Mildred “Millie” Jeffrey was born in Alton, Iowa on December 29, 1910 into a family of independent, hardworking women. Her grandmother ran the family farm and raised sixteen children after her husband died. Her mother, Bertha McWilliams, who raised Milly, the oldest, and six other children, became Iowa's first female registered pharmacist in 1908 and owned a drugstore in Alton and later in Minneapolis.
Ms. Jeffrey's campaign against social injustice began in 1928 when she joined the left-leaning Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the YWCA while a student at the University of Minnesota. The Y, which organized interracial dances, hosted controversial speakers, and attempted to integrate restaurants, had a reputation as one of the most radical student groups on campus. After graduating in 1932, she attended Bryn Mawr College, receiving a master’s degree from the Department of Social Economy and Social Research in 1934.
She worked for the next year as a special investigator for the National Recovery Administration and then took a job organizing for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in Philadelphia, trying to recruit as many millworkers as possible before the inevitable firing or arrest. Eventually, she became educational director of the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Shirt Workers. In 1936, she married fellow Amalgamated organizer Homer Newman Jeffrey, and the two of them traveled throughout the South and East organizing textile workers. During World War II, the Jeffreys both worked in Washington as consultants to the War Labor Board, where they became close friends with the Reuther brothers.
When Mildred and Newman Jeffrey moved to Detroit in 1944, Victor Reuther offered her a job as director of the newly formed UAW Women's Bureau; she reluctantly accepted only after a neighbor agreed to care for her two young children. As the UAW’s first female department head, Mildred Jeffrey gained a forum for her lifelong commitment to equal rights for women not only in society and the workplace, but in the union as well. She organized the first UAW women’s conference in response to the massive postwar layoffs of women production workers replaced by returning veterans. From 1949 until 1954, she ran the union's radio station, after which she moved on to direct the Community Relations Department. Her last post with the UAW was as Director of the Consumer Affairs Department from 1968 until her retirement in 1976.
Mildred Jeffrey had been active in Democratic Party politics from the time she arrived in Detroit, serving as a precinct delegate, state central committee member, and national committeewoman. Preferring to spend her energy on the grunt work of politics -- leafleting, organizing, telephone canvassing, and fundraising -- she did not run for public office until 1974, when she was elected to the Wayne State University Board of Governors, an office she held for sixteen years.
Her commitment to equal rights for women and minorities did not abate after her retirement from the UAW in 1976. As early as 1948 she began campaigning for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. As a founding member and chair of the National Women's Political Caucus, NOW’s political arm, she supported female candidates for public office and was an original board member of the Michigan Women's Foundation. In seeking social justice and equality for all people, Mildred Jeffrey has spent a lifetime in committee and organizational work on behalf of civil rights, education, health care, youth employment, and recreation issues.