Elly Peterson and
the Republican Party
by Bill Castanier
August 16, 2011
Author Sara Fitzgerald recalls in her new book, Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates, how the political trailblazer was once introduced at a men’s club: “We hope you will not give us your bra speech, as that only covers only two points, but instead launch into your girdle speech that covers everything.”
This outlandish Mad Men-style introduction was not unexpected for Peterson. In fact, during her long years in national and state politics she had come to expect it. She even crafted a speech based on all the rude and unusual introductions she had received over the years.
Fitzgerald, in her new book published by the University of Michigan Press, describes Peterson’s journey from secretary in an Eaton County Republican Party office to vice chair of the Republican National Committee, ultimately becoming the first woman to speak at a Republican National Convention and the first woman in Michigan to run for a U.S. Senate seat. The Michigan author closes the book with Peterson’s transformation to an independent and her role as the co-founder and co-chairwoman with Democrat Liz Carpenter of ERAmerica, which promoted ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
As a teenager, Fitzgerald remembers distinctly watching Peterson give her groundbreaking speech on national TV. She recalls in her book how she was “struck by the novelty of seeing a female politician on the national stage,” especially one from her home state. That image would stay with Fitzgerald until after she retired from a distinguished journalism career and serendipitously reconnected with Peterson.
While visiting her parents in a retirement community in North Carolina during the 1990s, Fitzgerald discovered that Peterson, who also lived there, was close friends with her parents. In 2005 she asked Peterson, who was already in her 90s, about writing a biography of her life.
Once Peterson agreed, the author spent days interviewing her and followed up those sessions with lengthy reviews of Peterson’s papers at the University of Michigan. Peterson died in 2008. Fitzgerald also interviewed a number of her “kids,” as Peterson affectionately referred to her protégés, who include former New Jersey Governor and U. S. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.
Among those she interviewed were Keith Molin, political consultant and former director of the Michigan departments of Labor and Commerce and the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority. Molin met Peterson when he was a college student attending Northern Michigan University.
“I was fortunate enough to be one of her ‘kids,’ and we all called her ‘mother,’” said Molin, who called “Elly” far ahead of her time. “She was knocking down barriers that the rest of us didn’t know existed. And she always did it for a purpose or a cause — it was never for Elly. She always assessed how it would be beneficial to growing the Republican Party.”
That was the case until the 1970s, when Peterson, always known as a moderate, split with the party and would ultimately endorse Democratic candidate Jim Blanchard against Republican Dick Headlee in the 1982 Michigan governor’s race.
Molin said: “She never left the party, the party left her.”
Another of Peterson’s kids, Margaret Cooke, who is quoted extensively in the book, agrees. Cooke, who served as the head of the Michigan Women’s Commission from 1977-1984 and later was public affairs director for the Department of Agriculture, said that Peterson’s story is a great history lesson, especially for young women.
“The parties were different then — the Republican Party used to be a more feminist party.”
Cooke met Peterson in 1966 when Cooke was vice chair of a campus Republicans group at Michigan State University. She said she believed Peterson did not get the credit she deserved for her fight for the adoption of the ERA amendment and for managing the 1966 Michigan elections swept by Republicans.
“But that was Elly. She was never one to take credit for herself and she was not one to think she should. When she saw the party was going in the wrong direction on feminist issues, she endorsed Blanchard and we all walked out of the party. There was no going back.”
Cooke recalls how Peterson took every-day discrimination in stride, although as Fitzgerald points out in the book, those transgressions would build up and lead to the split. “She could laugh it off,” Cooke said.
One situation described in the book tells how Max Fisher, the Detroit industrialist and moneyman for the Republican Party, informed her that she would be paid less in her new post as state chairman than her predecessor, a man. Molin recalls how Peterson learned from Fisher of his intent to cut her pay as she was readying herself off-stage to speak at the 1965 state convention. By the time Peterson got to the top of those steps, she had turned the tables on Fisher. She announced to the audience that her contribution to cutting the debt of the party would be to take a $6,000 pay cut.
“She just spent Fisher’s money,” Molin said.
Fitzgerald writes that the incident was Peterson’s “click moment — the episode in a woman’s life that first awakens her feminist consciousness.”
Molin describes Peterson this way: “She could be sweet and soft, but she could also be tough, and through her entire career she never stopped being a generous lady.”
The author paints a picture of Peterson as an innovative and clever campaigner who was dedicated to grass roots campaigning. Molin recalls traveling with her to the Mackinac Bridge, and during the trip she seemed to stop at every pay phone along the way to call a Republican County chair or elected official.
Fitzgerald said that early in her career, Peterson had been a Red Cross volunteer in England and Europe during World War II and didn’t have well-defined positions about complex topics such as race and women’s equality.
“Her feminism evolved and issues such as choice, equal pay and race emerged for her,” Fitzgerald said.
Molin points out in the book how Peterson was at the forefront of urban issues by establishing Urban Action Centers to help grow the base of the Republican Party.
Fitzgerald does an excellent job of describing that slow evolution, and said she was guided in her writing by two self-published memoirs by Peterson.
The author said she was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes battles Peterson waged, especially the “aggressive relationship” she had with vocal ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly. Most of those battles have never been reported in such detail.
The book is also an intense but subtle examination of the cultural milieu of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and the emergence of women’s issues, all against the backdrop of a political world. Molin described it “as a walk down memory lane.”
Peterson’s career in politics began, like many, as a volunteer. In 1952 she was the travelling companion to the spouse of Republican candidate for governor Fred Alger. By 1957 she was working for the state party in Lansing, and it’s there she got the nickname “mother” for her penchant for taking charge and cleaning up the messy office. She quickly advanced in her role, becoming the party’s chief organizer. In 1961 she was elected state vice chairman in an era when news writers (mostly men) would use the first few paragraphs of a news story to describe what a woman candidate was wearing. She became the first woman GOP state party chair in 1965.
Fitzgerald relates how Peterson would later write, “It wouldn’t be surprising if the gals would grow weary of the political merry-go-round if they don’t get the brass ring soon.”
Even George Romney, with whom she was close for some time, would often introduce her by saying, “She thinks like a man.” Fitzgerald quotes Peterson as saying: “It was like waving a red flag in my face. I answered as politely as I could: ‘I think like men think they think.’”
For Romney’s 1962 campaign she had organized women voters and helped run an extensive grass roots movement. She was then named assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee, but when she was tapped to run for U.S. Senate by Romney in 1964 (when Barry Goldwater topped the national ticket), she resigned the post. She would best two male rivals in the Senate primary but lose to popular incumbent Philip Hart in the general election.
Fitzgerald describes the time during the campaign when she was forced to hitchhike to an event after her van became mired in the mud. News accounts described her by saying, “She looks like a girl, thinks like a man and works like a dog.”
Molin said that although the likes of Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug grabbed the headlines during the days of the “women’s movement,” it was individuals like Elly Peterson who were the most influential in the women’s movement.
Fitzgerald also said that although she had known about Peterson’s two marriages — both to the same man — that she was surprised to learn that Elly Peterson had been expelled from Williams Woods College in Missouri for drinking.
Molin said after he finished reading the book he laid it down and drove to Charlotte to go past Peterson’s former home, the site of many strategy sessions and gatherings.
“It was something I had to do to say goodbye to Elly. An awful lot of people on both sides owe her.”
In her introduction, Fitzgerald provides probably the best reason for why the book should be read: “It’s easy for those of us who followed to forget what women of Elly Peterson’s generation had to endure to achieve the successes that they did.”