Elly Peterson:
Elly Peterson:

Elly Peterson: "Mother" of the Moderates

by Sara Fitzgerald


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 "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."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472035137
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 03/19/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Sara Fitzgerald is a former editor and new-media developer for the Washington Post. She has also worked as a reporter and editor for National Journal magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, the Miami Herald, and the Akron Beacon Journal.

Read an Excerpt


"Mother" of the Moderates
By Sara Fitzgerald

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2011 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11787-1

Chapter One

The Girl from New Berlin

It was an accident of geography that Ella Maude McMillan became a Republican in the first place. But it didn't hurt that Republicans also seemed to have more fun.

She was born in the Land of Lincoln, in the same Illinois county where the most celebrated Republican president launched his own political career. It was a state, she once told a reporter, "where people enter politics like they enter church."

"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 Illinois."

With only six hundred residents, New Berlin was small enough that the telephone operator always knew if the town's doctor was "in" because he lived across the street. The doctor was John Charles McMillan, who had gone to Washington University, then returned home to start a practice.

His wife, Maude Ella Carpenter, was born on a nearby farm but joined the tide of women who ventured into the workplace at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1898, she left home at nineteen to teach at the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville. Though Maude never used the word, her daughter Elly thought she would have qualified as an early "feminist."

In 1901, a year after the McMillans married, their first child arrived. John Charles Jr. was a serious young man who eventually became a doctor. Four years later a daughter, Mary Catherine, was born and two years later another son, Lee Gibson.

Then, on the morning of June 5, 1914, their mother's helper awakened Mary and said she had a surprise. Mary correctly guessed it was a new little sister. She and her brothers called her Baby.

Elly McMillan's childhood was, by all accounts, a happy, comfortable one in a civic-minded family. The McMillans' three-story home had thirteen rooms, with the doctor's office in the basement. Although they had household help, they did not consider themselves wealthy. Charles's patients sometimes paid him in chickens or farm produce, and his children thought they were poor because his patients always owed him money.

From an early age, Elly McMillan was an extrovert and a performer. Before she was old enough for school, "Doc Mac's girl" often accompanied her father on his rounds. Maude used to say that her daughter knew more people than her husband did and "the lower they were, the better she knew them." Told she could invite a few friends to her seventh birthday party, she invited forty-two. She sang at all the "entertainments," even though, she acknowledged, she couldn't carry a tune.

In 1920, at the age of forty-one, Maude McMillan finally earned the right to vote. Ever after, her daughter remembered, she made sure she exercised that right. Charles was a Democrat, but Maude voted Republican—because, her daughter believed, she wanted "to kill off" her husband's vote.

But the McMillans were not political activists. "It would make a much better story," Peterson acknowledged, "if I could say we discussed politics at the dinner table and father and mother inspired me to take part."

But, she was quick to add, "it would also be a big fat lie."

* * *

As a girl, Peterson's horizons were defined by the roads and railroads of the Illinois prairie. New Berlin's "library" was set up in a lawyer's office, and he would take Elly to Springfield occasionally and let her pick out books. The telephone operator would also let her tag along on her monthly trip to the state capital.

But the McMillans wanted their children to see the world beyond New Berlin, and insisted they attend college. Charles went to medical school, and Lee went to dental school.Mary started at Illinois College for Women, then transferred to the University of Illinois.

When Elly graduated in the early 1930s, only about one out of ten Americans her age went on to college. Winding up as salutatorian of her fifteen-student class, she was the only girl who did. But she didn't agonize over where to go. She chose William Woods College in Fulton, Missouri, then an all-girls school affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), simply because Lee's girlfriend went there.

She made good grades, because it was expected, but found she did not enjoy the liberal arts and had no interest in math or science. "I had no real desire to go to college," she recalled, "because I had no idea what I wanted to do."

On New Year's Eve 1932, during her sophomore year, she went to a party celebrating the inauguration of Missouri governor Guy Brasfield Park. Prohibition was nearing an end but still in place. "They served drinks, and we just took one," she recalled. "It wasn't that we were drunk, we only had one drink.... It was pretty stupid on my part. We were so naive."

When she was caught, the college expelled her. Her father, a strict Baptist, was "furious"; her mother, "heartbroken."

Mary came to her sister's rescue. Though nine years apart, the sisters were already very close. Mary suggested that Elly should come and live with her and her husband in Chicago and attend business school. And so Peterson transferred to Suburban Business College in Oak Park to pursue secretarial studies.

Her youthful indiscretion, she said, "was never mentioned again. It was just wiped out. I don't think anyone even knew it in New Berlin." Nor did her new friends in Oak Park. She glossed over the episode in the memoir she later wrote for her family; official biographies generally noted that she had "attended" William Woods.

In contrast to her first years in college, Peterson loved everything about business school—shorthand, typing, and accounting. And while many of her friends stayed home both before and after marriage, she found that she wanted to work and "be on my own."

For the next two years, she was a secretary to the president of Ross-Coles Company, a merchandiser with a Chicago showroom. She discovered that she liked "the contact with the people" and that she liked to sell. She also discovered that she loved to organize an office. She was a successful secretary, she said, because she "understood the organization, and that was really my basic skill." Later, she told a writer, "A good secretary can learn the business as no other position can."

In 1934, Martha McMackin, her best friend from William Woods, invited her to a University of Illinois football game and set her up with a blind date. She sent her own date to the train station to meet her friend, and he corralled a half dozen of his Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity brothers to go along. One of them was "Pete" Peterson.

W. Merritt Peterson was born 3 1/2 years before Elly in Brownstown, Illinois, near Vandalia. His father, Roy, had farmed and then worked as an assistant sheriff. But as Pete approached adulthood, Roy decided he didn't want to work anymore. It fell to his wife, Caddie, to support the family—and her son's college plans.

At Pete's suggestion, they moved into a house near the University of Illinois campus and took in male boarders. Caddie worked "like a dog," her daughter-in-law recalled. Pete provided the financial smarts, exercising strict portion control so that they wouldn't lose money.

Pete was very much "a man's man" whose greatest passions were hunting, golf, and the military. But he was also, in the words of his wife, "quite a 'dude.'" Years later a friend recalled the first time she saw him, tooling around Charlotte at the age of fifty: "a red and black MG convertible occupied by a tanned, handsome man in a fine tweed jacket, a silk ascot, an English country hat, and smoking a cigarette in a long holder!"

Over the course of trips between Chicago and Champaign, Elly and Pete's relationship flowered. And after about a year and a half, Pete proposed.

"We had just been going together and it just happened," Peterson recalled. "He began going home with me, and I went home with him and we just decided to get married. But there was nothing especially romantic about it." In fact, Pete actually presented his engagement ring in the false bottom of a slop jar, the kind of prank family members enjoyed playing on each other.

They were married in her family's home on October 11, 1935, her parents' anniversary. Elly wore the same high-necked, floor-length taffeta wedding dress that her mother and grandmother had worn. For their honeymoon, the couple spent a night at the Palmer House in Chicago, and then, on Monday, they went back to work.

They moved into an apartment in Oak Park near Mary and her husband, Park Richmond. The men hunted and played golf, and the couples played bridge and socialized together.

Elly fell in with the Young Republicans as "a social thing." In one version of her life story, she wrote:

In Illinois, socially-minded girls around 21 usually joined a political party, and, at that time, Republicans were so much more fun than Democrats. They had by far the nicest parties and we were never bothered with having to learn what was going on. We wouldn't have known an issue if we met one face to face and we were never asked to meet the candidates, or hear what they had to say. We knew that if we did a simple chore now and then, we would end up in a neat bar in Franklin Park where beer and sandwiches with hot mustard were served!

Those years produced a story that Peterson loved to tell about her first real experience in politics. It was October 1936, and Kansas governor Alf Landon was challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency. Peterson and several friends were recruited to go downtown and hand out Landon's trademark sunflowers. "Well, that [idea] was sort of fun," she recalled in one version. "We'd all [go] down and then we'd all go out to lunch. It was more of a party than anything." Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a strong Landon supporter, promoted the event with banner headlines in his paper: "City Acclaims Landon Today: Great Parade to Escort Him Up Michigan Av."

But when Saturday dawned, it was pouring rain. Nevertheless, Peterson said, McCormick "had planned to hand out sunflowers and—come hell or high water—they were going to be handed out. Down Michigan Avenue we went, we young ones walking, trying to get people to take the damned sunflowers that were dripping yellow paint down our arms, and onto our clothes, and all the time, Col. McCormick riding slowly down the avenue, in his big, black car, exhorting us ONWARD!"

It was, she concluded, "an amazing thing that I did not become a Democrat then and there."

Peterson took away lessons from her first political experiences. Politics could be social, and politics could be fun. Years later Margaret Cooke, one of Peterson's many protégées, recalled how Peterson had urged her to join a Young Republican club when Cooke got out of college in the mid1960s. Back then the Young Republican clubs in Detroit and its suburbs were boasting thousands of members. "It was acceptable," Cooke recalled, "it was legitimate.... You were going to a Republican meeting. It didn't have the tarnish of going to a bar."

Back in Chicago, Pete Peterson was offered a sales job with Standard Oil, and the couple moved 150 miles to Kalamazoo, Michigan. There, in 1941, in the middle of making plans for Christmas, they heard the shocking news on their radio. The Japanese had attacked a U.S. military outpost on what seemed like the other side of the world. And within a matter of months, the cozy little world they were building for themselves would be turned upside down.

* * *

"Once upon a time," Peterson wrote, "the Great Powers gave a war and EVERYONE came! Not just soldiers and sailors and Red Cross and doctors and nurses—but civilians all pitched in with them."

The Petersons were no exception. Still childless after six years of marriage, they set aside diagnosing their fertility problems when the war broke out. Almost immediately, Pete announced that he was enlisting in the army. Though not much of a mechanic, he was assigned to aircraft maintenance in California. "There goes the war!" Park Richmond joked when he heard the news. Later Pete attended Officers' Training School, and was assigned to the Ninetieth Infantry Division of the Third Army under Gen. George C. Patton.

Meanwhile, Elly returned home. She worked briefly at a military installation in Springfield, then reconnected with Jane Allen, a friend who had just been divorced and was now living in Chicago. The two decided to rent an apartment on the near North Side, over a dress shop close to the Oak Street beach.

Peterson's own memories of the dissolution of her marriage were fuzzy late in life. At ninety-six, Jane Allen Edelheit recalled that the Petersons' marriage had already broken up when the women moved in together, but Elly said it was the Petersons' wartime separation that led to their divorce. "I was in a city which had been captured by soldiers from all over," she recalled more than sixty years later, "and everyone catered to them and life was quite a party for the young (and I guess 'foolish')." More than a third of all navy personnel passed through the Great Lakes Training Station in North Chicago during the war; another half a million men and women were processed into the army at nearby Fort Sheridan.

In later years, Peterson still had second thoughts about her behavior. It demonstrated, she said, "a lack of maturity on my part." Everybody did it, "so I did it, too." She and Pete "just sort of drifted apart."

She sought and obtained a divorce in 1943. It was difficult for the rest of her family because they were all very close to Pete.

In her memoir, Peterson devoted one sentence to the episode. The Petersons were, in fact, divorced for five years. Later in life, they continued to count their years of marriage from the time of their first wedding. JoAnn DiBella Hawkins, a longtime friend, recalled, "Pete took great delight in extolling the virtues of his first wife when they were with a group that didn't realize that Elly was wife number one and two." Some good friends never knew that there had been a time when the Petersons had been apart.

"Thinking it over," Peterson wrote later, "it was just as well we were divorced as we both stepped into a different life."

But by the fall of 1943, she was "feeling at loose ends" and walked into the offices of the American Red Cross while on a weekend date in Washington. She walked out with a job overseas.

With the death of her father the previous year, her brother Charles had become the family patriarch. "He gave me quite a lecture on how stupid I had been ... and now that I had done it, I had made my bed, I could never complain about ANYTHING that happened to me, etc., etc."

Regardless of what happens, her brother added, "do not distress your mother!" It was advice, she acknowledged later, that helped her get through some difficult times during the war.

Peterson was assigned to the U.S. Army's 280th Field Station Hospital. The standard Red Cross hospital team consisted of a field director, recreation director, and Peterson's job, "secretary and go-fer." From the start, her relationship with her team members was a frosty one. They had run a hospital unit stateside for more than a year, and "they made it very clear they needed a secretary like a hole in the head."

It was during her years overseas that letter writing became a lifetime avocation for Peterson, the way she kept connected with friends and family. Forty years after the war, Peterson discovered that her sister had saved all the letters that she and other family members had written home. Her letters reveal a young woman learning to cope with the rigors of life near the front but still retaining her core of humor, common sense, and optimism.

Peterson chose her words carefully, conscious of the wartime censors and concerned about distressing her mother. Nevertheless, it was clear that she did not get along with her Red Cross roommates. But, heeding her brother's admonition not to complain, it would be more than sixty years before she explained why the situation had been so awkward: she had to share accommodations with two lesbian partners.


Excerpted from ELLY PETERSON by Sara Fitzgerald Copyright © 2011 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 The Girl from Mew Berlin 3

Chapter 2 Hooked on Politics 20

Chapter 3 A Chapeau in the Ring 42

Chapter 4 The Reluctant Candidate 67

Chapter 5 The Click Moment 85

Chapter 6 Minding the Middle 105

Chapter 7 Back to Washington 123

Chapter 8 Crisis of Conscience 146

Chapter 9 A Path out of Exile 172

Chapter 10 The Show 188

Chapter 11 A New Crusade 214

Chapter 12 The Turning Point 241

Epilogue 260

Notes 267

Index 309

Illustrations following page 122

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