Allen, Ethel D. 1929–1981
Ethel D. Allen 1929–1981
Physician, politician, women’s rights advocate
Ethel D. Allen courted two loves—politics and medicine. As Philadelphia’s first black woman Republican councilmember and later Pennsylvania’s secretary of the commonwealth, she reigned as a clever, street-smart representative for her political constituents. As an osteopath, she was gentle and caring, especially when it came to Philadelphia’s indigent community. Dubbed by others as “Doc” and self-proclaimed a “ghetto practitioner,” Allen combined both of her interests to become a champion of women’s and minority rights and health care for the poor. From that base, Allen evolved to become Pennsylvania’s highest-ranking black female politician.
Allen once dreamed of becoming mayor of Philadelphia, but put the thought aside after she was appointed to the Pennsylvania cabinet post. By then, she thought that maybe one day she would find herself a Republican candidate for vice president of the United States. That, she figured, would give her a natural progression to becoming president of the United States. Fate did not deem it so. Following complications from diabetes and heart surgery, Ethel Allen died December 16, 1981, at the age of 52.
Allen was born in Philadelphia on May 8, 1929, one of three children in her family. She would live in Philadelphia for most of her life. Her father, Sidney S. Allen, Sr., born in Georgia, went as far as the seventh grade in school. He left the South and headed north in his late teens. Sidney Allen grew up wanting to become a physician, but with rampant racism and the lack of educational opportunities for a black man, he became a self-employed tailor. His dream would later be realized by his daughter. Allen described her mother in the Philadelphia Inquirer as the proverbial housewife, a woman who took care of home and husband and was proud of being identified as Mrs. Sidney S. Allen, Sr.
Allen had a sheltered childhood, which she described to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I had been exposed only to my relatives and white schoolmates. I spent all my spare time—virtually every day—at the Free Library… There weren’t that many children in my neighborhood, and I very seldom ventured off our block.” Allen helped her father by delivering clothes for him. Even though her parents were Baptists, Allen attended Catholic schools and throughout her life remained a Roman Catholic.
B orn May 8, 1929, in Philadelphia, PA; died of complications from open heart surgery, December 16,1981 ; daughter of Sidney S, Allen, Sr\ (a laborer) and his wife; children: Kathy Ann (legal guardian). Education: Graduated from West VirginiaStateCoflege, c early 1950s; Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, degree in osteopathic medicine, 1963. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Republican.
Physician, politician, speaker. Atomic Energy Commission, chemist, c early 1950s; Republican Party, volunteer, c early 1950s; served a medical school internship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, c. late 1950s-early 1960s; began work in community medicine, Philadelphia, 1964; Model Cities program, Spring Garden Community Center, medical director, c. mid-to late 1960s; taught community medicine at Hahnemann Medical College, c. 1970s. Elected asa fifth council district council member, Philadelphia, 1971; elected to an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council, 1975; named Pennsylvania’s secretary of commerce by then-Governor Richard Thorn-burgh, 1979; dismissed from secretary of commerce position for violating procedures, c early 1980s.
Selected awards: Esquire magazine listed her as one of the nation’s M outstanding women politicians, 1975.
As a youngster, Allen found herself intrigued with and inspired by science and politics. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, she remembered wanting to be a physician from the time she was three and liking politics since age six. The newspaper also reported that “as a child, Ethel wanted to understand how things work—to make sense out of a universe that could hardly make sense to a sensitive black child in North Philadelphia going to a white [Catholic] school. She had to understand why. How.” She was quoted as saying that during her childhood she “was always interested in science from age five up. I had an uncle who was a dentist. He motivated me tremendously toward the scientific field. He used to take me to his office, and even though I was never keen on pulling teeth, I was interested in his patient’s reactions and fascinated by the camaraderie between him and his patients.”
Still, it was politics that Allen seemed drawn to more and more. Her parents, who logged years of service as Democratic committee members in the 29th ward, got her a job as a page at the national conventions held in Philadelphia in the late 1940s. Elected officials and various political aspirants became her heroes. “Like most people thought about movie stars, I thought about politicians,” Allen said during an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Today magazine. “Franklin Roosevelt was the man, and to see him first-hand, close-up, was just… well, he was my number one man. And Mrs. Roosevelt was my number two gal.” Mary McLeod Bethune, an advisor to President Roosevelt, was Allen’s number one gal. During a time when few black women were recognized for their achievements, Bethune was Allen’s role model.
While attending John W. Haliahan Girls Catholic High School, Allen managed the student council president campaign of another student. Always exploring new avenues, Allen also learned to play the trumpet and the piano. During her senior year at West Virginia State College, then an all-black school, she ran for council president and lost by two votes, one being her own. In the meantime, with a major in chemistry and biology and a minor in mathematics, Allen concentrated on schoolwork.
College was an exciting time for Allen, and West Virginia State College offered her an opportunity to see life from a different perspective. Up to that point, Allen’s education had been in a predominantly white environment. “And although the discipline of Catholic schools does not permit open manifestations of racism, there were times when it was made very clear you were not expected to have intellectual achievement because black people were supposed to have smaller brains and all of that,” Allen explained in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Allen squeezed as much into her college years as she could, which included being a Latin scholar and a drama student. Following graduation, she worked as a chemist on an Atomic Energy Commission project.
As a young woman, Allen continued attending Democratic and Republican national conventions and eventually became what was almost unheard of in those days—a black woman Republican. Eventually, Allen would introduce herself as a “BFR—a black female Republican, an entity as rare as a black elephant and just as smart.” According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s To day magazine, the young politician stuffed envelopes and addressed flyers for local and national campaigns. In 1952, during the Dwight Eisenhower presidential campaign, “I got promoted from the mail department to scheduling and appointments for the Philadelphia area,” Allen explained in Today.
Allen became a diligent worker, but always in the background. She had no aspirations for office at the time; politics was purely an avocation. Allen felt the need to pursue her lifelong ambition to become a physician, though in those times racism made it very hard for blacks to break into the medical field—twice as hard for a black man, even harder for a black woman. For seven years after graduation, Allen tried to get into medical school. Instead of opening, doors seemed to slam shut. She said of that experience in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “I was turned down many times with the usual response that they had no facilities for women physicians.’”
When she was finally accepted at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Allen juggled her studies with fighting racism and sexism. She received her degree in osteopathic medicine in 1963, served an internship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and then in 1964 returned to Philadelphia and began work in community medicine. Although she had an office, Allen saw many of her patients in the streets—literally—at Fifteenth Street and Columbia Avenue.
Allen was an aggressive and assertive advocate for the poor and disadvantaged. She referred to herself as a “ghetto practitioner.” She faced incredibly difficult situations while trying to serve Philadelphia’s poorest patients. For instance, her private practice was located in a neighborhood that was so rough that once drug addicts came into her office waiting room and asked her patients to stand up so they could cart off all her furniture.
Later, as medical director at the Spring Garden Community Center for the federally funded Model Cities program, a job that paid $32,000 a year, Allen carried a gun on house calls. The Philadelphia Inquirer related an annecdote from that era:“One time when she answered a house call to examine a woman, she found herself in a trap. Four men came into the room to rob her because they assumed she would have drugs in her little black medicine satchel. Instead of getting drugs, all four found themselves looking into the barrel of Dr. Allen’s conveniently placed gun. She made them all undress and ordered them out into the street naked before making her getaway.”
After that, Allen refused to answer house calls without a police escort. Eventually, Allen decided that she would try to help Philadelphia by fighting street crime from a council seat. In November of 1971 she ran for office against three-term city councilman Thomas Mcintosh, a Democrat. During the campaign, she and Mcintosh had one debate. According to the Today article, she stood and spoke first: “In the interest of brevity,” she told the audience, “let me just say that I am a candidate. Whatever my opponent hasn’t done, I will do. Whatever he has done, I will do better.” Allen sat down.
Mcintosh rose. He sputtered, then sat down. Allen beat him by some 4,000 votes. The post paid $24,000 a year less that what she had been making, but Allen did not seem to mind the cut in salary. The woman who stood just a whisper shy of five feet represented the city’s fifth council district. The district’s population was 60 percent black and included sections of Center City, Kensington, and North Philadelphia, which contained young middle-income and wealthy whites, Puerto Ricans, Slavs, Poles, and Lithuanians.
Allen, a stout woman with short hair, a booming voice, and an attention-grabbing manner, was a Republican in a chamber controlled by Democrats. She was a passionate advocate of women’s rights and a champion of her black constituents. She was a liberal Republican who supported legal abortions. Her primary concerns also included the environment, housing, gang warfare, and drug problems. As a council member, she was studious yet sometimes theatrical, and still other times, she was somber and serious. She felt that one of her strong points was her scientific approach to her council work. “I do take a relatively scientific approach to politics,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s my research background coming out. I always do research. People don’t always tell you the whole story, so you have to research.” Away from city hall, she filled in for vacationing doctor friends, taught community medicine at Hahnemann Medical College, and acted as an advisor to black medical students.
As a councilmember Allen did not mince words or sugarcoat her feelings. According to the same article, when Philadelphia city council president George X. Schwartz was “expounding his gut feelings” on a proposed tunnel, Allen shot back: “As a physician, Mr. President, I’d say your gut was anesthetized.” Another time, when a male councilman beat Allen and another female council member to introducing a sex discrimination bill, Allen called it “legislative plagiarism” and told Today magazine: “We’re going to make him an honorary member of women’s liberation, and that’s ‘honorary’ spelled O-R-N-E-R-Y.”
In 1973 Allen was still single and lived at home with her parents in the house that she grew up in near Twenty-third Street and Ridge Avenue. Known as a woman of boundless energy, she remained unmarried and never had any children, though she acted as the legal guardian for a child named Kathy Ann, whose parents died shortly after her birth. She spent a lot of time making speeches, talking to church groups and students, and attending community and civic association meetings. She continued to devote three nights a week to her medical practice. A variety of interests filled her free time.
Allen loved political novels, once saying that she read “everything I can get my hands on about Richard Nixon, before and after Watergate,” and was a fan of mysteries and good detective stories. According to the Today article, her other hobbies included photography (“I’m good at animals”), cooking (“I once beat a gourmet chef in a popover-baking contest”), art, music (both listening to and playing the piano, organ, and trumpet), clothes (“I have a real fetish for shoes”), and soap operas (“I’m an addict”).
After serving her first city council term, in 1975 Allen ran for council again, but this time for an at-large seat. She triumphed as the first black councilwoman elected to an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council. Allen became the GOP’s top vote-getter in Philadelphia. Esquire magazine listed her as one of the nation’s 12 outstanding women politicians. She remained a politician who did not bite her tongue. At a city council meeting she once spoke out against Mayor Frank L. Rizzo’s position on a Puerto Rican housing project, warning him,“Una scupa nuova scazzivane,” which in Italian means “a new broom sweeps clean.” She further challenged him by stating, “If you push me, I may have to run against you, Mr. Mayor. And when I run, I win.”
In late 1975, upon self-examination, Allen found a lump in her left breast. A few days later she underwent a radical mastectomy. Always fun-loving, Allen tossed a champagne party in her hospital room. When her friends arrived, the chubby politician was sitting on Santa’s lap and answering questions from reporters. Two days later, she appeared at a city council meeting in a wheelchair to cast the only opposing vote against a street vendors bill.
In 1976 the nation focused on Allen as the black female Republican who delivered a seconding speech for President Gerald Ford at the GOP national convention. Two years later, she was mentioned as a possible candidate and a two-to-one favorite for the Second Congressional District seat, but she decided against running.
In January of 1979, Allen told the press that Pennsylvania’s newly elected governor, Richard Thornburgh, had first discussed the job of secretary of the commonwealth with her a few weeks earlier at the Pennsylvania Society dinner in New York City, where Allen was sounding out fellow Republicans and large political contributors to see if she would have enough political and financial support to run for mayor of Philadelphia. She had asked a Republican city leader for his assurance that she would be the sole GOP mayoral candidate in a closed primary in May. Allen said that without that pledge, she would not run for mayor.
GOP officials did not give her the nod, so nothing was standing in the way of Allen making a change in political direction when Thornburgh officially offered her the job of secretary of the commonwealth. Allen accepted the $38,500-a-year appointment. The next day, while sitting’in her office at Philadelphia City Hall, Allen celebrated in her down-to-earth fashion: she ordered out for a hamburger.
As secretary of the commonwealth, Allen was in charge of the state’s election machinery, supervised the regulation of charities, and registered lobbyists and corporations. It was also her responsibility to license 22 professions and occupations. Though largely a ceremonial post, the job also required Allen to attend functions in the governor’s stead.
Always popular in Pennsylvania, Allen began receiving widespread national media attention. All around the country, she became a role model for black youngsters. She was considered one of the nation’s most influential and powerful black politicians. Shortly after the appointment, a close friend of Allen artistically recreated the first moon landing with Allen’s smiling face on a figure wearing a space suit and holding an American flag. It was published in Ebony. The caption to the picture originally read: “One giant leap for mankind.” But the artist drew an “X” across the word man and changed the caption to read: “One giant leap for WOMANkind.” Allen hung the work on a wall in her office.
But the high tide Allen was riding as secretary of the commonwealth ebbed quickly. Governor Richard Thorn-burgh, who had eagerly embraced her, told Allen that she had violated procedures and must resign immediately. When Allen refused, the governor fired her, saying that Allen had accepted honoraria for speeches that had been prepared by state employees, and he linked that with a charge of absenteeism. Reportedly she had been absent 21 days during a 40-day stretch. Allen admitted that she had used a state worker to help write two speeches for which she earned $1,000. She said that during her term, from February to October, she had delivered 118 speeches and had received $2,000 for 12 of the appearances.
Community leaders said the governor’s actions were “sexist” and “racist.” Black leaders said the firing reflected a double standard since the governor’s office had admitted that three other cabinet members also had a large number of absences because they traveled extensively to perform daily administrative duties. In contrast, Allen told the press that she was not bitter about the incident. According to the Philadelphia Daily News for November 1, 1979, she called the situation “a most unusual affair that could have been handled differently,” and she said that she remained “unbossed and unbowed.”
After leaving the job, Allen worked for the Philadelphia School District as a school clinician. Her tenure there ended abruptly in October of 1981, when she underwent open heart surgery at Hahnemann Hospital, where she had previously been a member of the staff. On December 3, she was transferred to the intensive care unit at Albert Einstein Medical Center, Northern Division. She remained in intensive care until December 16, when she died at the age of 52. An editorial published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 19,1981, summed up Allen’s life by stating, “When Dr. Ethel D. Allen tackled a problem, which was often, she did so with enthusiasm and vigor that inspired others to join in the endeavor. When she sought to remedy an injustice, which was frequently, she held unwaveringly to the view that this world can be made a better place if people work hard enough and resolve firmly to make it so.”
Ebony, May 1973, pp. 124-126, 128, 130-131; October 1979, pp. 74-76.
Jet, January 25, 1979, p. 7.
New York Times, December 18, 1981.
Philadelphia Daily News, January 3,1979; January 2, 1979; November 1, 1979; December 18, 1981.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 7, 1973; January 1976,Today section; December 19, 1981.
—Sandra D. Davis
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