'U' alum Sara Fitzgerald promotes book on feminist political leader

Adam Schnitzer/Daily
University alum Sara Fitzgerald speaks with Lawrence Lindemer, former University regent and former Michigan Supreme Court justice, at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library on Thursday, Oct. 20. Buy this photo

By Charlene Lerner, For the Daily
Published October 20, 2011

While finishing her senior thesis at the University in 1973, Sara Fitzgerald, The Michigan Daily’s first female editor in chief and former editor at The Washington Post, spent much of her time in the stacks of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.

At an event last night, Fitzgerald returned to the library. But this time, it was to promote the release of her new book, “Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’ of the Moderates.”

Fitzgerald’s book was published by The University of Michigan Press earlier this year and follows the political career of Elly Peterson, the late feminist who served as the first woman to chair the Michigan Republican Party. Fitzgerald said writing the book was important to raise awareness about an influential figure in the women’s rights movement.

“I think it speaks to the continuing importance of studying women’s history as well as the roles ... heroes and heroines can play in our lives,” she said.

Fitzgerald said she graduated from the University at a time of political turmoil and female empowerment through the women’s rights movement. During her time at the University, females were accepted into the Michigan Marching Band for the first time and the University created the Department of Women’s Studies.

“My college years were a very empowering time when I was here on campus,” Fitzgerald said.

Though the Bentley Historical Library opened on campus shortly after she graduated, Fitzgerald said she knew Peterson’s papers — correspondences between Peterson and family members when she was working with the Red Cross in Europe during World War II — were housed there, which gave her an excuse to return to campus while researching for her book. Fitzgerald praised the “wonderful staff” and “beautiful setting of the library” and said it was an important place for her to find information on Peterson’s past.

Fitzgerald lauded Peterson’s perseverance to enter a male-dominated field. She told the audience that as Peterson waited to formally accept her position as Michigan Republican Party chair in February 1965, Max Fisher, the party’s finance chair, informed her that her salary would be lower than her predecessor because she was a woman.

Despite the skepticism she received from co-workers and the public because of her gender, Fitzgerald said Peterson continued to advance her career and became the assistant chair of the Republican National Committee in 1970.

“I think (Peterson is) someone who obviously, when I was the age of a student, was a role model for me,” Fitzgerald said. “And I think it’s important that stories like hers don’t get lost along the way because I think she stood for a lot of values that are still very important and sadly often not in our politics today.”

Fitzgerald added that stories regarding Peterson’s progress through the political ranks were restricted to the women’s section of newspapers until 1971 when women’s affairs were covered more often.

Lawrence Lindemer, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice who previously served as chair of the Michigan Republican Party when Peterson was his secretary in 1957, attended last night’s event. Lindemer also served on the University’s Board of Regents from 1969 to 1975 while Fitzgerald attended the University. In an interview after the event, Lindemer praised Peterson’s work and said she was an influential person through her work in politics.

“She was one hell of a woman and one hell of a person,” Lindemer said.

Closing her talk, Fitzgerald read a portion of one of Peterson’s speeches that discussed increasing governmental tolerance with more women and minorities entering politics.

"In diversity, there is strength for us as a party. As a community, as a nation and in our tolerance and fairness to others, lies the path to being the rational human beings we all aspire to be," Fitzgerald read. "May we all find our way graciously and passionately down this path.”