Women’s Rights Activist, Attorney, Lawmaker
Martha Wright Griffiths was born on January 29, 1912 in Pierce City, Missouri. As a young woman, she was inspired by the activism and leadership of her paternal grandmother, Jeanette Hinds Wright, a leading advocate for woman suffrage in Pierce City. She was a champion debater in her public high school and continued on the debate team when she went to the University of Missouri. She went to law school at
the University of Michigan and graduated in 1940 along with her husband, Hick Griffiths (making them the first married couple to graduate from the law school).
As she worked to establish her legal career, Griffiths experienced sex discrimination. Although she and her husband had comparable records and were hired for identical jobs at an insurance company, she was paid less. Subsequently, she and her husband practiced law together in their own firm, Griffiths & Griffiths.
Griffiths’ trailblazing career in politics began at the urging of a Michigan woman who had fought for woman suffrage. Although Griffiths lost her first race for the state legislature, in 1948, she ran again and was elected to the Michigan state house of representatives, one of only two women in that chamber from 1948 to 1952. After serving on the state bench for a brief period, she was elected to the United States Congress in 1954, the first Democratic woman elected to the Congress from Michigan. She was re-elected nine times and served through 1974.
During Griffiths’ long career in the United States House of Representatives, she was a tireless and effective advocate for the rights of women Her crowning legislative achievements were her successful advocacy for the inclusion of women in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the passage by the Congress of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
As originally introduced, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not include sex discrimination in any of its provisions. Congresswoman Griffiths led the fight to take seriously an amendment to the Act that would prohibit sex discrimination in employment. She gavy fiery speeches, imploring her colleagues to support the amendment. The amendment passed and the law—known as Title VII—has provided powerful legal protection against sex discrimination in employment.
In 1970, Griffiths filed a discharge petition to demand that the ERA, which had languished in a House committee for 47 years, be heard by the full Congress. She worked to garner the 218 votes needed for this effort by persistently and persuasively lobbying members in both parties and securing the help of then-Congressman Gerald Ford to garner the final votes needed for passage. Following the successful discharge petition, both the House and the Senate voted for passage of the ERA, setting the stage for ratification in the states, an effort that fell three states short. In 1972, Griffiths continued her work on behalf of women’s rights by working to secure the passage of Title IX, a law that protects against sex discrimination in education.
After retiring from Congress in 1974, Martha Griffiths continued her advocacy for the passage of the ERA and served on several corporate boards. She served on the National Commission for the Observance of International Women’s Year and participated in the First National Woman’s Conference in Houston, Texas in 1977. In 1983, at age 70, she returned to politics when she was elected the first female Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. She was re-elected in 1986 and served in this position until 1990. Congresswoman Griffiths died on April 22, 2003, at age 91.