’She never left the party,’ says a former protege. ’The party left her.’
The late national Republican Party
organizer Elly Peterson may have never burned a bra, but in her long
career in Republican party politics, she heard enough sexist
introductions from male MCs to light a fire in her.
In her new book, “Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’
of the Moderates” (University of Michigan Press), author Sara
Fitzgerald tells how Peterson was once introduced at a men’s club: “We
hope you will not give us your bra speech, as that only covers only two
points, but instead launch into your girdle speech that covers
This style of introduction was not
unexpected for Peterson of Michigan, who died in 2008. During her many
years in national and state politics she had come to expect it, even
crafting a speech based on all the rude introductions she had received.
In the book, former Washington Post
editor Fitzgerald describes Peterson’s journey from a secretary in an
Eaton County Republican office to the vice Chairwoman of the Republican
National Committee, ultimately becoming the first woman to speak at a
Republican National Convention and the first woman in Michigan to run
for a U.S. Senate seat. The book closes with Peterson’s transformation
to an independent, taking on a role as the co-founder and co-chairwoman
with Democrat Liz Carpenter of ERAmerica.
Fitzgerald remembers being a teenager,
watching Peterson give her groundbreaking speech on TV. That image
stayed with Fitzgerald until she serendipitously connected with Peterson
at her parents’ retirement community in North Carolina, where Peterson
The author interviewed Peterson, then in
her 90s; Fitzgerald also reviewed Peterson’s papers at the University of
Michigan and interviewed a number of her “kids,” as Peterson
affectionately referred to her protégés, which included Christine Todd
Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and head of the Environmental
Keith Molin, a political consultant and
former director of the Michigan Departments of Labor and Commerce, met
Peterson when he was attending Northern Michigan University.
“We all called her “Mother,’” he said.
Peterson first picked up the nickname because of her penchant for
organizing and cleaning up the office.
Molin said that at the time few realized
Peterson was so far ahead of her time. “She was knocking down barriers
that the rest of us didn’t know existed. And she always did it for a
purpose or a cause — it was never for Elly. She always thought of the
That was the case until the 1970s.
Peterson, always known as a moderate, would split with the party,
culminating in her endorsement of Democratic candidate Jim Blanchard
against Republican Richard Headlee in the 1982 governor’s race.
“She never left the party,” Molin said. “The party left her.”
Peterson’s career began in 1952 as a volunteer companion to the spouse of Republican gubernatorial candidate Fred Alger. By
1957, she was working for the state party in Lansing. She quickly
advanced in her role, becoming the party’s chief organizer and, in 1961,
she was elected state vice chairwoman in an era when journalists would
use the first few paragraphs of a story to describe what a female
candidate was wearing.
Peterson would later write, “It wouldn’t
be surprising if the gals would grow weary of the political merry-go
round if they don’t get the brass ring soon.”
Even George Romney, with whom she was very close, would often introduce her saying, “She thinks like a man.”
Fitzgerald quotes Peterson as saying, “It
was like waving a red flag in my face. I answered as politely as I
could: I think like men think they think.”