Commentary
12:54 pm
Fri August 26, 2011

Remembering Elly Peterson

She was, simply put, a woman ahead of her time, now nearly forgotten, who deserves to be better remembered in Michigan history.

It was she, not Debbie Stabenow, who was the first woman in Michigan to ever win a nomination for a U.S. Senate race.

She spent her life fighting for women to get a toehold in politics, fighting to be taken seriously by the men who led her party and weren’t accustomed to sharing power. She accomplished more than she ever took credit or was ever given credit for.

And despite all that, in the end, her party turned its back on most of what she stood for. But to the end of her days, she fought back with dignity and charm, and never let bitterness eat at her soul.

The woman I’m talking about is Elly Peterson, who gave her life to better conditions for women in politics -- and did so from within the GOP. Elly - everybody called her that - was ninety-four and living in Colorado when she died three years ago.

But her memory has been revived by an excellent new biography, “Elly Peterson, ‘Mother of the Moderates,” by longtime Washington Post editor Sara Fitzgerald, a Michigan native. These days, we tend to assume that feminists are liberal Democrats. But that wasn’t the case when Peterson first got involved in politics in the 1950s. Nor was there even any pretense that women were equal. Elly, who lived in Charlotte, set out to change that.

It was a different era. Gov. George Romney‘s idea of praise was to describe her as “someone who thinks like a man, looks like a woman, and works like a dog.“

Actually, she worked far harder. In nineteen sixty-four she won the nomination for the U.S. Senate. Later, people said she was the nominee only because the race was hopeless. Nobody could beat Phil Hart. They forget, however, that she beat two men in the primary. She ran a plucky campaign without adequate funds, and did indeed lose. But she ran ahead of the party’s presidential candidate. The next year she became the first woman ever to be state party chairman, and yes, that remained the title.

The day she took office, GOP money man Max Fisher told her that her salary would be considerably less than her predecessor‘s because he had been a man. Later, Peterson became an enthusiastic support of the Equal Rights Amendment, But her party was turning away from her. Later, she would say “I gave my life to build a broad-based Republican Party, and to find now we’re reversing all that … I guess you have to say I am a Michigander and a woman before I am a Republican.”

She became an independent, but never lost her sense of humor; I didn’t really know her, but she wrote me a funny note just weeks before she died, while she was enthusiastically following Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She once noted that she had lived to see a day when a woman senator was not an unusual thing.

“I was there when the door was opened,” she said. “And maybe that is enough for anyone‘s life, to be able to say you were there when the door was opened for someone else.”