Although she rarely held elective office, Molly Todd played an important role in fashioning public policy in Nashville and Tennessee in the second half of the twentieth century. She mobilized support for reform in areas as diverse as birth control, racial integration, and metropolitan government. Her most important base of support came from the League of Women Voters. Her strategy as a reformer centered on the construction of alliances between like-minded organizations, followed by demonstrations of voting strength on behalf of targeted reforms.
Todd was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1904 and graduated from Vassar College in 1925. Her first employment as a social worker involved birth control clinics in New Jersey and Kentucky. She moved to Nashville with her second husband, James Todd, in 1939 and took on a number of volunteer posts, including the presidency of the Tennessee Maternal Health Association and chair of the steering committee that created the Nashville Mental Health (DeDe Wallace) Center. In 1948 she helped reconstitute the Nashville League of Women Voters. As president, Todd engaged the league in vigorous campaigns to develop government support for the overcrowded county schools, library services, a family service agency, and child welfare. The league published the city’s first brochure on voter education, worked to abolish the poll tax, and engaged in efforts to consolidate city and county government services.
Todd was a charter member of the Tennessee Council on Human Relations, which was organized to confront the persistence of racial segregation following the Brown decision. She participated in the lunch counter sit-ins, aided by her husband’s quiet cooperation as an executive of Harvey’s department store, a target of the protest.
Todd joined and usually held positions of leadership in an impressive number of organizations, including the PTA, the Women’s Civic Forum, Church Women United of Tennessee, the Tennessee Environmental Council, the United Nations Association, and the Democratic Party. In every group she sought an agenda dedicated to social and political advancement. Todd did not see herself primarily as a feminist but as an activist for the public good.
Defeat at the polls did not deter Todd’s support of issues or candidates she considered progressive. In 1956 she became the woman’s chair of Tennessee Volunteers for Stevenson-Kefauver despite the lack of enthusiasm for these candidates by the state’s traditional Democratic leadership. She ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1954 and again in 1960, and for Metro Council in 1965. Todd continued to advocate political goals ranging from adequate school funding to a state income tax and from enforcement of strip mine and water control laws to repeal of the death penalty.