TJG Spotlight: Elisabeth Griffith

TJG Spotlight: Elisabeth Griffith

Elisabeth Griffith:

Writing History and Making History as a Leader, Activist and Champion of Equal Rights

Acclaimed author, historian and former head of The Madeira School reflects on a life supporting women’s rights, writing about women’s history, and inspiring women to pursue leadership in society.

Growing up in the midwest, Elisabeth Griffith went to a public school where the options for sports for women in a pre-Title IX world were limited, offering only cheerleading and synchronized swimming. Available leadership roles were also sparse, but Griffith led her class successfully as secretary of student government. Nevertheless, Griffith flourished both academically and socially in high school.

After graduating, she had the opportunity to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts, one of the leading all-women institutions in the world. “Wellesley College changed my life,” Griffith said. “With single sex education, I found I was valued for myself, and there were examples of female leadership all around me.” One of those leaders was friend and classmate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Before Wellesley, Griffith said, “I didn’t have the imagination or the exposure to realize that there were other leadership roles for women.”

In Her Own Right book cover

Her initial aspiration after Wellesley was to serve in university leadership. “I wanted to be a college president, and that’s what led me to pursue history.” She had that opportunity to write about history while completing her Ph.D. at American University. Her dissertation was about the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a nineteenth-century leader in the women’s rights movement. Unbeknownst to Griffith, the book was nominated for the prestigious Nevins Prize, given annually to the best-written doctoral dissertation on American history. Ultimately, "In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton" was published to critical acclaim by the Oxford University Press. With that surprise success, “I found that I would much rather write books than lead a university,” Griffith said.

Random House Publishing signed her for a follow-up book about the Equal Rights Amendment. Around the same time, Griffith heard about a head position opening at The Madeira School in Virginia. Now with a young family, she thought it might be time for a change. Even though she had no experience with independent schools, this all-girls private boarding and day school was a great fit. “I had a lot of volunteer and board experience, and my history of raising money for political campaigns was a good fit for school fundraising,” she said. During Griffith’s 22-year tenure as head of the Madeira School, the endowment grew from $5 million to $100 million. “For me, it was easy to ask for money if you're asking for a cause, whether it was women candidates or women schools,” she said.

Formidable book cover

It was during her career at Madeira that she met Jane Maxwell Hulbert from The Jane Group. “I met her early on, attending her sessions at conferences, and loved the joy, energy and smarts that she exudes,” said Griffith. The Madeira School was one of The Jane Group’s first clients, and the relationship with Madeira has endured for decades. 

Hulbert said of The Jane Group’s long association with Griffith, “As a friend and colleague, Betsy Griffith is a force in the best possible way—whip smart, thoughtful, and a brilliant leader. We worked with Betsy through difficult issues over the years and she had great instincts and knew how to manage her team.  It has been my honor to have worked with her.”

Griffith stepped down as head of the Madeira School in 2010, but never retired from fighting for equality. Her second book published in 2022, "Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality," is the history of the efforts of white and Black women to achieve equality over a 100 year span, from 1920 to 2020. Mira Ptacin of The New York Times said of the book, “Griffith delivers a multiracial, inclusive timeline of the struggles and triumphs of both Black and white women in America. A profoundly illuminating tour de force.”  

“We’ve made all kinds of progress. But in some ways we haven't made much progress at all. As has been proven with reproductive rights,” Griffith said. “We just aren’t there yet. So I often share this quote from Coretta Scott King, ‘Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.’” 

—Elisabeth Griffith

As an activist and historian, Griffith reflects on what she’s witnessed over the years, and how far the movement has really advanced in achieving equality. “We’ve made all kinds of progress. But in some ways we haven't made much progress at all. As has been proven with reproductive rights,” Griffith said. “We just aren’t there yet. So I often share this quote from Coretta Scott King, ‘Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.’” 

In looking back on her life and career, despite the different roles she’s had, Griffith sees a continuity. “It all fits together. My entire life relates to women pushing for greater rights or writing their history or teaching and leading female institutions and serving on boards.” And she remains vigilant in her fight. Currently she’s working on her next book, and also writes prolifically on her substack channel, Pink Threads: Snippets of Women's History.


Can I make a difference? If you’re asking that question, Elisabeth Griffith has three simple tips to make change in your own community:

  1. Respect and value every person: Especially today, everyone has differing opinions. But if we treat each other with respect we can also understand their point of view.

  2. Get involved: Whether it’s volunteering at a local soup kitchen, signing a petition that you believe in or writing postcards for a campaign you support, it all counts.

  3. Donate to good causes: In every town there are causes worth supporting, like contributing to providing supplies to households, or helping the homeless. 


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