Legacy of action endures in children of Philadelphia activist Florence Cohen

     Philadelphia City Hall: Florence Cohen and her husband David spent years in this building. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

    Philadelphia City Hall: Florence Cohen and her husband David spent years in this building. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

    Florence Cohen must not have gotten the message. Or maybe she just didn’t listen. It was widely circulated before the Women’s Movement that a woman’s place was in the home.

    Don’t misunderstand. Mrs. Cohen spent plenty of time at home. After all, she raised four children, each one of them more accomplished than the next. Her oldest son, Mark, is a Pennsylvania state representative. Denis is a judge for the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Daughter Judy Minches is a blogger and former journalist. And Sherrie, a public interest lawyer, is running for an at-large position on the Philadelphia City Council.

    But even as she molded these future leaders, five-foot-tall Florence wanted to be more than a traditional housewife and mother. She wanted to take on the world — and she did.  

    A lifelong civil rights worker, social justice activist and union organizer, Cohen died on January 10 at age 97. For 59 years, she was the wife and trusted partner of City Councilman David Cohen, the longest-serving councilman in Philadelphia history. For 16 years, she was his highly regarded chief of staff. The Chestnut Hill Local once declared, when David Cohen was running, that a vote for him would get “two dedicated workers for the price of one.”

    Florence was even powerful enough to frighten Frank Rizzo, who tried to diminish her accomplishments by declaring that she “would make a good housewife.” She shot back, “Commissioner Rizzo demeans all women by his effort to belittle me.”

    Not a typical woman for her time

    To understand how extraordinary Cohen was, you must compare her to more typical women of the period — women like my mom. Both Cohen and my mother were born in the Bronx, in the same year, and were children of immigrants. But while my mother’s life was circumscribed by the ideal of 1950s womanhood, Cohen knew no such boundaries.  

    An example: In the 1960s, when my mom was in her early fifties, she heard that our school wanted to hire a lunch lady. Mom was getting bored at home, and she figured she could get out of the house for a few hours and earn some “pin money.” She applied for the job, and, vastly overqualified, she got it.

    My father, an engineer, was furious. He couldn’t believe my mother would make such a big decision without consulting him. Worse still, he saw her desire to work for pay as an implicit criticism that he wasn’t “bringing home the bacon.”  

    My mother’s dilemma was typical of the time. But while she was fighting to march out of the house, Florence Cohen had already returned from the March on Washington. Before that, she had participated in a march for peace at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. And before that, this college-educated woman (another distinction for that time) had worked for the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration, organized a union at General Electric to lobby for a $2/day pay increase, and attended a 1938 rally calling for the United States to invade Nazi Germany.

    Life lessons

    What was it like to be raised by this powerhouse? The Cohen siblings gladly shared some favorite stories about their mom.

    Says Judge Denis Cohen, “My mom was completely different from all the other moms I knew. Her get-togethers were rarely social; they were meetings designed to improve the community. She made every moment count — no leisure time for her. My mom (and dad) questioned authority long before it became fashionable — the authority of presidents, governors and mayors. She feared no one and no thing — with one exception: driving!”

    Which leads to the story of the Cadillac. Representative Mark Cohen remembers that his mom “was against the conspicuous consumption of the post-World War II era.” She hated ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and the quest for material goods, preferring to be thrifty.

    That didn’t stop Denis and his dad from falling in love with a top-of-the-line Cadillac, a black Fleetwood Brougham. It was their dream car! But Florence vetoed the Cadillac because she saw it as an elitist status symbol. “That was that — her lone vote trumped all others. No Cadillac,” recalls Denis with regret. But she did have one weakness: a penchant for throwing elaborate dinner parties with fine china and silver — nothing but the best for her guests.

    What life lessons did Florence Cohen teach her children? “That the purpose of life is to fight for a better life for all,” Sherrie Cohen declares.

    Adds Denis: “Do what you believe in, be just and ethical, be a loving parent, do not judge others.”

    Mark recalls, “Be engaged with the world.”

    Mrs. Cohen’s offspring agree that “she was a lifelong warrior for peace and justice.” The world is kinder today because Florence Cohen understood that she could make her place in that world as well as in her home.

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