Category Archives: Women

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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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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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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How Much Is She Worth?

As she was about to go out on stage to accept the job as the first woman to chair a state Republican party, Elly Peterson was told that that the party could not pay her what her male predecessor had earned “because she was a woman.”  Instead, she was advised she would be paid nearly 30 percent less.

Peterson was naturally angry, and admitted later that she had considered crying. But she forged ahead and took the job–and the next year gave herself a raise.

Nearly 50 years later, the wage discrepancies between men and women still persist. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported last week that the average starting salary of a female college graduate was 17 percent less than a male graduate. The study found that even when the numbers were adjusted for the fact that more men may choose careers with higher-paying salaries (think computer programmer versus elementary school teacher), the disparity persisted.

I can honestly say that I never knowingly accepted a salary that was less than that of an equally qualified male counterpart.  On the other hand, I know that the experience of some of my friends was quite different.

What I do know is that when I was a principal in a consulting company that I helped found, I discovered that when the time came to set our own salaries, my sense of “what I was worth” was less than the dollar amount my two male colleagues pegged for themselves. They joked that if I wanted to accept less, that was fine with them. But instead I accepted the salary they were earning.

My gut tells me there is a lot of this that goes on. And, unfortunately, in tight economic times, probably more salaries are negotiated downward–for both men and women.

Women’s salaries may never equal men’s in the aggregate–but it would be nice if they at least started out that way when they came out of college.

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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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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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