The 'Mother of the ERA' was a 'first' for females

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

The first female elected lieutenant governor of Michigan, Martha Griffiths served two terms in the role that may have been just a bit part in defining her public service legacy.

Still, it was indeed an honor to meet the former U.S. Congresswoman when she made an Ann Arbor area campaign stop in 1990 while stumping for then Governor James Blanchard in his – and her – bid for a third term in office.

True to her political style, Griffiths was engaging and quotable that day, supplying enough campaign fodder to more than satisfy the horde of print and broadcast media members gathered to hear why she and her running mate deserved re-election for another 4 years.

For whatever reason, the Blanchard/Griffiths campaign message didn’t resonate with Michigan voters that November, as a little known Republican state senator pulled off one of the more shocking political upsets in state history, setting the stage for his own 8-year stay in office.

Despite the election setback, Griffiths was unbowed, continuing her lifelong work to advance the causes of equal rights and access to justice. It was a political mission she championed until her death in 2003 at age 91.

Griffiths, who graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1940, was among the “Legal Legends” honored by The Detroit Legal News in 1995 on the 100th anniversary of the newspaper.

A native of Missouri, Griffiths was married to her legal and political soulmate, Hicks Griffiths, a lawyer and judge who served as chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party from 1949-50. She served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1949-53 before accepting an appointment to the Recorder’s Court in Detroit, becoming its first female member of the bench.

But her heart remained in politics, and the following year she won a seat in Congress “by campaigning out of a house trailer,” according to The Legal News profile of Griffiths.

“Her political career was filled with accomplishments, but history probably will show that her most important moment came midway through her congressional tenure,” said The Legal News profile. “And then she accomplished what she wanted by taking a very unusual course of action – she stood by and let someone else do the job.”

It was an uncharacteristic piece of strategy by Griffiths, who was known as a “feisty spokeswoman for the rights of women in the workplace.” But the stakes were high in the battle for gender equality and Griffiths was willing to make personal sacrifices for the long term good of the cause.

“The year was 1964 and Griffith was in her fifth term when a major opportunity to advance the cause of equality for women presented itself,” according to the profile in Legal Legends. “Under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, momentum was building for a major change in race relations in the United States. Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned race discrimination in employment, was up for consideration.

“Griffiths thought Title VII should go further and ban employment discrimination on the basis of gender, but the White House was less than enthusiastic about any amendments that could jeopardize the bill.

“As always, Griffiths was ready to press the point. But she backed off when Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, said on television’s ‘Meet the Press’ that he would consider offering such an amendment himself.”

It was an odd move by an ultra-conservative, but Griffiths wasn’t going to look a political “gift horse in the mouth,” putting any concerns aside by working “hard behind the scenes to rally support for the provision.”

When the amendment came up for debate, Griffiths “gave an eloquent speech and equal opportunity for women in the workplace was approved,” leading to the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

With Griffiths as one of its primary proponents, NOW led the campaign a few years later for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

“Griffiths played a pivotal role again,” according to The Legal News profile, “and is credited with shepherding the bill through the House of Representatives in 1971,” earning recognition by one national publication as “the mother of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In summarizing her political legacy, The Guardian might have said it best in the post-mortem of Griffiths’s career.

“The weapons she deployed during her 10-term congressional career included implacable determination, a lawyer’s grasp of procedural niceties, and tongue like a blacksmith’s rasp.”
A “Legal Legend” indeed.