half an hour, and she laid them in the aisles. Every daily newspaper in the state carried the story, and the colored margarine bill moved, and fast. What had been called “the Dewey margarine bill” was now Mrs. Strong’s law.

If she had been like so many of our present-day public officials, dancing like monkeys for attention all the time, it wouldn’t have worked.

That same session, Strong was also sponsor of a breakthrough law that allowed county governments to provide training programs for physically and developmentally disabled children, partly funded by the state.

The following January, Strong was appointed Chairman of the Public Health Committee, the first woman to head a standing committee in the State Assembly. At that time, that particular committee handled a lot of “feminine” issues, so for seven years her work in Albany was almost totally ignored by the press.

To understand the last piece of the story, you had to understand the margarine. The tale turns now to tax bills.

Michael Miller's Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net