Martha Wright Griffiths was an attorney and congresswoman from Pierce City, Missouri. Over the course of her career, she was a strong advocate for women’s rights and played a significant role in supporting the Equal Rights Amendment in the US Congress.
Early Years and Education
Martha Edna Wright was born in Pierce City on January 29, 1912, to Charles Eldridge Wright and Nell Sullinger Wright. Growing up in Lawrence County, she attended school in Pierce City and graduated from Pierce City High School in 1930. Her family’s struggles, particularly her mother’s efforts to pay for Martha’s education through working extra jobs, inspired her to later push for women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.
University of Missouri
After graduating from Pierce City High School, Martha Wright enrolled at the University of Missouri. During her time on campus, she was a member of Cwens, Freshman Commission, and the university’s debate team. She also served as president of the women’s freshmen debate team. During her senior year, the Columbia Fortnightly Club awarded her an outstanding student prize for her grades and participation in university activities. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934.
While at the University of Missouri, she met Hicks Griffiths, a fellow student from New York. According to family lore, they first noticed each other during classroom debates on various topics, particularly politics. They married in 1934.
Moving to Michigan
Interested in the study of law, the Griffiths enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School. In 1940, she graduated with a law degree; her husband also graduated and became an attorney. Soon after being admitted to the Michigan state bar, she worked for the American Automobile Insurance Association in Detroit. In 1946 she helped establish a law firm that was known as Griffiths, Williams, and Griffiths, which included her husband and G. Mennen Williams as partners. Later, the Griffiths were influential in Williams’s election as governor of Michigan.
Soon after opening a law firm, Griffiths decided to pursue a career in politics. She ran for a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives in 1946. She lost the election that year, but was later successful in winning a seat in the Michigan legislature in 1948 and 1950. At the end of her second term in office, she chose to run for the US Congress in 1952. Similar to her first campaign, she was defeated in this bid. She was instead appointed to the recorder of deeds court in Detroit and won election to the same position in 1954.
U. S. Congress
In 1954, Griffiths campaigned for US Congress again and won a seat in the House of Representatives representing Michigan’s Seventeenth District. She was just the second woman to represent Michigan in Congress. Griffiths ended up serving in Congress for nearly twenty years, winning reelection nine times. During her congressional career, she served on the Banking and Currency Committee, Government Operations Committee, Select Committee on Crime, and Joint Study Budget Control Committee. In 1962, Griffiths became the first woman to serve on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees various tax and tariff programs, including Social Security and Medicare.
Due to her important role in Congress, she was mentioned as a possible candidate for the US Supreme Court when many political leaders began discussing the need to appoint the first woman to the nation’s highest court. In the end, however, no woman served as a Supreme Court justice until Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed in 1981.
Equal Rights Amendment
Perhaps the most significant contributions that Griffiths made during her time in Congress related to advancing legislation on women’s rights. First, she was instrumental in adding a provision to what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address discrimination based on sex through Title VII. This legislation, including Title VII, later passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Second, Griffiths took on a prominent role in bringing the Equal Rights Amendment to a vote in Congress. Since her first term in Congress, she had repeatedly introduced equal rights legislation, but for many years her bills failed to receive a vote. In 1970 she successfully petitioned congressional members to allow a vote on the Equal Rights Amendment. After a floor debate, the ERA passed in the House of Representatives. It later passed in the Senate as well, but then it failed when the House and Senate could not agree on the amendment’s language concerning women and the US military draft.
In 1971, Griffiths again tried to pass the Equal Rights Amendment out of the House of Representatives. This time, the ERA successfully passed both the House and Senate and went before the states for ratification. At least thirty-eight states needed to ratify it, that is, approve it, before it could be added to the US Constitution. Only thirty-five states passed the ERA, however, and it did not become part of the Constitution.
Soon after her campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, Griffiths announced that she would not seek reelection in 1974. Though she initially intended to retire, she did not leave the political arena for long. She remained involved in the Democratic National Convention through the 1970s. In 1982 she was elected the lieutenant governor of Michigan on a ticket that included James Blanchard for governor. They were both reelected in 1986, but after Blanchard decided not to campaign with her in 1990, she retired from politics. With a different running mate, Blanchard lost the 1990 election.
In her second retirement, Griffiths returned to practicing law in Michigan. In 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, following her induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame a decade earlier. She died at her home in Armada, Michigan, on April 22, 2003. In 2005 the Griffiths Leadership Society at the University of Missouri–Columbia was established in her honor to promote the growth and education of women among undergraduate and alumnae members. Each year the Griffiths Leadership Society gives out numerous honors, including the Griffiths Emerging Leader Award and the Spirit of Martha Award.
Text and research by Sean Rost
References and Resources
For more information about Martha Griffiths’ life and career, see the following resources:
The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Martha Griffiths in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.
Articles from the Newspaper Collection
- Daubenmier, Judy. “Ex-lawmaker, 77, still speaks out for ERA and women’s rights.” Kansas City Star. March 12, 1989. p. 16A.
- “Martha Griffiths dies; women’s rights leader.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. April 24, 2003. p. A7.
- “Martha Griffiths: Feminine Feminist.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 16, 1970. p. 7B.
- “Ozarks Woman To High Court?” Springfield Leader and Press. December 22, 1969. p. 1.
- Scherf, Margaret. “The Men Behind Women in Politics.” Kansas City Star. June 18, 1972. p. 10D.
- Start, Clarissa. “100 Years of Tigresses at Missouri U.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. May 27, 1968. p. 3F.
- University of Missouri. Savitar. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1931. [REF 378.778UMC V8 1931, v.37]
- University of Missouri. Savitar. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1932. [REF 378.778UMC V8 1932, v.38]
- Equal Rights Amendment Collection (S0225)
The Equal Rights Amendment Collection consists of correspondence, resolutions, flyers, roll call votes of the Missouri Legislature, and newspaper clippings concerning the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Missouri and the United States.
- University of Missouri, Admission of Women Centennial Records (C2603)
The University of Missouri, Admission of Women Centennial Records contains correspondence and lists used in preparations for commemorative activities on the centennial of the admission of women to the University.
These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society’s website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:
This website is hosted by C-SPAN, a radio and television network that airs U.S. federal government and public affairs programming. It airs videos and other content related to its programming, including several videos featuring Martha Griffiths.
- Griffiths Leadership Society
Established in 2005, the Griffiths Leadership Society connects an influential and dynamic group of women through mentorship and networking.
- The Center for Legislative Archives
The Center for Legislative Archives, a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, preserves and makes available to researchers the historical records of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
- University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library
The Bentley Historical Library collects the materials for and promotes the study of the histories of two great, intertwined institutions, the State of Michigan and the University of Michigan. The Bentley Historical Libraries houses the personal and congressional papers of Martha Wright Griffiths.
- Wayne State University Library System
This website contains the combined digital collections of Wayne State University Special Collections and the Walter P. Reuther Library, including several images of Martha Griffiths.