Monthly Archives: July 2011

Forty Years of the National Women’s Political Caucus

Forty years ago this month, 300 women gathered at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Washington to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.

In her memoir Getting Better All the Time, Liz Carpenter recalled, “It was a day that changed my life.” If she had not gotten so involved, she wrote, “I would have missed out on so much, so many friendships with remarkable women of all income levels, so much learning as we hammered at the doors of Congress and the legislatures, so much understanding of my own country and how the other great movements for fairness and equality took place.”

By the end of that weekend, the caucus had committed itself to diversity—and that included Republican women.

Betty Friedan tried to recruit Elly Peterson to attend the founding meeting, but Peterson declined. Friedan wanted Peterson, she wrote a few years later, because she “had been the most powerful woman in the Republican party—its traditionally powerless lady vice-chairman.” She was among the “politically oriented women who hadn’t been interested in women’s rights before” who “were ready now to organize such a caucus.”

Initially, Peterson decided, as she wrote a friend, that the gathering was “definitely just the same women’s lib people,” and chose not to attend. But after the founding meeting, when she saw that more moderate women like Carpenter and Virginia Allan, a former president of the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, were involved, she changed her mind. When the caucus immediately set out to recruit more Republican leaders, Peterson joined its first National Council.

The caucus formed two task forces, one for Democrats and one for Republicans, and both worked to involve more women in their party’s presidential nominating conventions, and to encourage more women to run for public office. Peterson and Carpenter became close friends, and five years later were recruited to serve as co-chairs of ERAmerica, the coalition of organizations that worked for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Sadly, that bipartisan approach would not survive for long. As Carpenter recalled, “One of the real cruelties of history is that after Elly Peterson, Betty Ford and Jill Ruckelshaus had brought many bright young Republican women in—it was Ronald Reagan who ran them off when he stopped the ERA plank” at the 1980 Republican National Convention “and abandoned the fight for choice. We needed them. They were well-educated, competent and potential candidates for public office. Many are now dropouts from politics.”

There will be much to celebrate when the NWPC gathers again in Washington this coming weekend to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Forty years ago there was only one women serving in the U.S. Senate and only 13 in the U.S. House. In 2011, there were 17 women in the Senate and 73 in the House. Still no one is ready to declare victory. In the last election cycle the numbers actually declined, though women have since won two special elections for open congressional seats.

In 1977, First Ladies Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, Democrats Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Liz Carpenter and Republicans Elly Peterson and Jill Ruckelshaus all joined upraised hands together in front of a banner supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. One could not possibly imagine  Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann doing the same thing together today.


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Pie-Throwing Conspiracies

The pie thrown at Rupert Murdoch in his parliamentary appearance on Tuesday provided an opportunity for commentators, including The Washington Post, to reflect on the history of pie-throwing. It recounted an episode in 1977 in which Phyllis Schlafly received a pie in the face, courtesy of an activist named Aron Kay.

According to a 2007 New York Times blog post about the 2004 Republican National Convention in that city, Kay was also responsible for throwing pies at conservative pundit William F. Buckley, former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Watergate figures G. Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis, California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., New York Mayor Abraham Beame, and former CIA director William E. Colby. In other words, he had a reputation for throwing pies in the faces of a lot of people who were  establishment figures of a variety of political establishments.

Contacted by The Post on Tuesday, Schlafly contended that Aron “was out for hire. Obviously, he was backed by the feminists.”

I suspect that Elly Peterson may have wanted to throw a pie in the face of Phyllis Schlafly on more than one occasion, and particularly in 1977 when they were going head-to-head against each other over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. But considering the wide range of Kay’s victims, and his reputation as “the Yippie pie-man,” it seems a stretch to still be blaming unnamed “feminists” 34 years later.

But then again, as noted here before, “feminist” is on its way to becoming a new “f” word, alongside the new “m” word, “Moderate.”



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Remembering Betty Ford

I was sad to hear the news that Betty Ford had died, but happy that she was remembered as a First Lady who had made a difference. It’s hard now to remember how astonishing her  announcements that she had breast cancer, and, later, an addiction to painkillers were at the time.

Elly Peterson was not a longtime close friend of Betty Ford’s, but I know she admired her, and they worked closely together in the mid-seventies, when Peterson worked in Gerald R. Ford’s presidential campaign and served as co-chair of ERAmerica. Betty Ford was not afraid to  speak her mind, and make reasonable pronouncements about the world in which she lived, no matter the political consequences. Her children might be smoking marijuana, her daughter might live with someone before she was married, it was better for women to have abortions in medical facilities than in back alleys. Of course, that was not necessarily good politics as far as her husband was concerned, but so be it. She was certainly a breath of fresh air, no matter your age or political perspective.

Betty Ford’s commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment was important to Peterson, and other moderate women who were working for ratification of the amendment in the mid-1970s. When Peterson served as deputy chairman of the President Ford Committee in 1976, she recognized that Betty Ford was an asset who could help attract moderate women to support the president. Even after her husband was defeated in 1976, the former First Lady played an important role in continuing to support the Equal Rights Amendment. At the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter served as honorary co-chairs of a rally in support of ERA that was attended by 4,000 persons. It was a demonstration that at the time, there was strong bipartisan support for the amendment. Ford remained a vocal advocate for the ERA at least through 1980, when the Republican National Convention failed–for the first time in many years–to endorse the ERA in its platform.

As I was wrapping up the research on my book, I interviewed Kathleen Currie, who had served as the PR person for ERAmerica. She commented on Peterson’s political savvy and her lack of ego in pursuing the ERA campaign. She recalled that Peterson’s attitude was “I don’t have to be on the podium for this to work,” and “Why do you need me when we could have Betty Ford?”

Persons younger than me will probably forever associate Betty Ford’s name with celebrity addiction. I don’t think she would mind that, but it would be nice if she were remembered for more than that.

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Michele, Phyllis and Elly

Detroit News columnist Laura Berman offers this commentary on my book.

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