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Martha Griffiths, 91; Pioneering Politician Pushed ERA, Sex Bias Ban Through Congress

April 25, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Martha Griffiths, the irascible, independent-minded former congresswoman who was a pivotal force behind the ban on sex discrimination in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and pushed the controversial Equal Rights Amendment through Congress after it had languished for nearly half a century, has died. She was 91.

The Michigan Democrat, who served 10 terms in the House before retiring in 1975, had been in failing health for years. She died Tuesday at her home in Armada, Mich.

Tackling politics during an era when a woman's place was seen as in the home, Griffiths 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.

She also was the only woman in Michigan to serve in all three branches of state government.

Griffiths' greatest legislative victory came when she engineered the inclusion of sex discrimination in the landmark 1964 civil rights legislation, which paved the way for a number of laws and Supreme Court rulings on issues ranging from equal pay to freedom from sexual harassment.

She displayed considerable political savvy again in 1970 when she employed a little-known parliamentary tactic to blast the ERA out of the House Judiciary Committee, where it had been stalled for 47 years.

Over the years, she earned respect for her intelligence and independence, and was described by colleagues as "tough as alligator skin" with "a steel-trap mind."

She also was known for her bluntness. One time she wrote to an airline president after he defended requirements that stewardesses be young, single and pretty: "Just exactly what are you running -- an airline or a whorehouse?"

Former President Gerald Ford, who served with Griffiths in the House and supported her ERA campaign, said in a statement this week: "She was smart, she knew the rules, and she had deep convictions."

The daughter of a letter carrier in Pierce City, Mo., Griffiths excelled in debate in high school and relished her political science classes at the University of Missouri at Columbia. She married her college sweetheart, Hicks G. Griffiths, after graduation in 1934. They studied law together at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, becoming the first married couple to graduate from the law school.

Hicks Griffiths died in 1996. The couple had no children.

Admitted to the Michigan bar in 1941, Griffiths worked as a contract negotiator in Detroit for Army Ordnance during World War II. After the war, she and her husband went into private practice together. They were soon joined by a former college classmate, G. Mennen Williams, and in 1948 ran his successful campaign for Michigan governor. Democrats dominated state politics for the next 12 years.

Griffiths entered the political fray in 1946 with a bid for a seat in the Michigan Legislature, but didn't win until her second try. She garnered national attention during a reelection drive in 1952 when she stumped across her district in a house trailer, serving juice, coffee and cookies to thousands of prospective supporters.

The house-trailer approach did not help her win a second term. But she used it to run for Congress in 1954, and won the Detroit seat in Congress.

"I owe my election to all the girls who went out and rang doorbells and invited housewives to meet me," she said.

In Washington, she found that the issues that most outraged her concerned women and she set about changing laws that treated them unfairly.

She found that when a woman covered by Social Security died, her dependent children were ineligible for benefits, but a man's dependents were. She discovered that women had to pay taxes on money left by their husbands, but no man had to pay taxes on what his wife left. And she found that, if a man divorced his wife after 20 or 30 years of marriage, the wife was not entitled to any Social Security payments.

Griffiths won changes to all those laws.

In 1964, she was the main force behind the addition of a ban on sex discrimination to the Civil Rights Act. Howard W. Smith, a conservative Democratic congressman from Virginia, agreed to sponsor an amendment barring sex discrimination at the urging of members of the National Woman's Party.

Griffiths knew that Smith had agreed to sponsor the amendment as part of a Southern strategy to defeat the entire civil rights bill -- and that Smith's support would guarantee the votes of 100 or more congressmen from the deep South who would otherwise oppose any feminist initiative.

Smith's remarks on the House floor on Feb. 8, 1964, made plain his true feelings about the amendment. He began his arguments by reading a letter from a woman who complained that the 1960 Census had reported 2.6 million "extra females" in the United States and asked that Smith introduce a bill to increase the supply of men for those women to marry.

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