Monthly Archives: April 2011

In Praise of “Administrative Professionals”

In case you missed it, Wednesday was “Administrative Professionals Day,”  but you still have the rest of the week to recognize all those people who make office life easier.  In the old days, this “celebration” was called “National Secretaries Day,” but at some point along the way, someone thought the name needed updating and upgrading.

Elly Peterson started her professional and political career as a secretary, after attending a secretarial school in Chicago in the 1930s. While there, she  discovered that she loved everything about being a secretary. She loved people, she loved to sell, and she loved to organize an office.

She was successful, she later reflected, because she “understood the organization, and that was really my basic skill.” She once told a writer who was working on a story about famous women who had worked as secretaries: “A good secretary can learn the business as no other position can.”

Peterson’s background as a secretary was readily apparent to anyone who reviewed her personal papers at the Bentley Historical Library. In the days before email and xerox machines, she kept a carbon copy of an outgoing letter she wrote and filed it with the incoming letter that had prompted it, making it easier for a biographer to understand the narrative. Forty years after she attended secretarial school, she might still scribble notes to herself in shorthand, presumably when she was in a hurry. (Of course, that part might as well have been written in Greek to me!)

In today’s Washington Post, columnist John Kelly highlights a project created by Lillian Cox, a freelance writer who worked as a secretary at the Republican National Committee and the Nixon White House during the period (1969-70) when Peterson was assistant chairman of the RNC and the committee’s designated liaison to the White House regarding political appointments. Cox is hoping that former Washington secretaries will contribute their memories to the Washington Secretaries History Project. I’m sure there will be a lot of interesting stories to share.

By the time she got to Washington (n 1963 and 1969), Elly Peterson had risen high enough that she needed a secretary herself.  In her second stint at the RNC, she worked to recruit women for high-ranking posts in the Nixon administration, and tried to identify and highlight the women who were already serving in high-ranking posts. Because she was, in those years, expected to be a cheerleader for the Nixon administration, she was distressed when it appeared that the lists of high-ranking women were apparently inflated with the names of women whose titles indicated they were really secretaries, albeit to high-ranking men.

Later, when she served as a deputy chairman of the President Ford Committee in 1976, Peterson tried to recruit as many women as she could for her team, some of whom had started out as secretaries. During this time, she had a somewhat contentious relationship with Stuart Spencer, the campaign’s political director. Spencer was apparently not very sympathetic to some of the currents generated by the women’s movement in the mid-1970s. “It was the start of the feminist movement,” he recalled in an oral history he provided to the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. “The women who worked for me were always having meetings and then coming and seeing me. I was not much help in some of these areas. One day they got me to agree that they weren’t to be called secretaries. They were all going to be called somebody’s assistant. I said, ‘I don’t give a damn, just do your job.’ ”

Hat’s off to those who have worked, or are still working, as administrative professionals, secretaries or whatever you’re now called. Hopefully, it’s not “girl.”

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William Rusher

 William A. Rusher, former publisher of the National Review and a leading strategist among American conservatives in the late 20th century, died earlier this week at the age of 87. The Washington Post’s obituary noted that “by the mid-1970s, Mr. Rusher was so distressed by moderates’ influence over the GOP that he proposed creating a third national political party composed of what he regarded as hard-line conservatives.”

I have no notes on Elly Peterson’s views, if any, on Rusher and his particular influence. But she was very much a part of the battle for the soul of the Republican Party that took place between 1964, when Barry Goldwater won the party’s presidential nomination but lost his race in a landslide, and 1980, when Ronald Reagan finally succeeded in capturing the White House. She was very concerned about the growing impact of conservatives on her party, and how they were changing it.

From Peterson’s perspective, party moderates “reached their apex” in 1968, the year in which Richard M. Nixon won the presidency after candidates such as Michigan Gov. George Romney and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had sought it.  Pointing to that year, she wrote in her self-published memoir that Republican moderates “had so many outstanding governors, senators, congressmen, but after losing, this group seemed almost blurred in the party structure and many dropped out of sight.” Peterson herself stepped down as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committe after the mid-term elections of 1970.

Peterson also remained frustrated that moderates seemed to lack the kind of “fire in the belly” that conservatives had. “Moderates,” she wrote a few years later, “just don’t care enough to fight constantly to win. They will pour out their life’s blood for a month, or even three months, but when the battle is over, they want to go on to other things. It doesn’t seem to matter that much to them. Life goes on.

 “Not so the right wing. . . . They have tasted victory and they have tasted power . . . and they like it. They will make NO concessions to moderates, or liberals, but they expect to have concessions made to them.”

“The conservative movement,” Rusher told the National Review in 2009,  “is far too big, now, to be put out of business.”

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Unsung Heroines

Society taught women of the “Greatest Generation,”  like Elly Peterson, that it was “unladylike” to draw attention to themselves or their accomplishments. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t get one very far today in the worlds of politics, art,  journalism….you name it.

I thought of this again when I read  an obituary in today’s Washington Post  about 90-year-old Madelyn Pugh Davis, who co-wrote  every episode of the “I Love Lucy” television series, which pretty much defined the telvision sitcom. Who would have known?

Of course, writers, particularly television writers, often labor in relative obscurity and like it that way. And it’s possible that Davis is well known in Los Angeles television writing circles and I’m simply displaying my ignorance of the history of pop culture.

In a memoir published six years ago, Davis wrote: “Early television was a little like going through Donner Pass in a covered wagon in the middle of winter. There were no maps because nobody had ever been there before, and if you froze to death, or didn’t write a funny script, they might draw lots and eat you.”

So hat’s off to Madelyn and to the all the other women, like  Elly Peterson and her, who went through “the Donner Pass” of their chosen profession. And thanks, Madelyn, for the wine-making scene, the chocolate factory scene, the William Holden episode and all the rest of those scripts that made us laugh as kids–and still do.

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Phyllis Schlafly’s Child Care

At age 86, Phyllis Schlafly is back out promoting another book, this one co-authored with her niece, Suzanne Venker, and titled The Flipside of Feminism–What Conservatives Know and Men Can’t Say.

Elly Peterson battled Phyllis Schlafly for more than 15 years of her career in politics, first to try to prevent her from becoming president of the National Federation of Republican Women two years after Schlafly’s hero, Barry Goldwater, lost his presidential race. Peterson won that battle but possibly lost the war, when Schlafly retaliated by setting up her own newsletter and her own organization, the Eagle Forum, and then used them as a base for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

There is more I could write about this conflict–and I probably will. But for now I wanted to comment briefly on the kerfuffle over Venker’s  acknowledgement that Schafly did have child care help during her years of activism. Continue reading

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Waiting to Be Asked

Today’s Washington Post brings the story of a guy who arranged for a crossword puzzle constructor to work his marriage proposal  into a crossword puzzle.  A few weeks ago, I ushered at a performance of the local Hexagon satirical revue where a man had made arrangements with the director to do HIS proposal onstage in the middle of the performance.

The expectations are getting high, guys!

But these stories about elaborately arranged proposals lead to a pertinent question: are women told from an early age that they need to wait to be asked? And does that impact the likelihood that they will seek public office? Continue reading

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Geraldine Ferraro, Part 2

As I began reviewing the life of Elly Peterson, I realized that she shared a painful experience with Geraldine Ferraro–having to respond to allegations about her husband’s real estate “dealings” late in her campaign. Continue reading

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Geraldine Ferraro, Part 1

The news that Geraldine Ferraro had died came, fittingly it seemed, at the luncheon of the annual conference of the Michigan Women’s Studies Association. I was there to make a presentation about Elly Peterson, and the Blackberry and Iphone checkers in the room spread the news quickly.

I suspect that Peterson, like many women, was moved by Ferraro’s speech as she accepted the vice presidential nomination at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. But I realized that that was one topic we had never discussed. Nor had I captured any notes from her personal papers about the event. 1982 was the last election in which Peterson played a visible role. By then, she was calling herself an Independent as the Republican Party seemed to be abandoning the issues that had come to be most important to her.

I wondered whether she had felt Ferraro was qualified to be vice president.  Eight years earlier, as deputy chairman of the President Ford Committee, she had suggested five names to Ford for a potential running mate, after Vice President Nelson Rockefeller agreed not to seek election. Continue reading

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