Published on Friday, April 25, 2003 by the New York Times
Martha Griffiths, Fighter for Women's Rights, Dies at 91
by Wolfgang Saxon
Martha Wright Griffiths, a longtime United States representative who was a legend in Michigan Democratic politics and one of the most effective women's civil rights legislators of her day, died on Tuesday at her home in Armada, Mich. She was 91.
Known for her sharp intellect and blunt language, she entered Congress in 1955, was re-elected nine times and served through 1974, when she chose not to run again. She successfully fought to bring women under the protection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, her crowning achievement in Congress.
Mrs. Griffiths pursued passage of the amendment calmly, with the persuasive skills of the trial lawyer she once was. Her arguments went a long way toward persuading a male-dominated House to subscribe to a cause that had been on the table for 47 years, since women got the vote in 1923.
The Senate followed suit in 1972, and the proposed amendment then went to the states for approval. It gained a majority but fell three states short of the 38 needed for ratification.
Opponents of ratification raised the specter of economic ruin and combat duty for women, but Mrs. Griffiths continued the fight at the state level. She and Phyllis Schlafly, a principal opponent, sharply debated the issue at a national forum in 1976.
"If we had five minutes more," said Rosemary Mullaney, one of the forum's organizers, "they would have killed each other."
For much of her life, Mrs. Griffiths scored firsts, like becoming the first woman to serve on the House Ways and Means Committee. She also sat on the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and was chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Fiscal Policy.
Such key assignments gave her leverage to lobby for giving women specific protection under the Civil Rights Act. As proposed, the bill would have barred discrimination on the basis of race, religion or national origin; she led the drive to add "sex" as a listed category.
Mrs. Griffiths noted that inequalities could run either way, telling her colleagues on the Ways and Means Committee at one point, "I am tired of paying into a pension fund to support your widow but not my widower."
She ascribed part of her success to her husband and sometime law partner, Hicks G. Griffiths, who was once state Democratic chairman of Michigan. He died in 1996.
She was born Martha Wright in Pierce City, Mo., the daughter of a rural mail carrier, and became a champion debater in high school. She met Mr. Griffiths, a fellow student, at the University of Missouri, where both were on the debating team.
They eloped the year before she graduated in 1934. They studied law, and in 1940 were the first couple to graduate together from the University of Michigan Law School.
They went into practice in Detroit in 1946 as Griffiths & Griffiths. Another partner was G. Mennen Williams, whom they helped in his bid for governor in 1948. By then Mrs. Griffiths had lost her first race for the state Legislature.
She gained a seat in the state House, one of only two women in that chamber from 1949 to 1952, when she lost her first bid for Congress. Instead, Governor Williams appointed her to the bench of Recorder's Court in Detroit, and she was a judge until her election to the House in 1954, the first Democratic woman elected to Congress from Michigan.
After leaving Congress, she inhabited corporate boardrooms where few women had ever been members. She returned to politics in 1982, when James J. Blanchard, the Democratic candidate for governor, made her his running mate. She was elected lieutenant governor and re-elected with him in 1986.
Governor Blanchard's decision to replace her on his ticket in 1990 caused political furor in Michigan. Mr. Blanchard indicated that he had dropped her because of her age and increasing frailty, but Mrs. Griffiths, ever feisty, took issue and said women and the elderly had put Mr. Blanchard into office in the first place.
Mr. Blanchard narrowly lost the election to John M. Engler, a Republican.
"I don't know if I feel vindicated, but I think it clearly shows that I won it for him the first two times," Mrs. Griffiths said after Mr. Blanchard's defeat. "I feel bad for him, but he took some very bad advice."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company