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Marion Martin of Maine
A Mother of Republican Women

by Jo Freeman

Published in Maine Sunday Telegram, May 14, 2000, City Edition, p. C:3.



Among the unsung women who should be remembered on Mother's Day is the woman most responsible for creation of the National Federation of Republican Women. "A giant in her field" was how former Governor John Reed described Marion Martin, who served her state as Commissioner of Labor from 1947 to until her retirement in 1972.
Marion E. Martin had no children of her own, but she put together a national organization of Republican women's clubs in 1937 and nursed it for ten years. In 1944 she estimated that she could mobilize one million Republican women through the clubs in her federation. Today its 160,000 members make it the largest organization of political party women in the country, whose presence will be pervasive at the Republican National Convention this August.
Martin spent her life in politics, where she was known for her thorough preparation and distinctive hats. Merton Henry, a long-time Republican activist who knew her as a child could see her potential even then. She was "a pioneer for women in politics" he said recently, who inherited her commitment to public service from her mother. Florence McLaughlin Martin worked for numerous causes and thought her daughter would make a fine legislator. In 1930, soon after graduating from Wellesley College, Miss Martin was elected to the Maine House. She served two terms there and two in the Senate.
To better do her job Martin took courses at the University of Maine between legislative sessions. When she found herself chairing the Senate's legal affairs committee -- the first non lawyer to do so -- she commuted to Yale to take classes in the law school. There, one of her professors recruited her to work for the Republican National Committee.
After the 1936 Roosevelt landslide there were only 89 Republicans in the U.S. House, 16 in the U.S. Senate, and six Republican Governors. In only a few years the Republican Party had gone from the majority party to one that could barely qualify as serious opposition. The new RNC Chairman, John D. M. Hamilton, decided to rebuild it into a "loyal opposition," with regular funding, professional staff, and an ongoing program. In 1937 he asked the new National Committeewoman from Maine to become the assistant chairman for women's activities with the task of organizing Republican women.
Republican women's clubs had been campaigning for their party for over fifty years, but they went their own way and did not co-ordinate their work. After meeting with the other National Committeewomen, Martin put together the National Federation of Women's Republican Clubs (NFWRC), with herself at its head and invited the existing clubs to join. Within a year clubs with 100,000 members had affiliated.
For the next ten years Martin cultivated the Federation, traveling widely, writing pamphlets, and creating a structure through which every Republican woman who wanted to work could find a place in the party. She saw the clubs as a training ground for Republican women, teaching them political skills even while it put them to work for Republican candidates. By 1946, her federation had 400,000 members through its clubs.
Although not a feminist, she used her position to lobby for women, urging Republican governors to appoint them to state offices, pushing state parties to give them more seats to national conventions, and urging women to run for office. In 1945 she told the RNC that "there are in many instances at the present time a seething and a boiling on the part of the women because they feel they have been given the doorbell ringing jobs to do, but are never given a voice."
In the next November elections the Republican Party gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928. The new RNC Chairman, Carroll Reece, fired Marion Martin. According to one report he "walked into Miss Martin's office" and said: "You have enemies on the committee. I want harmony here; I will appreciate it if you would sever your connection with us as rapidly as possible." While Martin never publicly gave a reason for her sudden departure, she appeared to be casualty of the GOP's faction fights.
Admired for her organizational skills in both parties, Martin was proposed to President Truman for appointment to the Federal Communications Commission, which had to be bipartisan. However, the Director of the Democratic Women's Division, India Edwards, vetoed her because she didn't want Truman's first female appointee to be a Republican.
Instead Martin returned to Maine, becoming Commissioner of Labor. She earned a reputation for her innovative approach to labor problems and the respect of both industry and organized labor, Democrats as well as Republicans. "She was unique for her time and place," Merton said. He described her as "an exceedingly gracious and intelligent lady."
In the meantime, her creation did not take lightly to the removal of its founding mother. After Martin was fired, the NFWRC began to cut the umbilical cord of the RNC. In 1952, it reorganized and renamed itself the National Federation of Republican Women (NFRW), with its own elected President and Board of Directors.

 


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