Griffiths, Martha Wright (1912—)

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Griffiths, Martha Wright (1912—)

U.S. congressional representative (D-Michigan) who sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment and worked for more equitable laws in the areas of welfare, pensions, credit, and health care. Born Martha Edna Wright on January 29, 1912, in Pierce City, Missouri; daughter of Charles Elbridge (a mail carrier) and Nelle (Sullinger) Wright; attended Pierce City public schools; University of Missouri at Columbia, B.A., 1934; University of Michigan Law School at Ann Arbor, LL.B., 1940; married Hicks George Griffiths of Schenectady, N.Y., on December 28, 1933; no children.

Family moved to Pierce City (1921) when farmhouse just outside city limits burned to ground; taught school in Pierce City between sophomore and junior years of college; admitted to Michigan Bar (1941); joined legal department of American Automobile Insurance Company (1941–42); served as contract negotiator for Army Ordnance in Detroit during World War II; went into law partnership with husband Hicks and G. Mennen Williams (1946); served as state representative (1949–52); served as recorder and judge, Recorder's Court, Detroit (1953–54); was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1955–74); was lieutenant governor of Michigan (1982–90); was scholar-in-residence, University of Missouri (1990–91). Awarded 29 honorary degrees; received Alice Paul Award, National Women's Party (1983); named Michigan Woman of the Year (1990); inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1993).

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was introduced in Congress in 1923, and again in every session thereafter for almost 50 years. Although the measure had passed twice in the Senate, it had never come before the full House of Representatives. In 1970, Martha Wright Griffiths broke the barrier, through a combination of political savvy and persistence.

The ERA bill had been bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee for 20 years. In an attempt to get the bill out of committee and onto the floor for a vote, Griffiths took the unusual step of petitioning to discharge the amendment from committee. In order to pull this off, she needed a majority of House members, 218, to sign the petition. Many of her colleagues owed her for supporting their measures when she served on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. She was relentless in making sure that members signed, sometimes literally dragging them by the arm to the signing desk. "Louisiana's Hale Boggs, Democratic whip [husband of Lindy Boggs and father of ABC newscaster Cokie Roberts ], was opposed to the amendment," said Griffiths. "But he promised to sign as number 200, convinced that I would never make it. You may be sure when I had Number 199 signed up, I rushed to his office, and Hale Boggs became Number 200." When she saw that three times more Democrats had signed than Republicans, she persuaded House Minority Leader Gerald Ford that it would look bad to have so few Republicans. Ford delivered 17 Republican votes in addition to his own, and on August 10, 1970, the ERA passed the House. The victory was one of many in Griffiths' long battle for legal equity for women.

I chased fellow Congressmen ruthlessly. I'd even listen to roll call for names of any who hadn't signed. Having spotted the face, I'd promptly corner him for his autograph.

—Martha Wright Griffiths

Martha Edna Wright was born in the Missouri Ozarks on January 29, 1912. Both sides of her family, the Wrights and the Sullingers, had lived in the region since the 1850s. Pierce City, at the time of her birth, boasted a post office, hotel, electric lights and telephone system, churches and schools, a lyceum where philosophy and Greek were taught, even an opera house. There was, however, no public library, much to the dismay of Martha Wright. She was an ambitious girl who dreamed of a career as a journalist, and wrote in her diary the day before she turned 15: "One more year of life has gone. What have I accomplished? … I must be, I will be successful in something, if it is merely washing dishes." She resolved to sleep less and not "end up in the poor house due to a wasted youth."

The women in her family had always had ambitions. Her father's mother, Jeanettie Hinds Wright , a widow with three sons, had become a seamstress, clerked, and managed a hotel to put her boys through high school at a time when few children attended school beyond eighth grade. Martha's mother Nelle Sullinger Wright , an imposing woman, 5′10" tall, worked as a substitute letter carrier during World War I and often raised money for the sick and poor.

Martha's father Elbridge, a postal carrier, had hoped his children would have more opportunities than he had. His daughter was valedictorian of her graduating class, but the Great Depression had begun by the time she finished high school. The Wrights wanted to send both their children to college, but Elbridge believed Martha's opportunity would have to be sacrificed for that of her brother Orville, four years older. Nelle disagreed and took in boarders to help her daughter attend the University of Missouri. Martha herself took out a loan, of which she proudly repaid "every cent," and taught school in Pierce City between her sophomore and junior years.

In college, Martha worked as hard as ever, as a volunteer on the campus radio and captain of the debate team. She read prodigiously, often three books in a weekend. During her sophomore year, Hicks Griffiths arrived from Union College in New York to study political science at the University of Missouri, and the two were paired on the debate team. A deepening attachment led to marriage during Martha's senior year, on December 28, 1933.

The couple moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to attend the University of Michigan Law School. Hicks had been accepted at Harvard, but chose Michigan because it admitted women. He had persuaded Martha to study law also, so that she could have a professional career for financial security. After graduation, both were hired by the American Automobile Insurance Company, Martha at $10 a week less than Hicks. After America entered World War II, Martha became the first woman contract negotiator with the Army Ordnance Department in Detroit, working with munitions and vehicle manufacturers and gaining valuable knowledge of the world of big business.

In 1946, the couple started a law practice and were joined early the next year by law school classmate G. Mennen ("Soapy")

Williams, who would later be governor of Michigan. Griffiths had already made her first bid for public office. An advocate of women's political rights, at a gathering of women lawyers, had urged her to run for the legislature. At first Martha Griffiths declined, but Hicks convinced her to try. She admitted that she did like to picture herself "swaying vast audiences, doing great good, changing the whole course of the world." She finished 80 in a field of 92 competing for 27 seats, but the experience and exposure led to her election the following year to the Michigan State Central Committee as 17th District representative.

The Democratic Party was in need of fresh leadership. Both Martha and Hicks worked hard to reorganize it, and then to nominate their partner, "Soapy" Williams, as the Democratic candidate for governor. Martha, who wanted to help Williams, was told she could do it best by becoming a candidate for the legislature and running with him. Although Michigan went for the Republican presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey, Williams was elected in November. Martha Griffiths was elected too, but she modestly insisted that the only possible explanation was "that all of Ordnance must have voted for me." Hicks became state chair of the Democratic Party.

Griffiths' work in the legislature was not easy. She was 37 years old, one of two women in a 100-member body. The 61 Republicans blocked in committee many of the reform measures Williams proposed, and she learned the use of the discharge petition to force legislation onto the floor for a vote. State representatives were poorly paid, and she and Hicks, himself busy with the continuing reform of the Democratic Party, had to keep up their law practice. Still, she was named by the Capitol Press Corps as one of Michigan's ten best legislators.

Martha Griffiths made her first run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, with Hicks managing her campaign. During her 1950 campaign for re-election to the state legislature, she had begun attending block parties to explain election issues to women, appearing at 200 during the last month of the campaign. In 1952, she traveled throughout the district in a trailer, where constituents, especially women, would come by to drink a glass of juice and discuss topics of concern to them. She lost by just 3% of the vote, in a year when the election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower made it hard for Democrats to be elected. The following year, Governor Williams appointed her recorder and judge of Detroit's Recorder Court, the first woman in the court's 127-year history.

Martha Griffiths' work on the bench impressed the men of her party, and in her second run for Congress, in November 1954, she defeated her Republican opponent. Sixteen women were elected to the House that year, a new record.

As the representative from an urban district, Griffiths was interested in housing—she supported the creation of a Cabinet position on urban affairs—and schools, which became crowded as the baby boom hit and 70% of Americans were living in cities. True to her roots, she also sponsored bills to increase the pay of postal workers and to promote library service in rural areas. She was concerned about many other issues, including consumer protection, the nation's water supply, tobacco advertising, and the humane slaughter of meat animals.

By 1958, unemployment in Detroit had reached 17%, and Representative Griffiths became an ardent supporter of the food-stamp program. In part due to her strenuous efforts, the bill passed Congress, but Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, failed to implement the plan. In 1961, a new Democratic administration designated Detroit for a pilot food-stamp project.

As a junior legislator in a conservative administration, Griffiths often felt frustrated. She had been named to the Banking and Currency Committee, but the 80-year-old chair seldom called a meeting. Northern liberals were at a disadvantage because southern conservatives from safe districts dominated the committees where legislation originated. As one of 17 women in the House, she sometimes felt "like a fragile little goldfish among the barracuda." One of her colleagues expressed his dismay at the "influx" of women (five in 1955–56) and was horrified to think that soon half the House would be women.

Fortunately, Griffiths had also been assigned to the Government Operations Committee, which met almost daily, and she worked on the Military Operations Subcommittee on civil defense in case of nuclear attack and mismanagement of defense spending. Mail and visitors kept her busy, and she tried to travel home every weekend. She and Hicks were able to endure separation when she was in Congress, because each believed that what the other was doing was vitally important. At first, she insisted on cooking a week's supply of food before she left on Sunday, until he assured her he could fend for himself. She would later say that if every man were like her husband, there would be no need for an Equal Rights Amendment.

At the beginning of her fourth term in February 1961, Martha Griffiths was the first woman appointed to the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of the House and the Senate, which influenced the all-important congressional budget. She would use the unique forum of the JEC to work for revenue sharing, pension reform, and welfare reform.

A vacancy on the Ways and Means Committee opened up in 1961. Griffiths persuaded the Michigan delegation to support her, and in January 1962 she became the first woman member of that influential committee. Griffiths thought her appointment significant because "a feminine voice removes a proverbial blind spot in the thinking of male lawmakers. Men think of women as wives or widows, but never as workers."

On the Ways and Means Committee, Griffiths spent more time on the tax code than on any other issue, and she quickly saw that it discriminated against women. Tax law showed, she said, "that the work of women has never meant anything." A married couple paid more in taxes than two single people with the same total income, and the law allowed deductions for business entertainment but not for domestic help.

National health insurance was another important topic covered by the Ways and Means Committee. Lyndon Johnson's Medicare plan was passed after a lengthy struggle. Griffiths supported the idea of universal health care coverage, and sponsored a bill in 1970. It, too, faced an uphill fight, and work ground to a halt in 1974 when the Congress focused on the possible impeachment of Richard Nixon.

More successful were her efforts to eliminate legal sex bias. Inequities in the Social Security law particularly troubled her, such as the rule that men could not claim a wife's retirement or survivor benefits unless he proved financial dependence on her; "surviving spouse" replaced the term "widow" in legislative terminology. In the 1960s, Congress passed two bills to improve women's situation, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the Equal Pay Act was, according to President John F. Kennedy, "a significant step forward," women were still earning about 60% of what men were paid. Title VII of the Civil Rights bill was a comprehensive equal opportunity statute and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to hear grievances.

Before the bill passed the House, 18 amendments were suggested, including the addition of "sex" to race, color, religion, and national origin as categories protected from discrimination. Although the idea originated with Martha Griffiths, the amendment was actually offered by Howard W. Smith of Virginia, some think in an effort to sabotage the passage of the entire Civil Rights bill. Many women also protested that the gender classification would jeopardize the act, among them Assistant Secretary of Labor Esther Peterson and civil-rights champion Edith Starrett Green. Griffiths had no such doubts and let Smith offer the amendment, because she knew that as Rules Committee chair, he would bring in votes.

In proposing the amendment, Smith, 80, joked with the 75-year-old Emmanuel Celler, chair of the Judiciary Committee, about his desire to redress "the imbalance of spinsters." Griffiths stopped their bantering with the observation that without a sex clause, white women would not be protected by the law, while black women would be. The bill passed the House, and she continued to follow its progress in the Senate, threatening that if the word "sex" were deleted, she would send her remarks to the constituents of every opponent.

After the bill passed, she continued to work hard to make it effective, urging women to bring suits before the EEOC. It was partly to support such initiatives that NOW, the National Organization of Women, was founded. One of Griffiths' special targets was sex-segregated help-wanted ads. "I have never entered a door labeled 'Men,' and I doubt that Mr. Holcomb [acting chair of the EEOC] has frequently entered the women's room," she argued. "The same principle operates in the job-seeking process."

The policy of airlines to dismiss flight attendants who were married or beyond their late 30s also drew Griffiths' ire, and she challenged the tradition by asking the vice president of United Airlines: "What are you running, Mr. Mason, an airline or a whorehouse?" She urged President Johnson to have the EEOC issue guidelines bringing age and marital status under the anti-discrimination ban.

Martha Griffiths was not only concerned about continuing sex discrimination in the workplace, she wanted gender-based distinctions eliminated everywhere. Women still did not have equal educational opportunities. In the area of criminal law, women were tried as adults at an earlier age than men, and were given longer sentences for the same crimes on the grounds that they would benefit more than men from rehabilitation. Griffiths denounced such practices as "pure witchcraft, a belief that women—like Eve—are responsible for any evil that befalls." Women could be excluded from serving on juries. Discrimination was widespread in credit and insurance.

At first, Martha Griffiths had hoped the courts would be the route for women to legal equality, but progress was so slow that she began to consider another avenue. In 1970, the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting all women the right to vote contributed to new interest in the Equal Rights Amendment. There was also a dramatic philosophical shift in the Department of Labor at the same time. The Women's Bureau had traditionally opposed any measure that would do away with protective legislation for women. Martha Griffiths stressed the need for the ERA: "So-called protective legislation never did protect women," because weight-lifting laws didn't apply in mercantile establishments or hospitals where many women worked, and child-support payments were largely ignored. The Bureau reversed its stand and persuaded Labor Secretary George Schultz to support the ERA.

Both political parties had endorsed the idea as early as 1945. In 1950 and 1953, the measure passed the Senate, and again in 1960. In February of 1970, members of NOW had disrupted Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on votes for 18-year-olds to demand hearings be scheduled on the ERA. Senator Birch Bayh, chair of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, promised to sponsor the ERA in the Senate and hearings began in May. His example did nothing to inspire Representative Emmanuel Cellar, House Judiciary Committee chair, forcing Griffiths to use the previously mentioned discharge petition to get the amendment to the floor of the House for a vote. She succeeded, according to Hope Chamberlin , author of A Minority of Members, with "a handful of political IOUs and a good pair of track shoes."

The fight had just begun. A vigorous debate followed in the Senate. Senator Sam Ervin objected to the House ERA on the grounds that it would not exempt women from military service, it would nullify state protective labor legislation, and it would undermine laws guaranteeing privacy to women. (Griffiths called this the "potty argument.") Congress adjourned at the end of 1970 with no ERA.

The bill was re-introduced in January 1971 with minor technical changes: a seven-year ratification period and a two-year extension after ratification before implementation. In March, the Senate began the first hearings on the ERA since 1948. Griffiths was an important witness. During the spring and summer, she toured the country making several speeches a week to urge audiences to flood their representatives with mail. In the fall, the House passed the bill a second time, but it did not get to the floor of the Senate that year.

For 15 months, organizations all along the political spectrum had been lobbying Congress. On the last day of February 1972, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported the original bill to the floor. Three weeks later, President Nixon endorsed the ERA, and it passed 84 to 8, with Griffiths sitting in a back-row desk keeping score on the roll call.

Twenty-two states ratified the amendment before the end of 1972, and eight more before a year had passed. Rapid approval was expected; Martha Griffiths predicted in the spring of 1973 that "the ERA will be part of the Constitution long before the year is out." By then, however, a strong counter-offensive had been launched. The anti-ERA movement, spearheaded by conservative leader Phyllis Schlafly 's Stop-ERA organization, took the amendment's supporters by surprise. In 1967, Schlafly, a well-educated, influential activist in the Republican Party, had lost a bitter fight for president of the National Federation of Republican Women, who thought her too right-wing and too hard to control. She had begun a newsletter at that time, which was quickly expanded when she began to oppose the ERA on the grounds that it would undermine the special privileges that women enjoyed, such as the right to be supported by a man if she chose to stay home with her children. Her argument that the second section of the amendment gave Congress broad powers of enforcement which would encroach on the powers of state legislatures convinced many legislators to vote against ratification. Emotional scenarios about women in the military, lesbian schoolteachers, and abortion had powerful influence not only on women but on the growing ranks of conservatives in the late 1970s who opposed other liberal programs like school busing. By the end of 1978, only 35 states had ratified, three short of the two-thirds needed, and the ratification period expired.

Although she was best known for her work on the ERA, Martha Griffiths' three-year welfare reform study was one of her top personal achievements. She believed that the welfare system undermined the work ethic and weakened family stability. She called for a plan to eliminate female dependency by recognizing men's equal responsibility for their children and requiring all recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to work or take job training. She wanted to coordinate AFDC with Social Security, housing, health and food benefits. In the summer of 1971, she began to gather data for a comprehensive bill. By the time the study was completed, and legislation based upon it could have been written, Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal. When he stepped down in 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, was unwilling to take on the challenge of welfare legislation.

In February of 1974, Martha Griffiths had announced her intention to retire in December. At age 63, she was tired of the constant campaigning that, with redistricting, had become harder, and she wanted to spend more time with her husband. Perhaps, too, she was motivated by the realization that she was not likely to become chair of the Ways and Means Committee. "I've sent for my seed catalogs and bought a sewing machine," she announced. A quiet retirement was not yet in store for the energetic congresswoman. She was quickly named to a number of boards of prestigious companies, including Burroughs, Chrysler, and the American Automobile Association. "I am a token Democrat, not a token woman," she laughed.

Schlafly, Phyllis (1924—)

American author, lecturer, and anti-feminist campaigner. Name variations: Mrs. John Fred Schlafly. Born Phyllis Stewart in Port Stewart, Missouri; grew up in St. Louis; Washington University, A.B., 1944; Radcliffe, M.A. in government, 1945; married John Fred Schlafly, in 1949; children: six. Worked as research librarian, First National Bank, St. Louis (1946–49); was research director Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation (1958–63); was a commentator for "America Wake Up" radio program (1962–66); served as a delegate to Republican National Convention, several years; was president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women (1960–64); was first vice-president, National Federation of Republican Women (1965–67).

Phyllis Schlafly caused a stir in 1964 with her ultra-conservative book A Choice not an Echo in support of Barry Goldwater. A second book, The Power of the Positive Woman, maintains that women are essentially different from men and should not compete. Schlafly worked tirelessly, crisscrossing the United States, while building a powerful lobby to defeat the ERA. She advocated that women stay at home rather than have careers and argued that the ERA was redundant since women were already protected by legislation. Schlafly has also attacked homosexuality, abortion, divorce, extra-marital sex, and socialism. In 1993, there was another national stir when one of her sons broached the subject of his homosexuality.

In 1982, Michigan gubernatorial candidate James Blanchard, anticipating a close race, talked the still-popular Martha Griffiths into joining him on the ticket as lieutenant-governor. In 1984, she was considered by Time magazine to be one of the Democratic vice-presidential possibilities (Geraldine Ferraro was chosen). In 1990, Governor Blanchard dropped her from the ticket, citing her age, then 78. "That's the biggest problem in politics," said Griffiths, whom age had not mellowed. "You help some S.O.B. get elected and then he throws you off the train." That same year, Wendy Reid Crisp , writing in Executive Female, applauded Martha Wright Griffiths and the growing number of other older women in politics, who provided leadership on issues like public transportation, children's welfare, and the defeat of sports stadiums built at the expense of health and education programs. "It will mean," she predicted, "a decrease in mealy-mouthing."


Boneparth, Ellen, ed. Women, Power & Policy. NY: Pergamon Press, 1982.

Chamberlin, Hope. A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress. NY: Praeger, 1973.

Crisp, Wendy Reid. "What It Takes," in Executive Female. November–December 1980, p. 80.

Forbes. May 1976, p. 115.

George, Emily. Martha W. Griffiths. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1982.

The New York Times Magazine. June 24, 1973, pp. 8–9.

Sochen, June. Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers & Activists 1900–1970. NY: Quadrangle, 1973.

Time. September 17, 1990, p. 53.

Wandersee, Winifred D. On the Move: American Women in the 1970s. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1985.


Papers located in the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico, 1992)

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Griffiths, Martha Wright (1912—)

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