Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Elly Peterson: From Secretary to No. 2 in the GOP

Before there were GOP activists like Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, there was Elly Peterson.

In 1963, just six years after taking a secretarial job for the Michigan Republican Party, she was named its vice chairman. Elly's sharp administrative skills made her a natural for the job.

The following year, at the urging of Governor George W. Romney, Elly ran (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate.

From 1969-70, she served as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. I was a journalism student working in public relations at the RNC at the time.

Unlike more divisive figures that have taken over the GOP today, Elly advanced an inclusive, big-tent approach to politics that welcomed conservative Barry Goldwater, moderate Richard Nixon and liberal George Romney. (See photo of Richard M. Nixon, George Romney and Elly during the 1964 campaign. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Elly M. Peterson papers.)

Elly was an independent thinker, sympathetic to the feminist movement. The issue of equal rights became personal, however, in 1965 when she was preparing to assume the title of chair of the Michigan Republican Party and learned that her salary would be $6,000 less than that of her male predecessor.

Elly went on to become national cochair of ERAmerica, a private national campaign organization, during the fight to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified. (See photo to the left of Elly, former First Lady Betty Ford and Bella Abzug listen as First Lady Rosalynn Carter addresses the ERAmerica rally at the International Women’s Year Conference in Houston, November 1977. Photo Credit: Carolyn Salisbury, National Education Association, ERAmerica records. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.) Elly was also a member of the NAACP.

In 1967, Elly waged a successful battle against ERA-opponent Phyllis Schlafly (who once said, "Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women”) for control of the National Federation of Republican Women.

When Elly retired from the RNC, columnist David S. Broder wrote in The Washington Post that she would have probably been chosen to lead the party “were it not for the unwritten sex barrier both parties have created around the job.”

During the Reagan years, Elly grew further alienated from the GOP and eventually declared herself an independent.

Before her passing in June 2008, at the age of 94, she was a supporter of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Former Washington Post editor Sara Fitzgerald (see photo left), and a follower of this blog, just released a landmark biography of Ms. Peterson titled, "Elly Peterson: 'Mother' of the Moderates."

She explains why she used 'Mother' to describe Elly:

"Elly Peterson had no children of her own, but dozens of protégées and colleagues called her 'Mother' or variations thereof. It all started in 1957 when Lawrence Lindemer, who was then chair of the Michigan Republican Party, hired Peterson as a secretary. The party’s offices in Lansing were in total disarray, and, according to Peterson, in desperate need of a cleaning job and someone to organize all of the files. She came in and took charge of every aspect of the clean-up job."

Sara, who grew up in Michigan, was a teenager when she watched the 1964 GOP Convention. She said she was surprised to see a woman, Elly Peterson, being interviewed by a national television correspondent. Concurrently, Elly became the first woman to address a national political convention. Sara followed Elly's career, taking special notice when she championed the ERA.

It was fortuitous when, in the early 1990s, Sara learned that her parents had become friends with Elly who was a neighbor of theirs in a retirement community in North Carolina. Later, in 2005, Sara approached Elly with the idea to write her biography.

"Since my college days, I had been interested in women’s history, and I always felt that her story was one that had never been fully told," she explained. "I was gratified that when I finally had the time to work on the project, she was still alive and willing to share her memories with me."

With her passion for the project it was not surprising that Sara has received kudos for her book:

"Sara Fitzgerald tells Peterson's story in this superb and timely biography. It carries a message that deserves the widest audience as the nation struggles to find needed consensus on critical issues amid poisonous political partisanship that has made it increasingly difficult for public officials to bridge their differences. I hope that every American reads it." — Haynes Johnson, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist.

"A magisterially written, well-researched, informative, and entertaining biography of a woman who helped throw open the doors to broader participation and power for women in the Republican Party and American politics." —Dave Dempsey, author of William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate

"Elly Peterson will be a text to which historians and researchers turn for insight into the yin and yang of mainstream politics in the mid-century." —Patricia Sullivan, past president, Journalism and Women Symposium

Click here for more information or to order "Elly Peterson: 'Mother" of the Moderates."

Click here to read Sara Fitzgerald's blog, "What Would Elly Think."