Gayle Peters Melich; Advocate for Women, Political Activist

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 28, 2005

Gayle Peters Melich, 67, former president of the National Women's Education Fund and executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus, died of cancer July 19 at her home in Niceville, Fla.

A longtime advocate for women, Ms. Melich was working in the 1970s as an administrator at Beauvoir, the elementary school at Washington National Cathedral, when, inspired by her sister-in-law's enthusiasm after the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, she joined the Wednesday Group, a coalition of moderate Republicans.

She began volunteering for the National Women's Education Fund, an organization that developed campaign training programs for women of both major political parties. The materials the organization produced became the standard manual that women's groups used on behalf of women candidates during the 1980s. Ms. Melich joined NWEF's Board in 1979 and served as its president from 1984 to 1988.

In 1981, Ms. Melich became executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus, a bipartisan organization dedicated to increasing women's participation in politics. She worked with a diverse group of political leaders, including Myrlie Evers, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, along with Nancy Kassebaum, Elizabeth Dole and Jill Ruckelshaus.

Ms. Melich, who was terrified of public speaking, rarely was a public voice for women's rights but often was a ghostwriter on speeches for others. She was an organizer -- with a low tolerance for people who didn't get things done.

"She got her way most of the time by being persuasive and what we've come to refer to as 'insistent,' " said her husband of 35 years, Michael E. Melich.

Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, said Ms. Melich's role in helping elect women to public office was essential.

"Gayle epitomized the common bond forged among women of every political stripe who saw the importance of women in public life and the need for better government policies for women and their families," she said. "The women's movement was made up of different essential parts. Her efforts, especially in the days when the idea of women running for office at all was highly unusual and suspect, were groundbreaking.

"As Sandra Day O'Connor said, a wise old woman and wise old man may come to the same conclusions. But it's the wise old woman who presses for the importance of [laws and policies for] women and families."

A longtime Republican who campaigned on behalf of George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential campaign, Ms. Melich nonetheless pressed party leaders about a lack of progress on women's issues. She disputed President Ronald Reagan's claim in 1982 that he appointed women to more high-ranking positions than his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

"It's just not true," she told the Associated Press in 1982. "He hasn't appointed more women to full-time, policymaking positions. . . . They aren't power appointments. There's just no comparison. And they're often 'women's jobs' -- treasurer of the United States, director of the women's bureau."

She declared the appointment of O'Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court "wonderful" but noted that of Reagan's 65 federal judicial appointments, only three were women.


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