Elly M. Peterson, 94; Republican Urged Moderate Direction for Party

Elly Peterson, twice co-chairman of the RNC, tried to draw more African Americans and women to the party.
Elly Peterson, twice co-chairman of the RNC, tried to draw more African Americans and women to the party. (Courtesy Of Michigan Women's Hall Of Fame - Courtesy Of Michigan Women's Hall Of Fame)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Elly M. Peterson, 94, who as the Republican National Committee co-chairman during the 1960s and 1970s was one of the highest-ranking women in her party, died of complications from an infection June 9 at La Villa Grande Care Center in Grand Junction, Colo.

A moderate Republican who launched outreach efforts to African Americans, Mrs. Peterson became co-director of ERAmerica in 1976 as the unsuccessful effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment reached its high-water mark.

She also battled an attempt by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly to seize control of the National Federation of Republican Women in 1972. That fight, Mrs. Peterson's biographer Sara Fitzgerald said, resulted in Schlafly leaving the group to found the Eagle Forum, which became one of the prime opponents of the ERA.

Mrs. Peterson's efforts to retain a moderate faction in the increasingly conservative party continued through the late 1970s, when she told a reporter after the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, "We're coming out of this with a whole new breed of women" who are potential recruits for the Republican Party "if we just don't label them as misfits and oddballs."

Described as warm and down-to-earth as well as a formidable organizer, Mrs. Peterson influenced a generation of women who would later seek public office.

"She was a wonderful mentor to all the young people" at the RNC, former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman (R) said. "We all called her 'Mother' because Elly was the mother hen who took care of all of us. She didn't hesitate to do what needed to be done. You didn't want to get in her way. . . . With Elly, anything was possible, and that made you think anything was possible."

At a time when female political activists were welcomed as volunteers but disregarded when powerful jobs opened up, Mrs. Peterson became the first woman in numerous positions.

Starting in 1963, she was the first female state party chairman in Michigan, the first woman in Michigan to be a major-party candidate for the U.S. Senate and the first woman to address the Republican National Convention. She was the first woman to co-chair the RNC twice and to serve as deputy campaign chairman for a presidential candidate.

Mrs. Peterson fiercely resisted stereotyping, Washington Post political columnist David Broder wrote in 1970, noting that her "sheer energy and capability won her right to operate at the full range of her talents.

"It is, I think, accurate to say her abilities would have earned her the national chairmanship, were it not for the unwritten sex barrier that both parties have erected around the job," Broder wrote. "Certainly, her organizational talents made her views as respected and her advice as sought-after among her colleagues in the party as anyone in the past decade."

In Michigan, Mrs. Peterson recruited young moderates to run for office. Spotting an opportunity for her party, she opened year-round GOP headquarters and neighborhood service offices in predominantly black areas of Michigan cities in the 1960s and later tried to expand the concept nationally.

She was recruited to run against the highly popular Sen. Philip A. Hart (D-Mich.) in 1964 but lost in the Democratic landslide that year.

Notwithstanding her personal political preferences, Mrs. Peterson had many friends among Democrats. When she was co-chairman of ERAmerica with Liz Carpenter, former press secretary and staff director for Lady Bird Johnson, the two shared a house in Washington.

"Elly Peterson was a delight to work with, and she knew how to rally Republicans behind the ERA," Carpenter said in a telephone interview from her Texas home. "We almost made our goal of getting the ERA passed but not quite. I wish we had another shot at it."

A strong supporter of abortion rights, Mrs. Peterson was a charter member in the National Women's Political Caucus and lobbied President Richard M. Nixon to appoint a woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decade later, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to the high court.

Mrs. Peterson became disaffected with her party in 1980, when its national platform was stripped of references about its historical support for equal rights for women. Two years later, she rejected the Republican candidate for governor, declaring him too conservative, and supported the successful Democratic candidate, James Blanchard.

She eventually identified herself as an independent, although she closely followed the bid by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for the Democratic presidential nomination over the past year, Fitzgerald said.

Born Elly McMillan in New Berlin, Ill., on June 5, 1914, she graduated from what is now William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., and the old Suburban Business College in Oak Park, Ill.

She married in 1935, and when her husband joined the military during World War II, Mrs. Peterson joined the American Red Cross. She spent 22 months in England, France and Germany, passing out 2,000 doughnuts a day in a station hospital.

After the war, she and her husband moved to Charlotte, Mich., southwest of Lansing. She was active in the Congregational Church and with the Red Cross until volunteering with the GOP state central committee. She helped elect George Romney to the governor's office in 1962 as she rose in the party hierarchy.

Her first stint with the RNC ran from fall 1963 to July 1964, when she began her Senate campaign. In 1965, she became Michigan's first female state Republican chairman, holding the job for four years.

She returned to Washington in 1969 for another two-year stint at the RNC. She served as deputy campaign chairman for Gerald R. Ford's losing presidential campaign in 1976.

Her husband, retired Army Col. William M. Peterson, died in 1994. She had no immediate family survivors.

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