Mary Gereau, 89; Lobbyist on Education, ERA

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

Mary Condon Gereau, 89, one of the first female lobbyists in Washington, who pushed for state and federal education legislation during a 40-year career and championed the Equal Rights Amendment, died Feb. 12 at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg. She had renal failure.

In 1948, Mrs. Gereau was the first woman elected as Montana's superintendent of public instruction. During her two four-year terms, she pushed for public school systems on the state's seven American Indian reservations.

After a failed run for a third term, she moved to Washington and joined the National Education Association, where she became a go-to person on education legislation. During her 15 years in NEA's legislative division, she lobbied for federal education laws such as Head Start and the Higher Education Act of 1965. She also served as assistant executive director of the White House Conference on Education in 1960. She ended her career as a legislative assistant for education for Sen. John Melcher of Montana (D).

A first-rate raconteur, Mrs. Gereau delighted in telling a story about a vote against an education filibuster in the Senate. "This little nun, not quite five feet tall, came up to two of us outside the Senate chamber and told us a certain senator was with us. We looked at one another, and my partner responded, 'Sister, when Senator Jones votes to end a filibuster on Lyndon Johnson's education bill, Mary and I will throw our arms around each other and leap over the balcony to the Senate floor.' The vote proceeded. Senator Jones voted against the filibuster. There was a gentle little tap on my shoulder, and the little nun said, 'Jump, lady, jump!' "

When Congress was considering the Equal Rights Amendment, Mrs. Gereau served as the president of the Equal Rights Ratification Council.

In 2000, she was honored by the Veteran Feminists of America with its Medal of Honor for her work on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and in the women's rights movement. At that time, Jacqui Ceballos, the group's founding president, talked about Mrs. Gereau's quiet, effective style.

"She worked in the back rooms in Washington," Ceballos told a reporter for the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star in 2000. "The radical activists had the support of those in high positions, like Mary. Because of her, changes were being made in Washington."

Mary Margaret Condon Gereau was born Oct. 10, 1916, in Winterset, Iowa, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. Among her ancestors was Daniel O'Connell, known as "The Liberator" of Ireland for leading the movement that won Catholic emancipation.

She graduated from the University of Iowa during the Depression. Afterward, she pursued a teaching position but could not find one. She returned to the university for graduate school, and when she was turned down for a loan from a member of the scholarship committee who opposed scholarships for women, several faculty members successfully lobbied for her loan.

After receiving a master's degree in history, Mrs. Gereau taught English at a small rural Iowa high school during World War II. In 1943, she became a program director with the American Red Cross and was sent to India, where her team opened the first recreation club for the Navy in Colombo, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. She later transferred to Karachi, India, which is now Pakistan, before returning to the United States in late 1945.

She became an assistant professor of English and dean of men at Eastern Montana College in Billings, before being elected Montana's state superintendent. Mrs. Gereau later served as a consultant to the U.S. Senate Interior Committee's subcommittee on Indian affairs. After working at NEA, she served for four years as a legislative director for the National Treasury Employees Union.

Mrs. Gereau received a number of honors, including a Veterans of Foreign Wars Distinguished Service Award for her work on behalf of veterans and the 1984 Congressional Staffer of the Year Award from Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. She also was adopted as a princess by the Montana Blackfeet tribe.

She was vice president of the National Woman's Party from 1984 to 1991, and president of Woman's Party Corp., owners of the historic Sewall-Belmont House, from 1990 to 1996. For a while, she and her husband lived in the Sewell-Belmont House, the headquarters for the women's rights movement.

She and her husband moved to Colonial Beach, Va., about six years ago.

She is survived by her husband of 44 years, Gerald Robert Gereau of Colonial Beach.

Mrs. Gereau said in the 2000 newspaper article that she hoped young women would never face some of the discrimination she faced. "Every time you get a break because you are a woman, take advantage of it," she said. "Because there was a time when you got kicked in the teeth for it."

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