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Elly Peterson, "Mother" of the Moderates

by Sara Fitzgerald, University of Michigan Press, ©2011; 348 pages

A review by Jo Freeman

Elly Peterson Book CoverFew students of women's history or political history have ever heard of Elly Peterson, but she was important to both. In her long political life she went from an apolitical childhood to become the first woman to chair a state Republican party. She later became the Republican co-chair of ERAmerica, and finally an independent who endorsed Democrats.

Born in Illinois in 1914, Peterson remained a small-town girl when her life shifted to Michigan, which remained her home state as she worked in the nation's capitol, traveled the world for her political causes and retired with her husband to Hawaii.

She dropped out of college because she didn't like it, to take secretarial courses in a business school, which she did like. From this inauspicious beginning, she became the Republican candidate for Senator from Michigan in 1964, the top woman at the Republican National Committee in 1969, and a national spokeswoman for the ERA. She was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1984.

In those days even the most talented of women didn't rise to positions of prominence in the political parties without sponsorship by a powerful man. Peterson's sponsor was Michigan Governor George W. Romney* (father of Mitt). Impressed by her talent at organizing people and her loyalty, he drafted her to run for the Senate in 1964 against a popular Democratic incumbent so he would have a compatible team in his own race for re-election.

Underfinanced, she lost, but still did better than Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. The Republican state party chairman was blamed for much of the party's dismal showing even though Romney won. Peterson was chosen as his successor and served for four years.

Peterson got high marks as state chairman. People responded to her warmth and well-honed organizational skills. A mentor of many aspiring political professionals, she was called "mother" even though she had no children of her own.

Many thought she should be chairman of the RNC, but instead she got the second spot, which was reserved for a woman. The first and only female RNC chairman — Mary Louise Smith of Iowa — would be chosen by President Ford in 1975.

Ford's re-election campaign was Peterson's last for the Republican Party and 1976 was the last time the Republican Platform endorsed the ERA. It was a discouraging campaign, poorly organized and permeated with Reagan people. With Ford's defeat, Peterson shifted to organizing outside the Republican Party for feminist goals, even as these goals became identified with the Democratic Party

*George Romney ran for President in 1964, getting 41 delegate votes at the Republican Convention. He was born in Mexico, where his American parents were doing their required Mormon missionary work. There was no public outcry that he was not a "natural born citizen" as required by Article II of the US Constitution to be President, though some newspapers pointed out that his birthplace might pose a problem if he were elected.

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©2011 Jo Freeman for

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