Monthly Archives: June 2011

A Chapeau in the Ring

The July-August issue of Michigan History has my article on Elly Peterson’s 1964 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Michigan. It includes some good photos from that time, as well as photos of campaign brochures and memorabilia.

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Filed under Uncategorized, Women in Politics

The Traveling Itch

I’ve been away from home for a few weeks, traveling first to Europe and then, more recently, to Michigan. The blog was one of the things that fell by the wayside during that time.

But now I’m back, and it occured to me that this would be an appropriate place to comment on Elly Peterson’s love of travel.

One day in the 1950s, Peterson was reading the paper and said to her husband, Pete, “I can’t understand a word of this. How can you possibly understand Thailand and Hong Kong and Egypt when they are just faraway names on a map. A person ought to go there and see them.”

“Let’s go,” Pete replied.

“Let’s go?” she screamed. “How can you take a trip like that with a job and a house and a truckload of animals and. . . .”

“You’re always talking about going, let’s go,” Pete responded. The rest will take care of itself.”

And so it did. The Petersons set off on a trip that took them 40,000 miles, to 20 countries by air, boat, traing, automobile, rickshaw and pedicab. They chronicled the trip in a little booklet they sent to their friends that Christmas. It concluded: “We took this trip because we wanted to know better the peoples of the world–and we came home, with a bundle of wonderful memories and the firm belief that People Really ARE Nicer Than Anybody Else!”

Elly Peterson regularly traveled overseas after that, often with her older sister, and often in November, right after the end of an election cycle when she undoubtedly was in need of a vacation. In the late 1960s and mid-1970s, she was part of delegations of women who traveled to the Mideast, the Soviet Union and China. These trips helped her forge relationships with prominent women in foreign countries, and closer friendships with the women with whom she traveled.

Late in life, she recalled that she had always dreamed of owning a home in England or France, places where she had served in the American Red Cross during World War II. But when retirement time came, she discovered that her husband didn’t want any part of it. Now he wanted her to make some concessions to the lifestyle he wanted to live, and so they divided their time between homes in Hawaii and Charlotte, Michigan, where he could continue to enjoy games of golf and hunting trips.

When she could no longer travel herself, Peterson remained an armchair traveler, and loved to hear the details of trips that her younger friends and relatives had made. She retained that zest for adventure, and curiosity about the rest of the world for all of her life.

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The Girl on Top of the Masthead

Forty years after the National Press Club first admiteed women as members–and permitted them to come down from the balcony when they covered  its Newsmaker luncheons–a woman has been named executive editor of The New York Times.

At 57, Jill Abramson is just a few years younger than me. When we came through college in the mid-1970s (she at Harvard, me at University of Michigan), it was a time when opportunities for women–at least in the journalism profession–were rapidly opening. (However, I must admit that if you had asked me back then how long I thought it would be before The Times hired a woman as its top editor, I probably would have said 20 years instead of 40. )

In an interview tonight with Jim Lehrer on The NewsHour, Abramson appropriately did a “shout-out” to some of the women on whose shoulders she had stood. They included Nan Robertson, whose book The Girls in the Balcony, chronicled the struggles of her peers at The Times, which led eventually to the women filing suit against their publisher. Robertson went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her story on her own struggle with toxic shock syndrome.

In writing about Elly Peterson’s life, I was struck by how few women were writing stories for sections other than the society pages in the 1960s, when she first came on the national scene. Peterson became friends with many of the women journalists who were then working in Washington–Isabelle Shelton of The Washington Star, Helen Thomas of United Press International, Fran Lewine of the Associated Press and a few others. Peterson had many good friends among the ranks of the top male political reporters, too. But it made me wonder how many other untold stories were out there, simply because the peeople who were writing the first draft of the country’s history out of its newsrooms weren’t quite as diverse as the country they were covering.

Peterson stepped down as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1970. The next year, the Press Club opened its ranks to women, and the Gridiron Club followed suit a few years later. In 1979, I was hired as an assistant city editor on the Metro Desk of The Washington Post. Out of 10 editors who were deciding what stories the local reporters would work on for that daily section, I was the only woman.

Congratulations to Ms. Abramson. It’s about time!

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