Guest blog: Sara Fitzgerald on Elly Peterson becoming the first woman to address a Republican National Convention on prime-time TV in 1964

by Emily on August 29, 2012

Sara Fitzgerald is the author of Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates, an award-winning biography of a woman who broke gender barriers in the Republican party—and later threw her support to a Democrat.

Forty-eight years ago this summer, Elly Peterson became the first woman to address a Republican National Convention on prime-time television.

It was a far different political climate for women back then. While a record number of women—230 of the 1,300 delegates—were seated and women achieved parity on convention committees for the first time since the party set that goal in 1940, women still were rarely called on to speak.

Marie Smith, assigned to cover “distaff” events at that convention for The Washington Post, wrote: “The scarcity of women speakers on the convention platform is not intended as discrimination against the fairer sex but rather to give television viewers of the convention what they want, a [Republican National] Committee spokesman said. Studies, the spokesman continued, show that viewers don’t like to hear women give speeches.”

Helen Thomas of United Press International reported that women who had been lobbying the networks for more exposure “have been bluntly told that women speakers are ‘poison’ and the viewers don’t like to hear them.” Peterson told Thomas that she hoped that the networks didn’t “start selling ice boxes” when her “big moment” came. In the end, she was pleasantly surprised when her warm-up to keynoter Mark Hatfield, then the governor of Oregon, was broadcast in its entirety.

I don’t remember watching Peterson’s speech that year—it may have aired after my bedtime. But I do recall watching the convention coverage as she was interviewed by a network television correspondent. At the time, she was about to step down as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee, the highest party job a woman could then attain, because she was seeking the U.S. Senate seat from Michigan at the request of Gov. George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father. There were only two women serving in the U.S. Senate at the time, and each had entered Congress upon the death of her husband. In retrospect, I believe that Peterson caught my attention back then because it was so rare to see a woman on the national political stage and because I was proud that she came from my home state of Michigan.

Peterson was a leader of what was then the moderate wing of the Republican Party, a group that included George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Percy, and Jacob Javits, among others. She did not have good memories of the 1964 convention that nominated Barry Goldwater as the party’s standard-bearer: “For those of us wearing Romney buttons, the convention became a nightmare for we were insulted and in some cases, even spit upon, by ultra-conservatives.”

Nearly a half century later, another Romney is at center stage, and many more women, including Ann Romney, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, have been given prominent speaking spots. It’s a testament to both parties’ recognition of the important role women now play in the outcome of our presidential elections. But it’s also pretty clear that a moderate like Elly Peterson would not get a place at the podium now.

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