‘Elly Peterson’ author celebrates 40 years of the National Women’s Political Caucus

by University of Michigan Press on August 11, 2011

Fitzgerald thumb Sara Fitzgerald is a former Washington Post reporter and author of Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates, a biography of one of the leading ladies in the Republican Party, who set the stage for a new generation of women in politics. She was a panelist recently at the 40th anniversary gathering of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Forty years ago this summer, 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 hot weekend in July 1971, 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 involved, she wrote a few years later, because she “had been the most powerful woman in the Republican party—its traditionally powerless lady vice-chairman.” Peterson, she said, 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.”

Recently the NWPC gathered at another Washington hotel to celebrate its 40th anniversary. There were workshops on campaign skills, and rousing speeches from feminist leaders such as Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood. But for me the high point was the Saturday luncheon, when four women who had been present at the first gathering shared their memories of it.

Ronnie Feit recalled that she was “just a housewife in New York City,” when Betty Friedan asked her to help organize the first meeting. Feit explained that after she had lost one of her young sons to leukemia, “I decided to look up the women’s movement.” She joked that “those were the early days when Betty was still modest.”

Friedan, she recalled, had received thousands of letters from women who had read The Feminine Mystique, and now Feit and others worked to sort their names by state and reach out to them and encourage them to come to the meeting. Friedan, she said, had been determined that the caucus should be broader than the  “Eastern liberal establishment” and that “all hell broke loose” when Friedan returned from vacation and discovered that the meeting was in danger of becoming just that.

Initially, Elly Peterson decided, as she wrote a friend at the time, that the gathering was “definitely just the same womens lib people,” and chose not to attend. But after the founding meeting, when Peterson saw that 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.

At this year’s gathering, Eleanor Smeal, the former president of the National Organization for Women and now president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, joked with Alice Cohan, political director of the Feminist Majority, about their memories of the battles between various sub-caucuses that occurred 40 years ago. Smeal was then a polyester-pantsuit-clad activist from Pittsburgh and Cohan, a tie-dyed-caftan-clad college student, when they discovered their common interests as younger members of the caucus.

Many battles ensued before an organizational structure was hammered out. But as Feit observed, the results of the caucus meeting made the front page of The New York Times and other major newspapers. “If we had not had a good positive response from the press,” she noted, the caucus never would have gotten off the ground.

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.”

Forty years ago there was only one woman 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 at last weekend’s meeting was ready to declare victory. In the last election cycle the numbers of women in Congress actually declined, though women have since won two special elections for open congressional seats.

At an afternoon workshop at this year’s gathering, Smeal sounded a rallying cry: “All of us have to come to the aid of our movement because it is being battered.” She pointed to recent legislative challenges to funding for Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court’s recent decision rejecting sex-discrimination complaints at Wal-mart, as well as threatened cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“They still want to keep us barefoot and pregnant,” she said,  “but we are not going back!”

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