Forty Years and Counting. . . .

Forty years ago Thursday the U.S. Senate cleared the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it  to the states for ratification. It’s hard to believe in the current political climate, but the Senate vote was 84 in favor and only eight opposed.  Within the first year, 30 of the requisite 38 state legislatures voted to ratify the amendment….and then right-wing opposition coalesced against it, led by Phyllis Schlafly and her Stop ERA organization.

Last year, a longtime friend of mine from Australia came along when I did a television interview in connection with the publication of my book.  He was stunned to learn that the U.S. Constitution did not include a protection against discrimination on the basis of sex.  What could possibly be the issue after all this time, he wondered?

In 1976, Elly Peterson and Liz Carpenter were recruited to lead ERAmerica, a bipartisan coalition of organizations that supported the amendment. However, despite their efforts, the ratification campaign ultimately failed, even after the original  deadline was extended until 1982.

Activists today are now pursuing a “three-state strategy,” arguing that the ratification of the 27th Amendment in 1992 (prohibiting members of Congress from adjusting their salaries until the next session), provides a precedent for an unlimited extenstion of the ratification deadline. In this case, the amendment was ratified 203 years after Congress passed it in 1789. Here is more information on current ratification strategies.

In 1982, at a gathering of women’s groups in Michigan shortly after the ratification deadline passed, Peterson told them, “I am here because I believe the women of my generation let YOU down. . . . I am here, too, to apologize to you because I LET YOU DOWN. I have been far too complacent, believing that an occasional $100 check, letters to politicians or to friends to urge them to help, [and an] exchange of clippings, was a worthwhile contribution.  And I learned how miserable I had been–what little effect I had REALLY had–in about two minutes. “

She described her experience watching young women in Illinois who had been willing to go on a hunger fast in support of the amendment, and added, “And I had had the termerity to think I had been doing something to help!”

She closed with words that resonate for me today, as we continue to wage battles over women’s access to contraception and health care, battles that most of us probably thought were resolved decades ago:

“But to those who have decided the women’s issues are their first priority–to those who have made the sometimes painful decision to be feminists first, I say:

This can be your year to make your voices heard. This can be your year to take the first step to lead instead of accepting. This can be your year to feel the heady sucess of real power where it counts.”

 

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Speech at the University of Michigan

Last fall, I spoke at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan as part of the University of Michigan Press’s Author Series. If you’re interested in the video of that presentation, click here.

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Talking for Cash

Mitt Romney generated a bit of a flap back in January when he said he got “speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.”

According to his financial disclosure statements, from February 2010 to February 2011, that “not very much” added up to $374,327.62 in the 12 months before February 2011.

Words, like so many other things, have become a commodity that can go up or down in value, based on who’s uttering them and why. Celebrities, whether political, journalistic, sports or entertainment, can often command big fees for the star power they can bring to an event. Others, like a struggling author hoping to generate some attention for a book or a candidate trying to break into the headlines, may be more willing to make an investment of time and energy, without regard to whether they will actually get paid.

Back in 1965, when she was chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, Elly Peterson helped organize 10 dinners around the state on the same night, each featuring a prominent Republican. The goal was to help the party reduce its campaign debts. Ten Republicans, including New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, accepted the invitations. But Ronald Reagan, who was then making speeches as a warm-up to runinng for governor in California, did not. “He would come only if he got a big percentage of the take or $20,000 flat,” Peterson recalled. “He didn’t come. We didn’t want him. Overnight we paid off a big sum.”

Reagan apparently continued this practice until the mid-1970s, when, the late Lyn Nofziger recalled, aides advised him that this was the way to build political loyalty. Thus, I found it interesting that in the year before he was planning to mount a campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney apparently decided to charge a substantial amount for making speeches of his own.

Now Romney’s not the only one, of course. Newt Gingrich said his going rate is $60,000 a speech, and former presidents like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton can command even more. Setting a high fee is also, arguably, a way to keep every small-town Chamber of Commerce or second-string trade association from bugging, It’s like the old adage, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

Call me old-fashioned or call me merely jealous, but I’m troubled by the idea of politicians making money this way. Certainly, Mitt Romney is  now talking for free to whomever will take the time to listen to him. But one wonders whether there might be a bit more enthusiasm for him today, if he had given a bit more time a few years ago to share his passion for free, rather than to line his pockets.

Especially when he wasn’t exactly going hungry.

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The Mother as Candidate

Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times quotes my book in a front-page story about Lenore Romney’s 1970 race for the U.S. Senate. The accompanying video has some great clips of Mitt Romney’s mother from her appearances as a candidate and first lady in Michigan in the 1962-70 vintage.

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The Michigan GOP Presidential Primary, 1976

As the Republican presidential primary race has unfolded this year, commentators have noted that all the campaign contributions and televised ads mean little if a candidate doesn’t have an organization. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, failed to meet the somewhat stringent requirements to get on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Virginia, the state where he now lives.

President Gerald R. Ford nearly suffered the same fate in 1976. The Ford campaign, it turns out, came very close to missing the filing deadline for the Republican presidential primary in Michigan, Ford’s home state.

The little-known story turns up in the personal papers of Elly Peterson, the moderate Republican leader who is the subject of my recent book, Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’ of the Moderates. Peter Fletcher, then the Republican national committeeman from Michigan, also recounted it when he provided a videotaped oral history for the Michigan Political History Society. On March 15, 1976, four days before the primary’s filing deadline, Fletcher discovered that the Ford campaign had failed to file the necessary papers to get the incumbent president’s name on the Michigan primary ballot.

Peterson was an old friend of Fletcher’s; at that point, she was serving as the volunteer co-chair of ERAmerica, but had not yet been recruited to join the Ford campaign. Fletcher wrote and told her that when he had tried to alert the President Ford Committee, “the big legal brains said I was wrong. Sent them back to their law books and they called back confessing I was right.” Fletcher was asked to go to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and wait so that he could hand-deliver the appropriate papers after they arrived on a plane. He told Peterson they never arrived. He concluded cynically: “Renews my confidence in the strong hands of leadership in which we have entrusted the future of our nation.” Fletcher eventually received the affidavits, and said he delivered them with only two hours to spare.

Ford’s name went on the ballot, and he beat Ronald Reagan in the May 18 primary by a margin of 2 to 1, stemming a tide of primary defeats that might have ended his presidential election hopes right there. That night, he captured 55 delegates to 29 for Reagan.  Reagan eventually lost at the convention by a margin of 1,187 delegates for Ford to 1,070 for Reagan. If Reagan had captured all 84 Michigan delegates in that topsy-turvy campaign year, it might have made the decisive difference in the race.

Stuart Spencer, deputy chairman of the Ford campaign, later said, “I have always maintained—and a lot of his right-wing friends think I am nuts—that Reagan was lucky he got beaten in the 1976 primaries. He would not have won that race: Jimmy Carter was going to carry the South, and without the South, Reagan could not have won in 1976. But come 1980, after Carter had basically had a bad presidency, Reagan was the beneficiary. He has always been a lucky politician.”

As this year’s Republican primary battle drags on, actually being on the ballot becomes more and more critical.

 

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Transvaginal Whatsits?

Every now and then, I wish that Elly Peterson were still alive so that we could swap observations about the world in general and politics in particular.

She had just turned 92 when I began work on my book, too old, she readily acknowledged, to be Internet savvy. She relied on a niece to print out e-mail messages from her friends, but still read avidly and watched a steady stream of cable news shows.  Still, her strong personality and sense of humor came through in the letters we exchanged, and I got to experience both first-hand during three days of interviews that I conducted with her in 2006.

So I’m imagining the look on her face if I told her that contraception has emerged as a big issue in this year’s Michigan GOP presidential primary. Or, if she discovered that the Virginia General Assembly is now arguing over whether to require women who want an abortion to submit to something called a “transvaginal sonogram.”

First, I’m sure she would say, “A what?” Until I saw the curling iron-sized device on The Daily Show the other night, I might have had a similar reaction. I’ve had a couple of sonograms in my time, but never one as invasive as the one envisioned by the Republicans in the General Assembly, being that I am, ahem, beyond the age of child-bearing.  Continue reading

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Michigan Notable Books of 2012

The Library of Michigan has just announced the 20 books on its list of Michigan Notable Books for 2012, and I’m thrilled that my biography of Elly Peterson made this year’s list. Here’s a link to a story with the complete list.

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