Mention the name Ruth Griffin to anyone involved in New Hampshire GOP politics, and it elicits a big smile.
Now in her 90s, the feisty Mrs. Griffin has spent decades in public office, serving in the state legislature (rising to the leadership), on various commissions and boards, as a Republican national committeewoman, and for 20 years on the state Executive Council. Last year, her endorsement of Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president made news. Today, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte calls Griffin her mentor.
We spoke with Griffin in her Portsmouth home about her life and her views on women in politics. The following excerpts are lightly edited:
Q: What sparked your interest in politics?
At the age of 3 or 4, I vaguely remember my father taking me to political functions.... Growing up, we always knew who the governor was, and who was mayor of the city, and so it wasn’t anything that I had to take my nursing cap off and put something else on. I was educated by my parents to be aware of my surroundings and my government.
Q: Why did you become a Republican?
When I was in nursing school [in the mid-1940s], my father gave me $1,000 to buy a car. But I didn’t. Eventually, I bought some stock with the money.... My father said, “You sound just like a Republican. You’re making your money work for you.”
Q: When did you decide to run for office?
When my youngest child, Timmy, was 13 years old, I said [to my husband], “Well, John, I’m going to do something besides sit home… I think I’ll run for the legislature.” And he said, “Oh, go ahead.” So he was always very supportive of me.
Q: The state capital is 60 miles away, and service in the legislature pays only $100 a year. Was it hard on your family?
My husband [who was a cemeterian] figured it cost us about $30,000 a year for me to serve. Just wear and tear on my car. And me being away…. But he never complained. I came home every night. Hell, I had 5 kids.
Q: When you were first elected to the House, how were the female members treated?
They expected most women to do the children and health [issues]. I wasn’t all that crazy about that; I wanted to be on Fish and Game and Public Works – the rough-and-ready stuff.... [After my appointment to Public Works], I felt as though I was smarter than most of the old men ... and I think I was very productive on that committee.... I was pro-nuclear, and that meant supporting Seabrook Station.
Q: Did the women work together in a bipartisan “sisterhood”?
Not especially. There were many prominent women legislators ... but to tell you the truth, I never looked at someone as though they were a woman. My own thinking was not all that feminine. I didn’t think of myself as only functioning as a woman, and I think I proved that many times over and over – to the point where at times the men were afraid of me, “Watch out for Mrs. Griffin!” But that’s foolishness.
Q: What is it about New Hampshire that breeds women politicians?
I honestly can’t say.... When I went into the Senate, Vesta Roy was the president.... She did not show any partiality for women. She put people on committees according to their ability to function. It was not any prejudice. I think some of the women in the legislature were a little critical of that, they thought, “Well, Vesta’s there, we’ll get chairman of this or chairman of that.” At that time, there were some pretty powerful women, [such as] Susan McLane – her daughter is now a congresswoman…. But it wasn’t because they were females, and they were wearing skirts instead of trousers. It was because of their ability to function.
Q: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
No, I do not. What is a feminist?
Q: Someone who believes in equality for women?
I don’t believe women are any better than men.
Q: Did you support passage of the Equal Rights Amendment?
Yes. There was no reason not to do it…. We should all have the same rights.
Q: How are you feeling about the Republican Party these days?
The Republican Party in the state of New Hampshire is I think right now in a state of disrepair, like it is in other places.
Q: How do you feel about Hillary Clinton?
I’m a little bit afraid of her.... I think she’s maybe a little erratic.
Q: How do you feel about Donald Trump?
I dunno. I listen to some of what he has to say, and we have a secret ballot in the state of New Hampshire and in the United States of America and I respect that. So I’m not telling you anything.
Q. I didn’t ask.