Known as the “Mother of the ERA,” Martha Wright Griffiths, a peppery and quick-witted Detroit Representative, was a key figure in bringing women’s rights legislation to successful passage in Congress. During her 20 years in the U.S. House, Representative Griffiths compiled a distinguished record on tax reform and civil rights. She also was the first woman to serve on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Martha Edna Wright was born on January 29, 1912, in Pierce City, Missouri. She was one of two children reared by Charles Elbridge Wright, a mailman, and Nell Sullinger Wright. Martha Wright graduated from Pierce City High School in 1930. Realizing that without an education her daughter would eventually be dependent on her future husband, Nell Wright took on extra jobs to pay for Martha’s college tuition.1 Her mother’s foresight and her paternal grandmother’s struggle to raise three children after the death of her husband inspired Martha Wright to pursue equal rights for women. She attended the University of Missouri at Columbia, earning an AB in political science in 1934. In college she met and married Hicks G. Griffiths, a future Michigan Democratic Party chairman and her husband of 62 years until his death in 1996. The couple studied law at the University of Michigan, where Martha Griffiths worked on the staff of the Michigan Law Review. She graduated with an LLB in 1940 and was admitted to the bar the next year. Her first job was working in the legal department of the American Automobile Insurance Association in Detroit. During World War II, she worked as a contract negotiator in the Detroit district for Army Ordnance. In 1946 Griffiths opened her own law practice; Hicks joined a few months afterward. A year later, G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, heir of the Mennen toiletries fortune and a former college classmate, became a partner in the firm.
Martha Griffiths entered politics at her husband’s suggestion by making an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Michigan house of representatives in 1946. She later won election to the state legislature in 1948 and 1950. During her first term, she and her husband organized the Michigan Democratic Club, which engineered the election of G. Mennen Williams as governor. In the fall of 1952, Griffiths captured the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U.S. Congress from a Michigan district encompassing northwest Detroit and some outlying suburbs but lost the general election by a margin of 10,500 votes (or about six percent of the total) to Republican Charles Gibb Oakman. In April 1953, Governor Williams appointed her a recorder and judge of recorders court in Detroit. The following November, she was elected as judge and served until 1954. At the time, she observed, “It is at least an unusual experience to assist for four years in making the laws of this state, and then sit as a judge of people charged with breaking those laws.”2 During her brief tenure, she conducted more than 430 criminal examinations, including a highly publicized teamsters’ conspiracy case.
The name recognition Griffiths garnered as a 1952 candidate and as a judge helped her mount another bid for the Detroit seat in the U.S. House in 1954. She revived from her initial campaign a district-wide tour by house-trailer—meeting tens of thousands of voters in their neighborhoods and serving them refreshments. Facing Oakman in the general election, Griffiths unseated the incumbent with about a 7,000-vote margin, 52 to 48 percent.3 Griffiths’s victory came without the support of organized labor and the state’s Democratic Party, as both backed other candidates.4 Despite this opposition, Griffiths never was seriously challenged again, winning nine more terms and gradually increasing her margins of victory: 53 percent in 1956, 69 percent in 1966, and 80 percent in 1970.5
The second woman from Michigan elected to the U.S. House, Griffiths was appointed to the Banking and Currency and Government Operations committees. During the 91st Congress (1969–1971) she served on the Select Committee on Crime, and she also had a seat on the Joint Study Budget Control Committee during the 92nd (1971–1973) and 93rd (1973–1975) Congresses. In the 90th (1967–1969) through 93rd Congresses, Griffiths chaired the Select Committee on the House Beauty Shop, a largely ceremonial assignment which oversaw the institution’s operations.6
In a move that astonished many observers, Griffiths ran for her former position as judge of the Detroit recorders court but was defeated in the April 1959 election. She later explained that she was motivated by a desire to return to Detroit and by her frustration with the protocols and pace of the committees, particularly the Banking and Currency Committee.7 Griffiths retained her House seat, however, and a year later she was re-elected to Congress with 58 percent of the vote.8
Congresswomen had lobbied Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas in 1961 to assign a woman to the prominent Ways and Means Committee. New York Representative Edna Kelly told the Speaker, “It’s about time we had a woman on the Ways and Means Committee.”9 Finally, they extracted a pledge from him that an appointment would be made at the next vacancy. Rayburn died in November 1961, but his promise was fulfilled in 1962 when Griffiths became the first woman Representative to win appointment to Ways and Means. Eventually, she became the fourth-ranking Member on that powerful panel. She also was assigned to the Joint Economic Committee, where she served through the 93rd Congress and eventually chaired the Subcommittee on Fiscal Policy. From both of these prominent positions, Congresswoman Griffiths pursued tax reform and proposed legislation to repeal the excise tax on automobiles, to provide tax relief for single parents, to amend tax laws to aid married couples and widows, and to reduce social security taxes paid by low-income families. Her skills as a former judge, solid preparation, and ability to pick apart arguments, along with her sometimes blunt style, made her a fearsome opponent. She was especially attentive to frequent requests from women on how to circumvent discrimination in the workplace. On one occasion, when it came to light that a major airline fired a flight attendant on the grounds that she was going to be married soon, Griffiths grilled the airline’s personnel manager: “You point out that you are asking a bona fide occupational exception that a stewardess be young, attractive, and single. What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?”10 One of Griffiths’s staff members recalled years later, “I think it was a help to the Ways and Means Committee, to have … a woman’s viewpoint and legal background” on the committee.11
In 1964 Griffiths made one of her two greatest contributions to the women’s rights movement. As the House Judiciary Committee began to deliberate a landmark civil rights bill pertaining to racial discrimination, Griffiths argued that sexual discrimination must be added to it. She did much to frame the sex discrimination amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and later prompted the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce the act more vigorously. She relied on a deft legislative move to secure her amendment. The chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, Democrat Howard Worth Smith of Virginia, was preparing to make his own sexual discrimination amendment to the bill, in hopes of making the bill so controversial as to derail the entire Civil Rights Act. Griffiths, realizing that Smith would easily bring 100 southern votes if he introduced the amendment on the floor, held back on introducing the amendment herself. When Smith made the argument in the well of the House, Members erupted in laughter and jeers.12 Griffiths immediately took to the floor to make her case. “I presume that if there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second-class sex, the laughter would have proved it,” she scolded colleagues. The chamber fell silent.13 With a southern bloc voting for the amendment and Griffiths’s own efforts to line up votes, the measure was passed and added to the act. Though many of the southern lawmakers who passed the amendment voted against the whole Civil Rights Act of 1964, the House and Senate eventually passed the bill, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law that year.14
Griffiths also was pivotal in bringing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to a vote, eventually steering it to successful passage in the House. Though she originally thought that the way to secure women’s rights was to bring case after case before the Supreme Court, Griffiths eventually came to believe that a constitutional amendment was the only way to overcome the high bench’s history of decisions which, in her view, denied that women were “‘persons’ within the meaning of the Constitution.”15 Every year since she entered the House in 1955, she had introduced the ERA legislation, only to watch while the bill died in the Judiciary Committee.
In 1970 Congresswoman Griffiths relied on the discharge petition, a little-used parliamentary procedure which required that she get a majority (218 of the House’s 435 Members) to support her effort to bring the bill out of committee and onto the floor for general debate and a vote. For nearly 40 days, Griffiths stalked reluctant Congressmen, cornering them on the House Floor after roll call votes, visiting their offices, and calling in favors in order to add names to the petition. “She buttonholed them,” reported a former staff member years later. “And she was a very persuasive woman, and she had the background to be able to answer their questions very quickly. That was a great help.” Griffiths made it a point to do all the talking herself, asking her staff to let her know if they heard of anyone that needed “a little assist in deciding what to do.”16 At one point, she approached the Democratic Whip, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr. of Louisiana, for his signature. Boggs at first demurred. “But he promised to sign as Number 200, convinced that I would never make it,” Griffiths recalled. “You may be sure that when I had Number 199 signed up, I rushed to his office, and Hale Boggs became Number 200.”17 Griffiths got the 218 signatures in the required time, and on August 10, 1970, took to the House Floor to open debate. “Mr. Speaker, this is not a battle between the sexes—nor a battle between this body and women,” Griffiths said. “This is a battle with the Supreme Court of the United States.”18
With 62 Members not voting, the House passed the ERA by a vote of 352 to 15.19 Later that fall, the Senate voted to amend the ERA with a clause exempting women from the draft. The House and Senate failed to work out their differences in conference committee before Congress adjourned for the year. Griffiths began the process again, and this time the amendment cleared the House in 1971 and was approved by the Senate in March 1972 without revision. The ERA, however, was ratified by only 35 of the requisite 38 states and never became part of the Constitution. Despite the amendment’s ultimate failure, Griffiths’s recognition soared after her work on the ERA. In 1970 she was rumored to be in consideration for Majority Whip and, therefore, the first woman to hold a major leadership post; however, she never was selected for that position.20
Griffiths declined to run for an 11th term in 1974, citing age and a wish to spend time with her family as her reasons for leaving. She did not disappear from politics, however, returning in 1976 as the chair of the rules committee for the Democratic National Convention, and in 1982, becoming Michigan’s first elected lieutenant governor on a ticket with Michigan Representative James Johnston Blanchard. In 1986 the pair was re-elected, but Blanchard decided to drop the 78-year-old Griffiths from the ticket for a third term because of her age. “Ridiculous!” she retorted. She then told a crowd of reporters: “The biggest problem in politics is that you help some s.o.b. get what he wants and then he throws you out of the train.”21 Blanchard lost in the general election to Republican John Engler, an outcome many observers attributed to disaffected women and senior votes that Griffiths had helped swing to Blanchard in the previous two elections. After her terms as lieutenant governor, Griffiths resumed practicing law.
Martha Griffiths died of pneumonia at her home in Armada, Michigan, on April 22, 2003.22 The Lansing State Journal eulogized her noting her place as “one of America’s leading crusaders for women’s rights. It is no stretch to say that she, as much as any person of her day, helped level the gender playing field.”23
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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