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Elly Peterson

Mother of the Moderates

Sara Fitzgerald

Publication Year: 2011

"A magisterially written, well-researched, informative, and entertaining biography of a woman who helped throw open the doors to broader participation and power for women in the Republican Party and American politics." ---Dave Dempsey, author of William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate "Elly Peterson will be a text to which historians and researchers turn for insight into the yin and yang of mainstream politics in the mid-century." ---Patricia Sullivan, past president, Journalism and Women Symposium "This lively portrait of a leading woman in the Republican Party between 1952 and 1982 also charts the party's shift to the right after 1964, revealingly viewed through the eyes of liberal Republican women. Intensively researched with ethnographic attention to the subtleties of political culture, Fitzgerald's book is essential reading for anyone interested in how the Republican Party changed during the turbulent decades after 1960 and how women and women's issues shaped those changes." ---Kathryn Kish Sklar, Distinguished Professor of History, State University of New York, Binghamton "Sara Fitzgerald tells Peterson's story in this superb and timely biography. It carries a message that deserves the widest audience as the nation struggles to find needed consensus on critical issues amid poisonous political partisanship that has made it increasingly difficult for public officials to bridge their differences. I hope that every American reads it." ---Pulitzer Prize winner Haynes Johnson, from the Foreword "To understand the quest for equal rights in America you really need to meet those women who were active at the time of transition. In this gripping biography we meet one woman who entered a male dominated world and triumphed." ---Francis X. Blouin Jr., Director, Bentley Historical Library "Sara Fitzgerald's writing is as intelligent as it is entertaining." ---Best-selling novelist Diane Chamberlain Elly Peterson was one of the highest ranking women in the Republican Party. In 1964 she ran for a Michigan seat in the U.S. Senate and became the first woman to serve as chair of the Michigan Republican Party. During the 1960s she grew disenchanted with the increasing conservatism of her party, united with other feminists to push for the Equal Rights Amendment and reproductive choice, battled Phyllis Schlafly to prevent her from gaining control of the National Federation of Republican Women, and became an independent. Elly Peterson's story is a missing chapter in the political history of Michigan, as well as the United States. This new biography, written by Sara Fitzgerald (a Michigan native and former Washington Post editor), finally gives full credit to one of the first female political leaders in this country. When Peterson resigned in 1970 as assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee, David Broder of the Washington Post wrote that "her abilities would have earned her the national chairmanship, were it not for the unwritten sex barrier both parties have erected around that job."

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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p. xix

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pp. 1-2

The women were nervous as they drove down the dirt road to the farmhouse in Charlotte,Michigan, that summer day in 1982. Ten years of work for the Equal Rights Amendment had come up short of victory. And now the Republican Party had chosen a candidate for governor who loudly opposed them on every issue that was dear to their...

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1. The Girl from New Berlin

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pp. 3-19

“If the Lord had known what a holy terror you were going to be,” an old woman once told the little girl, “He certainly would never have put you on His earth.” But, Peterson observed, “the Lord evidently didn’t know, so He put me here, starting me meekly and mildly in a small town in Central...

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2. Hooked on Politics

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pp. 20-41

Meanwhile, Pete stayed in Europe, eventually serving as provost marshal of the Second Constabulary Brigade in Munich. There he helped set up the school that trained American military police for the occupation of Bavaria. Those two years, his wife believed, “were the best of his life.” He “lived high” and had German girlfriends. She still wrote to him, as did her family members. Pete, she believed, “continued to feel closer” to them...

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3. A Chapeau in the Ring

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pp. 42-66

As she savored her first big statewide victories, Peterson was already reflecting on the progress that women had—or had not—made in Michigan. Writing for the state Chamber of Commerce’s magazine, she noted that women had outpolled men in Detroit for the first time in its history. Women, she said, were “invading” the fields of theology, engineering,...

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4. The Reluctant Candidate

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pp. 67-84

Peterson returned home to some bad news for a candidate still trying to build her name recognition: the unions at Detroit’s two major newspapers had gone out on strike the opening night of the convention, so there had been no coverage of her speech in the state’s two biggest papers. They would not resume publication until after...

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5. The Click Moment

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pp. 85-104

The morning after Election Night, Peterson woke up without a race to run or a job to do for the first time in seven years. It had been more than a year since she had lived anything close to a normal life in Charlotte. But she was fifty now and didn’t want to return to her old organizational work. She had made up her mind that in her political career...

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6. Minding the Middle [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 105-122

At mid-decade, that was not necessarily an impossible dream. A “Big City Committee” led by Bliss had called on the party to turn its attention to the cities. Between 1962 and 1966, Romney’s support among black voters had, in fact, increased from 10 to 34 percent; in the most recent election, the governor had also captured nearly 50 percent of the union...

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7. Back to Washington

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pp. 123-145

It was time, she had decided, to move on. She would continue as national committeewoman from Michigan but would step down as state party chair after the convention in February. And George Romney was moving on, too—this time to Washington as secretary of housing and urban...

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8. A Crisis of Conscience

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pp. 146-171

In his sermon, Peale addressed two problems that were “upsetting people generally”: dealing with stress and standing up to crises2 The message was well timed. Eight days later the president responded to the rejection of his first Supreme Court nominee from the South by naming U.S. Circuit Judge G. Harrold Carswell instead. Within days, newspapers...

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9. A Path out of Exile

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pp. 172-187

In January 1971, Peterson finally did retire—this time for more than a month—as she and Pete took up a “self-imposed exile” on an island seven time zones from Michigan.1 “I doubt if I’ll ever be totally out of politics,” she told a reporter, “because I’ve been tied up with it so long.”Yet she confessed she would “enjoy being disorganized” for a change, traveling...

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10. The Show

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pp. 188-213

As the Nixon administration’s dirty tricks and cover-up were revealed, it would have been easy for Peterson to have smugly said, “I told you so.” But there is little of that in her papers. Instead she observed in her memoir that the scandal had “a tremendously adverse effect on me. I had BELIEVED Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew could do a fine job of governing the country. I was devastated by their...

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11. A New Crusade

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pp. 214-240

In 1976, the President Ford Committee couldn’t ‹gure out how to make the best use of a gray-haired matron with a national reputation for grassroots political organizing. Ironically, that was precisely what the mainstream women’s movement decided it needed. Nevertheless, ERAmerica turned out to be nearly as frustrating for Peterson as the Ford campaign, an experience tempered only by her...

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12. The Turning Point

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pp. 241-259

Of her organization, Cotner added, “The original concept of ERAmerica, a political/lobbying coalition headed by politically recognized professionals—Liz Carpenter and Elly Peterson was the correct image for the issue. However, initially the financial support was not forthcoming in sufficient measure to promote the kind of activity that would have made Carpenter and Peterson totally effective...

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pp. 260-266

A year and a half after Blanchard’s victory, Peterson’s seventieth birthday provided an opportunity for old friends and political adversaries to gather for a “Tribute to Elly Peterson.” The dinner was billed as a benefit for the Republican Women’s Task Force; Blanchard’s office, for one, bought $1,280 worth of...


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pp. 267-308


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pp. 309-318

Illustrations [Image Plates found in Chapter 6]

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E-ISBN-13: 9780472027620
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472117871

Page Count: 348
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 744519801
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Elly Peterson

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Republican Party (Mich.) -- Biography.
  • Party affiliation -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- ) -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1945-1989.
  • Michigan -- Politics and government -- 1951-.
  • Women's rights -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Conservatism -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Peterson, Elly Maude, 1914-2008.
  • Women politicians -- Michigan -- Biography.
  • Politicians -- Michigan -- Biography.
  • Republican Party (Mich.) -- History -- 20th century.
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