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.