Martha Griffiths





Born Martha Wright, January 29, 1912, in Pierce City, MO; died April 22, 2003, in Armada, MI. United States Representative. Martha Griffiths entered Congress in 1955, was re–elected nine times, and served through 1974. A feisty, piercingly intelligent thinker and speaker, Griffiths was a long–time fighter for women's rights, and successfully worked to bring women under the protection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She also backed the Equal Rights Amendment, and was involved in pushing it through Congress after almost 50 years of controversy. Griffiths was the daughter of a letter carrier in Pierce City, Missouri, and while still in high school, became noted for her debating ability. In college at the University of Missouri at Columbia, she excelled in political science. After graduating, she married her college sweetheart, Hicks G. Griffiths, in 1934. Both studied law at the University of Michigan; they were the first married couple to graduate from that university's law school. Griffiths was admitted to the Michigan bar in 1941, and subsequently worked in Detroit, Michigan, as a contract negotiator for army ordnance during World War II. She and her husband went into private practice together after the war, and in 1948 joined a friend, G. Mennen Williams, to run his successful campaign for the Michigan governor's seat.

In 1946, Griffiths made her own foray into Democratic politics, running for a seat in the Michigan legislature. She lost, but was not discouraged. On her second bid for office, she won. In 1952, her reelection campaign attracted national interest, as she traveled across her district in a house trailer, serving refreshments to prospective voters. Although she lost this campaign, she used the trailer tactic successfully in 1954 when she ran for Congress, winning the Detroit seat. In Congress, she became most interested in issues that affected women, and made it her goal to change laws that were unfair to them. For example, she was outraged to discover that when a man who was covered by Social Security died, his dependent children received benefits—but when a woman who was covered by the program died, her children received nothing. If a man died, his widow had to pay taxes on any money he left her, but if a woman died, her husband paid nothing. If a man divorced his wife after decades of marriage, she did not receive any of his Social Security payments. Griffiths worked to eliminate these disparities, and succeeded.

In 1964, Griffiths began working to add a ban on sex discrimination to the Civil Rights Act. Another member of Congress, Howard W. Smith from Virginia, opposed this amendment but told Griffiths he would work with her to convince Southern congress members to support it. Behind the scenes, however, his apparent agreement with Griffiths was part of a plan to defeat the amendment by making it look foolish. In February of 1954, he made light of women's issues on the House floor, joking that he would introduce a bill that would increase the supply of men in the country so that the 2.6 million unmarried women in the United States would be able to find husbands. Another member of Congress remarked that after being married for 49 years, he always had the last two words in any discussion, and those words were "Yes, dear."

In response, Griffiths noted that these comments about the amendment only made it more obvious that women were treated as second–class citizens, and commented that without the amendment, the Civil Rights Act would protect African–American women, but not white women, from discrimination. According to Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times, Griffiths said, "A vote against this amendment today by a white man is a vote against his wife or his widow or his daughter or his sister." As a result, the amendment passed by a vote of 168 to 133.

In 1970, Griffiths began working on behalf of the beleaguered Equal Rights Amendment, which had been under debate since 1923, when women were allowed to vote for the first time. The amendment had cleared the Senate twice, but had never made it to a vote in Congress. Invoking a rarely used tactic, Griffiths gathered enough signatures to ensure that the amendment would receive one hour of debate on the House floor. On August 10, 1974, the amendment was approved in Congress by a vote of 346 to 15; the Senate approved it two years later. However, in 2003, it had still been ratified by only 35 states, three fewer than the number required to add it to the U.S. constitution.

In 1974, Griffiths retired from Congress to serve on various corporate boards. She returned to politics in 1982, when Michigan gubernatorial candidate James Blanchard asked her to be his running mate. Griffiths was so popular among her constituents that some observers said Blanchard would not have won without her on the ticket. The two teamed up again for a successful second term, but in a third bid for office, Blanchard didn't invite Griffiths to join him. Then 78, she had begun suffering from poor health and had endured a series of strokes. According to the Los Angeles Times 's Woo, Griffiths was angered by Blanchard's rejection, and commented, "The biggest problem in politics is that you help some s.o.b. get what he wants, and then he throws you off the train." Later, she noted, "He has a right to do what he wants to do. And after the election, we'll see what he should have done." Blanchard lost that election. According to the Los Angeles Times 's Woo, Griffiths was a woman who broke many barriers. She was the first woman appointed to the Detroit Recorder's Court, the first woman sent to Congress from her district, the first woman seated on the House Ways and Means Committee, and the first woman chosen to serve as Michigan's lieutenant governor. Griffiths died on April 22, 2003, at her home in Armada, Michigan, at the age of 91, after several years of failing health; her husband passed away in 1996.

Sources:

Chicago Tribune, April 24, 2003; Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2003, p. B13; New York Times, April 25, 2003, p. B11; Washington Post, April 25, 2003, p. B9.

Kelly Winters



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