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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 had been a feminist and ERA supporter for some time. After her election as state party chair in February of 1965, she was told that she would be paid only 71 percent what the outgoing chair received, because she was a woman. She would have more such experiences, leading her to join the National Women's Political Caucus after it was founded in 1971, even though she did not like the fact that it was dominated by Democrats.

Through the NPWC she became friends with Liz Carpenter, a Democratic feminist who had been Lady Bird's press secretary and the staff member LBJ put in charge of finding women for Administration appointments. They became co-chairs of ERAmerica, a coalition of national organizations formed to get the necessary last three states to ratify the ERA. Despite the political experience of the co-chairs, ERAmerica was a dysfunctional organization which did not make much headway.

By the time the ratification deadline arrived in 1982, the Republican Party had moved so far to the right that Elly joined with other Republican women to endorse the Democratic candidate for Governor of Michigan. She described this as a "scream" to wake up the Republican Party. It didn't work. The Republican Party continued its rightward march, both in Michigan and nationally. In 2008 Peterson endorsed Hillary Clinton's campaign for President. She died two days after Hillary — who had been a Goldwater Girl in 1964 — ended her historic campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Peterson lived long enough to see her type of Republican driven out of her party. In 1967, she played a key role in defeating Phyllis Schlafly's effort to be elected president of the National Federation of Republican Women. This ultimately freed Schlafly to organize and lead the women who rose up against the ERA and the Supreme Court's abortion decision a few years later. The extreme conservatives represented by Schlafly not only defeated the ERA but took over the Republican Party.

This left Elly without a political home. Her work for the ERA fractured her relationships with many of her Republican friends and former colleagues. When Romney retired from politics he become active in his Mormon church, which officially opposed the ERA. Peterson could not persuade him that ratification of the ERA would not lead to homosexual marriage and other abominations.

Using archival documents, interviews and newspaper clippings, the Fitzgerald book portrays the life of one dynamic woman during a period of major changes. Political campaigns went from relying heavily on volunteers, most of whom were women, to that of paid pollsters and political consultants, most of whom are not women. Political women nonetheless broke new barriers, to the point of being taken seriously as players. The parties realigned, in part in response to issues raised by the feminist movement.

This is a fine book. In telling the life of one woman, it also reveals the real world of party politics — the kind of stuff that doesn't make it into American government texts. It's a good read. Enjoy while you learn.

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©2011 Jo Freeman for

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