THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Elisabeth Griffith
“Things Do Not Change Unless You Are Involved.”
Interviewed by Judith Waxman, April 2021
JW: What is your full name and when and where were you born?
EG: Elisabeth Griffith, I was born in Philadelphia in 1947.
JW: Tell me what your life was like as a child before the women’s movement.
EG: I had a stereotypically white middle class suburban life. I was born in Philadelphia because my dad was still in the Navy and then he got a job with the Ford Motor Company and we moved to Michigan. I spent my whole childhood on the same block in the same house. My parents I think of as quite liberal in their time. They were both the first in their families to go to college. They were well read, they were in tune with the new. We talked about topics.
My mom had been a teacher and went back to work when I was 12 and was the only mom I knew who worked. She was also the smartest woman I ever knew and was really a blessing as a role model before I ever would have applied that word to her. My first exposure in this white enclave to racial issues was in 1957. We took a family field trip to Jamestown in Williamsburg, Virginia, on the three hundred fiftieth anniversary of the landing. Queen Elizabeth had come to visit, so it was a big deal. I had never seen black and white drinking fountains and bathrooms and segregated public accommodations. That sort of led to a family seminar: we spent the rest of the summer talking and reading about it.
Detroit became a cauldron during the ’60s of civil rights unrest. That was a first step. My father was a little embarrassed to be an automobile company executive and have a working wife when nobody else was [working], but there was no denying that my mom was really smart, and she’d already been head of everything so she was going to move along in that line. That was also helpful to me because I had more responsibilities as a member of the family. I did more cooking and grocery shopping and we didn’t have any help, so it was a team effort.
I was very fortunate that I went to a women’s college. I went to a great public high school, and then I went to a women’s college. In high school I had girlfriends I still have but we were either competing for grades or we were competing for cute boys. You got to Wellesley and everybody was so smart, and no grades were published, you didn’t even know who was earning honors. You were surrounded not only by smart classmates, but by these women leaders. It was my first exposure to women being in charge of everything.
JW: Did you know Hillary Clinton?
EG: She was my classmate, so we’ve been friends forever. In fact, Hillary, also a Republican from the Midwest, I succeeded Hillary as president of the Wellesley College Young Republican Club. She became a Democrat about two semesters before I did. Although I say that, I entered the women’s movement as an identified Republican, partly because my husband was quite a famous Republican in Republican circles.
My classmates and I talk about how fortunate we were to have graduated in 1969 on the cusp of the women’s movement. We had protested for civil rights and we protested for anti-war while we were in college. When I think back that I am now a PhD in American History and I had no course in women’s history at Wellesley College! I wrote a paper on British Divorce Law in 1850, but it was just my curiosity. I have no idea how I actually ended up in that direction. It was not a field; it was not discussed.
The man I fell in love with, John Deardourff, was a Republican political consultant in the liberal wing, he was known as a Rockefeller Republican and that was the era growing up in Michigan where there were many progressive Republicans, so you weren’t embarrassed to be a Republican. There were many good guys as you know the Civil Rights Act had more Republicans voting for it than Democrats. You weren’t embarrassed to be a Republican.
We moved to Washington, I enrolled in graduate school and in January 1972, a Wellesley classmate called and said that she’d been volunteering for this group called the Women’s Political Caucus, and they were anticipating having an active role at the upcoming national conventions. They needed more Republicans; would I like to show up and did I know any other Republicans? That was my introduction to the Caucus. I remember the women’s strike in August of 1970 and participating in that. It was not something I was doing day to day until 1972, and then I did it day to day for probably a decade.
JW: What did you do?
EG: I initially showed up as a volunteer. I know the offices were downtown. Doris Meissner was the executive director, Pat Goldman was there as a volunteer, Pat Bailey was a friend of mine, Lael Steagall, who ends up working at Emily’s List primarily and was my neighbor two doors down on Capitol Hill. She’d had a new baby and was feeling overwhelmed and I said, “Just bring the baby, you have to come with me.” And so I recruited Lael. I did any job they needed me to do.
This must have been ’72, so we were going to Miami. I had no idea even what they meant about going to Miami, to organize Republican delegates. This is the 1972 Republican convention; it would have been re-nominating President Nixon so there was no question about fighting over the nomination. We were paying attention to the platform, but the Republican platform was still pretty good, so we were mostly paying attention to the Rules Committee.
After 1968, you’ll recall the Democratic Party did a big rules reform, the McGovern commission. Republican progressives thought well have we ever paid attention to our rules and are there ways for younger people and women to be equally represented? Is there diversity among delegations? Those were the issues. There was a rule called 32C – it was hotly contested. We stayed in some lovely hotel on the beach where other delegates were staying, and we put together loose-leaf notebooks with the name of every woman delegate.
Every state had a male and female national committeewoman, so we knew the national committee woman and then we knew some other delegates. There were members of Congress: Margaret Heckler, Mary Louise Smith was the committee woman from Iowa. We began to introduce ourselves to these women and then we would make handwritten signs on loose-leaf paper and scotch tape them in the elevators and say, please join us for lunch any woman delegate, we’ll serve lunch, learn more about the caucus and Republican Party rules.
These women would show up and we served them white bread and mayo and cheese and baloney sandwiches. There might have been peanut butter, there were no salads. This was not catered. I remember these quite elegant women, because that was the era of jacket dresses and coiffed hair in a two-bed bedroom and people were sitting on the floor and sitting on the beds and they were wonderfully responsive. These were all women 50 and older, so they seemed senior to us, but these were women who were tough, shrewd women.
To be a national committee woman in a state was a powerful political position. These are women who had worked their way up to those roles and they were quite remarkably responsive to us and worked together among themselves and voted as we hoped they would vote so we made some changes to the rules. Most importantly, we made some good connections and friends. None of them was embarrassed to be associated with the Caucus.
Caucus was still in early days, but Iowa had a state caucus, Mary Louise was part of that. Geraldine Wheeler from North Dakota, Mary Crisp from Arizona. These women knew that there were these nascent caucuses growing up, and they would connect with those members as well. The Caucus was very shrewd. As a historian, my understanding is that one of the reasons the Caucus was created was that after the Equal Rights Amendment failed in the Senate in October 1970, it passed for the very first time ever in August under Martha Griffith’s leadership, and then it failed in the Senate.
Martha Griffiths brought together a cohort of her advisers: Republican women and NOW women and Democratic labor women, maybe a group of 10. They said, do we keep going? Do we build on this momentum or do we stop because nobody in the whole country knows what we’re doing? There’s no pressure for our position, we haven’t recruited anybody to manage ratification. What should we do? They voted to keep going and then it passes in the next round.
At that meeting where they were deciding whether to keep going or not, she [Martha Griffiths] supposedly said, “This would be so much easier if there were more women in Congress, if we had more allies.” That would have been October of 1970. A group pulls the caucus together by July of ’71 and the goal was always a political caucus. To be effective, we would work in a bipartisan manner, but sort of independently. The Republican task force had different tasks than the Democratic task force.
That worked quite well until the end of the decade when the Republicans became much more conservative, Phyllis captured the religious right and it was hard to find very many Republican feminists. The people who joined the caucus had political, if not skills, at least interests, and gained more skills as they did these tasks and worked in sundry ways.
JW: Can you recall a particularly memorable or important experience?
EG: While these Republican women were very supportive, their counterparts were not so much so. In an era that I now miss, when within any party you had conservatives, moderates and liberals, there were plenty of Republican conservatives and many from Southern states. The gentleman who was the national committee man from Mississippi, Clark Reed, was this dashing, white haired, charming fellow whom we referred to as the Fanny Patter, who just tried to keep us out of meetings, tried to challenge any passes we had.
We thought that the Rules Committee would be a piece of cake and then it became more turbulent because his female counterparts were pushing for changes. Julia Reed, who recently died, was a fabulous writer, southern liberal, wrote for the Oxford Magazine and Vogue and Vanity Fair and close friends with Jon Meacham. She was his daughter and we ended up being friends as adults. She was this sensational person and it gave me a kinder perspective on him. But in the era he would have been a Nixon party man and was not going to put up with any frivolous shenanigans by these pushy too-young-to-be-there girls. There were some challenges there.
JW: Some others shared that those of you from the Caucus were successful in keeping the ERA in the Republican platform.
EG: That was really not even a fight in ’72. The Republican Party had been so wedded to the Equal Rights Amendment going back to Alice Paul, who, because she’d worked with the British suffragists when she returned to America, had this parliamentary point of view that you held the party in power responsible, which is why she was anti-Woodrow Wilson. After suffrage passed and she investigated the possibility of an equal rights amendment, she turned to Republicans to introduce it.
In 1923, Senator Charles Curtis and Representative Daniel Anthony, Susan’s nephew, both from Kansas, introduced the Equal Rights Amendment. The post suffrage reformers were already mad because it challenged protective labor legislation. Even if women were not in unions, if you cared about factory women, you were against the Equal Rights Amendment. If you were a Democrat, you were against it because she was being so partisan. And if you were a black woman, you were against it because she was quite exclusive in her membership policies.
It was not a bad thing to have it supported by Republicans. In the ’20s, Curtis ended up being Senate majority leader and it was Hoover’s vice president who was actually of Native American descent, so he was the first vice president of color. But then the Democrats came into power in the New Deal, so to have the ERA supported by Republicans was not a good thing. The Republicans put it in their platform in 1940 and never took it out until 1980.
The Democrats did not want to put it in their platform. Mrs. Roosevelt was against it and they came up with some wording that was sort of acceptable without actually saying they were in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. I think the language of the Democratic platform has changed more over time and becoming stronger proponents of the language we would associate with equal rights. In 1972, I don’t remember any issues about the Equal Rights Amendment. 1976 was a hotly contested fight. We lost in the subcommittee and we won by four votes in the full committee.
JW: Were you at all involved with or knew about the Women’s Campaign Fund or the National Women’s Education Fund?
EG: I was associate director of the National Women’s Education Fund and I was board chair of the campaign fund for maybe five years. But if you ask me when that was, I will have to dig into archives to find out.
JW: Tell me a little about what they did.
EG: Because the Women’s Political Caucus was actively lobbying for legislative issues, working to change and improve political party organizations, trying to elect women, and working with the Congress, it was clearly a political organization. It could not get tax deductible contributions, we had to be raising hard money first through a membership dues structure and then hoping to find underwriters. That was very hard to do. It raised those controversial questions about whether we would take money from Philip Morris, whether we would take money from Playboy, who in an effort to improve their reputations, were glad to fund women’s organizations.
As we learned more about the tax law, and if we could carve out a chunk where we would be educating women about how to lobby or how to run for office, we could have a new source of funding for that arm. If there was a close enough relationship between the two groups that arm might pay for the Xerox machine that was occasionally used by the other arm. We actually were so careful about that that we ended up separating the office spaces so there would not be any question. We were worried that we would come under scrutiny.
Before I went to the National Women’s Education Fund, I had risen in caucus roles. First I was a member of the Policy Council, then I was the national treasurer and then I was a national vice president of the caucus. It is in one of those leadership roles on the board of the caucus that the idea of the education fund came up. I was seconded to a group that Arvonne Fraser was a big part of. A separate second board that would be the Women’s Education Fund board, and then they hired me in a paying position. I gave up some of those board roles for a while.
Our largest product, we wrote a campaign handbook, How to Run for a Campaign. Every single thing you would ever need to know, hand typed, loose-leaf notebook, xeroxed. Then we organized regional training conventions frequently at small women’s colleges. Alverno in Milwaukee, which was a Catholic college, and St. Catherine’s in Minnesota, I can’t remember them all. We would get as many as 50 to 75 people.
We finally figured out that we should double up, if there was going to be a national caucus convention we should have this training before or after so people could travel. The obvious ideas – but it took us a while to figure all that out. There were women who ran because they had gone to those meetings and we had made connections because we were political women, we knew political men, and we could pull people in to be trainers or speakers or hot shot draws to these conventions, these training sessions.
People got more than us, they got more elevated, deeper expertise from people who knew more than we did. It was led by Betsey Wright, who had been with the Clintons in Arkansas, and she’d run the voter registration. I think she’d met Bill and Hillary in the McGovern campaign doing voter registration in Texas. I’m not sure how she came to us, but she ended up being the director of the National Women’s Education Fund and I was the number two.
JW: Was that your paying job?
EG: Yes. I was still in graduate school. I might have started writing my dissertation by then so that I could come and go. But maybe it was a part time, I think I was even teaching a little bit. I know I went to the office all the time. It was on 16th Street across from the where the JCC is now. We were writing a book that was probably a three-inch-thick guidebook and then collating them. It was all that normal staff work in addition to doing the writing, it was the production of those things, pre EMILY’s List.
I think both the Women’s Education Fund and the Women’s Campaign Fund were moving in the right direction. Never enough money. And these issues of the partisan divisiveness which grew up. I don’t think you ever could have formed a caucus in 1980, you never could have formed a bipartisan caucus. I think the caucus has struggled with those issues ever since, because the Republican Party moved so far away from its moderate and progressive past.
It used to have a record on women’s rights, civil rights, environmental rights, and birth control. Now the positions were indefensible. I will also say as a person who has been yelled at and shoved against walls by both Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug, that the Democrats got feistier, too. They were so angry at Nixon. It was harder to be angry at Ford and then Jimmy Carter was a disappointment after the Houston convention. They saw themselves as a purist party and saw less reason to cooperate. Why don’t we just elect Democrats?
JW: Do you want to elaborate on being “shoved” by Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug?
EG: They were just big, powerful, volatile women. Because the National Caucus was attempting to be scrupulously bipartisan, its leadership teams were always quite carefully divided. Even if you had a chairman or an executive director, she would rarely ever appear on her own, she would be flanked by the head of the Republican Task Force and the Democratic Task Force. There were always multiple faces at microphones.
There were also officers within the governing structure, there were possibly two vice presidents, maybe I was the Republican vice president. There was a president, two vice presidents, there were treasurer, secretary and there was a policy council which was divided by partisan position. You had five Democrats and five Republicans. I ran to be a policy council member and it was like ranked voting, so the top five Republicans won, and the top five Democrats won.
Betty might have gotten more votes than I did, but she was the sixth Democrat, so she was mad that I got a seat that she did not get and threatened a legal suit. I was terrified. And mostly she just yelled at me. But I know now that that was part of her personality and her nature, so looking back, I won’t take it as personally. Bella, on the other hand, was just a force. She went through a hallway and you just stepped aside unless you were an ally. Because I was identified as a Republican, she had no reason to be pleasant.
JW: So you left eventually, you left your job?
EG: I left the Women’s Education Fund and the chairmanship of the Campaign Fund was a volunteer board job. The Campaign Fund was also very bipartisan, there were always two co-chairs and I co-chaired with Leezee Porter, who had been a Democratic activist, and we did a good job raising money and supporting candidates. But we were still under lots of limits: you were trying to find Republicans who met the criteria of being a feminist and pro-choice as the party had turned the other way after 1980.
I stayed until maybe 1985. All of those organizations, I don’t want to say lost momentum because I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I think the issues of the ’80s: the climate and the issues of the ’80s created additional organizations with different agendas. There were more players on the field. It created partisan division, and thank goodness for Ellen Malcolm and EMILY’s List, being so successful.
It’s interesting when you think about the previously Republican alumna of the National Women’s Political Caucus, maybe half of them would still say they’re Republican. I would not say I was a Republican. The only Republican I ever voted for was Gerry Ford. You’re personally moving in a different direction and then your life takes on different professional responsibilities.
JW: If you lived in the late 1800s, you might have still been a Republican.
EG: Possibly. Clearly in the Teddy Roosevelt era, I would have been a proud Republican. People used to joke it was because I was a historian that I could remain loyal as long as I did, because I kept remembering the history and not the current situation.
JW: I know that you continued being involved in women’s issues as a historian, but what did you go on to do?
EG: I think of my life as being quite happily sex segregated. It’s been entirely devoted to women’s politics, women’s rights, women’s education, women’s history. In graduate school I was able to focus on women’s history. I’ve done nothing but write and teach women’s history for the last 40 years. Let me take you back to one story.
It would have been after the 1972 Republican convention and I was showing up as a regular volunteer at the downtown office doing whatever job they did. I ended up doing a lot of finance work, which was basically bookkeeping and trying to pay the bills. That led me to eventually run for treasurer on a popular ticket that we needed to raise the dues. It was at the Boston convention, which was in Faneuil Hall, and I was booed by the entire convention, but I still managed to win election. It was the first time I’ve ever been booed by a huge room of women.
JW: Why did you get booed?
EG: I wanted them to spend more money on their dues, I was raising taxes. It’s not a popular thing to do. But before then, when I was just a flunky in the office and they were preparing for the 1973 first Caucus convention of its own in Houston, there was a policy that no woman could be the subject of a page. Because back when bellmen wandered around and said “there’s a call for Miss Waxman”, only prostitutes were paged in the hotels in Texas. It was weird. My job was to set up the logistics of the convention to make sure there would be a podium and lighting and flags and all that sort of stuff before people had that pipe and drape arrangement or could do it electronically where your logo appeared behind you.
I, as a beginning women’s historian, marched off to the Smithsonian and was introduced to Edith Mayo, who’s followed all this history all these years, who was in charge of women’s collections and she took me into the back rooms and we found photographs of these ancient looking women, Stanton and Anthony and Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth and we had them blown up and we plastered them all over the background, because none of us knew any women’s history. The fact that we were sort of starting a new era – I don’t actually believe in the two waves of women’s history and the ’60s/’70s, one was the second wave, because I think it never really stopped.
You’re ignoring what Black women were doing or labor union women were doing, lots of people were still working to advance women’s rights, but less publicly than in the ’70s and with less nationally political goals. People did not know that there had been women before us who had worked this hard. I thought that was a good contribution for me to make at that time. At the end of the ’80s, I had finished my dissertation, I’d published the biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and I had a contract from Random House to write a history of the Equal Rights Amendment, which had died at the expiration of its deadline in 1982.
I was eagerly working on that when I had an opportunity to become the principal of a girls school. I was an unorthodox and completely unqualified candidate at the time because I had taught part time in an independent school once. I was a college teacher, but I had not been a department chair or a dean, I hadn’t come up through the ranks, I knew no other heads of independent schools, I’d gone to a public school. It was a big change of culture for me. But the idea of working with young women at a school founded by a Quaker woman who had been very feisty was very exciting.
I remember the first year I thought I shouldn’t be political. I should be neutral. Then I learned that Miss Madeira was very political, close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and after a straw poll election, the 1936 election, where Alf Landon lost nationally and lost at Madeira, but maybe six girls voted. She posted a note that said, “Will the six girls who voted correctly please come for tea?” I decided it would be OK to wear a campaign button to make my positions known. It just seemed to be you’re clearly educating women for leadership; you want them to be engaged and active. That was a wonderful part of my career and now I’m back to writing history. It all falls together in one cycle.
JW: And what are you writing now?
EG: I’ve just finished a book that the working title is Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality 1920 to 2020. It’s what we did with the vote, what women did with the vote, and what I hope will be a contribution that the book makes is that it pays great attention and respect to what Black women were doing throughout that entire era and lesbian women and women who have been paid less attention to.
It is a great irony that women historians were mad that they’ve been left out by male historians and then a majority group of women historians are not as attentive as they might be to the diversity of women’s history. Although that’s clearly changed dramatically in the last several years. I’m hoping it’s a good story.
JW: Well, I look forward to reading it for sure. Thank you so much. It’s been great fun. Is there anything you’d like to add?
EG: One of the things I’ve learned as a historian, is that there are a lot of women who participate in social justice and change movements whose names we’re never going to know. I was a very minor player in all the history that we are talking about and it’s only because you know me, or others have given you my name. But mine was not a leading role. Everybody, I believe, has a role to play and projects like yours recall that there were lots of different kinds of people involved and that you need to be involved.
Things do not change unless you are involved. I remain committed to the idea of political change. I think things do not change if all we do is march. We have to run and vote and lobby and push. We are still less than a third of women elected to office, we really only have power as voters at the moment. That’s a good change in 100 years. Let’s hope we make a little more change before the next hundred years.