Women’s Heroine Martha Griffiths is “Tough as Nails” as a Legislator
She gets women’s rights bills introduced and passed in Congress, along with laws helping “the whole family” and the whole country, too.
The Washington Star News, November 11, 1973: A successful lawyer, judge and state legislator, Martha Griffiths, (D-MI), came to Congress in 1955 with the idea there was no difference between her and her male colleagues. They were all professionals, elected to work for the people in their districts.
“Then I found out that men don’t look at such things as pensions, taxes, welfare and Social Security from the same point of view that I do as a woman,” says the congresswoman who has since become a heroine of the woman’s movement.
The first difference, she discovered, was personal. While she paid the same amount to the pension fund as the men, it would not do her husband any good if she died. “He would only get back what I paid in. But if a male representative died, his widow would get 55 percent of his pension.”
Mrs. Griffiths, who is married to attorney Hicks G. Griffiths of Detroit, decided this was “grossly unfair” and soon succeeded in correcting the inequity through legislation.
Since the pension reform applied to every woman in Civil Service, she earned the gratitude of thousands of people who weren’t even in her district. It’s the sort of thing that’s been happening to her ever since.
The only difference is those outside Michigan can’t vote for her and they are all women.
Well, maybe not all women. “When you start working against sex discrimination, you find you’re helping men and children, too; you’re helping the whole family,” she says.
A woman of 60 with a full complement of feminine graces, Martha Griffiths is also tough as nails when it comes to women’s rights. There, tact doesn’t enter into it.
Her male colleagues were all set to pass the Civil Rights Act of without her amendment to include sex.
In a long debate with the former Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-NY), she lashed out against “the white men” in Congress who were finally ready to grant a degree of equality to blacks that they wouldn’t extend to women.
“It would be incredible to me that white men would be willing to place white women at such a disadvantage, except that white men have done this before.” Mrs. Griffiths told her colleagues, “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.”
The amendment (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) barring sex discrimination in employment passed, and one Mrs. Griffiths proudest statements is, “I put sex in the Civil Rights Act.”
But passing the amendment did not magically produce job equality. Two years later Mrs. Griffiths, in an angry speech before Congress, excoriated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for its “whole negative attitude towards the provisions of Title VII.”
The executive director, she said, had referred to the provision as a “fluke” and “conceived out of wedlock.” Commission members, at a White House conference on equal opportunity had “focused their attention on such silly issues as whether the law now requires the Playboy Clubs to have male bunnies.”
Largely because of Mrs. Griffiths’ indignation, the mechanism of Title VII has been activated. At first, an individual woman here or there — at great legal expense — won a job that was formerly considered for men only. But lately, entire companies are being forced into line.
The EEOC has ordered AT&T to open every job in the Bell System to both sexes and to pay $15 million in compensation.
Another battlefront has been the Equal Rights Amendment. For years, Rep. Celler, Mrs. Griffiths’ nemesis on the Civil Rights Act, wouldn’t let ERA out of the Judiciary Committee for a vote.
Finally, in 1972, Mrs. Griffiths circulated a discharge petition in Congress and got enough votes to get ERA out of Celler’s committee. Shortly afterward, the amendment was passed in both houses and is currently making the ratification rounds of the States.
“We’ve only got eight more states to go,” says Mrs. Griffith, who hopes that ERA will be ratified “at least by 1976.” She is not in the least dismayed by a well-financed anti-ERA movement that surfaced this year, is succeeding in slowing down the process.
“The opposition will subside,” she says confidently. “It cannot stand up against the truth. These people are misinforming women and that will come out.”
While Mrs. Griffiths feels that ERA will right many wrongs in the fields of credit, employment and Social Security, she continues to fight for their equality.
Last summer, Mrs. Griffiths conducted a series of hearings on economic discrimination of women for the Joint Economic Committee that revealed the job is hardly begun. She expects to sponsor and support a number of bills to “correct all discrimination in federal law.”
She sees the hearings also as “a teaching tool.” Transcripts are being distributed to libraries, schools and universities through the country, she said.
The gains she has made in her years in Congress — except the Civil Rights Act and ERA, which are major — have been piecemeal and painfully slow.
She has managed to get passed several amendments to the Social Security law. One of them makes it possible for a widower to collect a reduced annuity at 60, just as a widow has always been able to do. Another amendment came to the rescue of the divorced woman whose former husband dies. “Before, if a woman was divorced, that was it. She couldn’t collect any Social Security. Now if she’d been married to the man for 20 years, she is entitled to those benefits,” says Mrs. Griffiths.
But for every amendment to the Social Security law that Mrs. Griffiths has pushed through, there are three more that are needed, she says. ERA will take care of all these inequities, but meanwhile, “women can’t wait.”
Although she’s become a champion of women her concern for her own sex is only a fraction of her own work as a Congresswoman. A member of the Ways and Means Committee as well as Chairman of the Fiscal Policy Subcommittee, she is concerned with Medicare, tax and welfare reform and fiscal policy.
Occasionally she is criticized for what she considers her perfectly justifiable bias toward women. “In the (Ralph) Nader Report on Congress there was a statement that all I ever asked about taxes was how they applied to women.
“I find this hilarious,” says Mrs. Griffiths, although she isn’t laughing. “After 200 years, I am the first person to raise questions about our tax laws and women,” she says, implying that if she doesn’t, none of her male colleagues ever will.
Mrs. Griffiths doesn’t really consider herself a part of the organized women’s movement, but rather as a leader of the growing army of employed women whose need for equal rights fostered the movement. The National Organization for Women (NOW), for instance, was formed directly as a result of her 1966 speech against EEOC, she says. Since then, women the country over are organizing into action groups to fight for their civil rights, says Mrs. Griffiths.
“Nothing on earth can stop women now.
“The movement is like a tidal wave. And when it’s passed, men and women both are going to turn into human beings.”