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The ‘Southern Lady’ Who Beat the Courthouse Crowd

The ‘Southern Lady’ Who Beat the Courthouse Crowd
The ‘Southern Lady’ Who Beat the Courthouse Crowd

In 1976, a little southern lady “dressed like a fairy princess”—as she later recounted the moment—stepped to the microphone at a shareholder meeting in Boston and lavishly praised the chair of W. R. Grace & Co. for his commitment to preserving her community. Rae Ely knew perfectly well this was a lie; W. R. Grace was planning to strip-mine for vermiculite in her bucolic Virginia town. In fact, the whole “southern lady” thing was a bit of a lie. But Ely, who had fought the scheme for years, was prepared to use every tool at her disposal to stop the plan, whether eye-catching outfits that captured the attention of the news cameras or entirely unearned flattery.

The crowd stood and cheered. The board chair soaked in the applause. And Ely—determined to demonstrate that W. R. Grace had more to gain from goodwill than from vermiculite—had made her point.

This article has been adapted from Balogh’s new book.

Many at the time dismissed the activism of women like Ely—the press, their opponents, even their own allies. That was the case for the Putnam Valley, New York, woman, who had worked for 40 years to save enough money to build a house that was suddenly threatened by highway construction. The New York Times identified her only as Mrs. Arthur Kinoy, and described her as “peppery.” Michelle Madoff was another “peppery” housewife living in the middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, who led a local movement in 1969 to improve air quality.

Behind the adjectives—peppery, feisty, hysterical—lurked a shared assumption that these were women out of place, that they didn’t belong in the realm of politics or public policy, a space still dominated by elite white men. But in the 1970s, a wave of political neophytes including Ely successfully challenged that. Although their brand of activism is today usually labeled NIMBYism—“Not in my back yard”—when these middle-class white women spoke out in defense of their communities, they expanded the space for political participation in ways that would have lasting consequences.

* * *

Rae Ely was an unlikely political pioneer. She was born in Miami in 1941, and was 5 when her mother was killed in a traffic accident. Her father captained yachts for unsavory characters, including, it was rumored, Al Capone. She was raised by a series of her father’s girlfriends and wives. But her father could be a mean drunk, so the state of Florida removed Rae from her home in the spring of 1954. She was placed in foster care, and a few years later shipped off to a high school for girls in distress in Thomasville, Georgia. When Rae turned 18, she graduated from (or aged out of) the Vashti Industrial School for Girls and took a job at a local business.

In 1962, Rae learned that Colonel Hiram Ely, the husband of a recently deceased Dachshund breeder, was seeking an appropriate mate for his wife’s dogs. She showed up at his house in Flemington, New Jersey, along with the two candidates. Hiram’s two-century-old manor house—its dozens of acres of land, its horses, its Dachshunds—all seemed magical to Rae. She married Hiram that same year, despite their half-century difference in age. As New York City’s exurban sprawl crept closer, the Elys sought safe harbor. In 1967 they moved to Louisa County, Virginia, an impoverished rural backwater whose seat a county supervisor described as “a one-horse town … and the horse died in 1936.”

At the time, Rae knew nothing about politics; when they moved to Virginia, she didn’t know if she and Hiram were Democrats or Republicans. That all changed on a spring night in 1970. Rae and Hiram had settled down to catch the news on their big Magnavox television set. That’s how they learned about the “facility”—a well-intentioned diagnostic center designed to evaluate every convicted felon in Virginia in the service of rehabilitation—that Governor Linwood Holton was planning to build across the road from their house. Stunned, Rae looked to Hiram: “What are you going to do about this?”

A good military man, Hiram took preemptive action and within hours had assumed a prominent role in organizing the resistance. It was the women’s job to make calls, spread the word, take notes, and host fundraising events. Rae was no different in this regard than the other women involved.

That changed, however, when Hiram’s approach, which he called “fighting like a gentleman,” failed to stop Governor Holton’s plans. Rae took matters into her own hands. When she first met with a lawyer at a prestigious law firm, she later told me, he laughed at her. “I don’t think that there is any way in the world you all are going to get anywhere with that case,” he chuckled. “Don’t you know you can’t fight city hall?” Rae was left with the impression that he thought “this was the … silliest thing he had ever heard of.”

Rae found another lawyer. She soon superseded Hiram as the spokesperson for the prison opponents, emerging as the chief strategist for the association, spearheading both fundraising and publicity. She then tackled lobbying—not only elected officials but also high-level bureaucrats at the EPA and Department of the Interior.

At each step, Ely and her female allies confronted challenges to their legitimacy. Despite making well-researched and evidence-based appeals at hearings, for instance, the women were often charged with being “too emotional.”

A sympathetic reporter once wrote that “two women wept” after a ruling went against them. “I know I didn’t cry,” Ely later told me. “I think I was fuming mad.” She suspected the reporter had thought “it would appeal more to the reader to have me crying.”

The courthouse crowd—the county officials who were not used to being challenged—was not as subtle. “Why they’re nothing but a bunch of frustrated women,” Louisa County’s administrator told The Washington Post. “Historical Society now? I call it the Hysterical Society.” Nor was he pleased with the methods employed by Ely’s group. “We can’t even conduct a meeting down here anymore without them and their tape recorders and their yak yak yak.”

Ely made up for her lack of political knowledge with a powerful will, a keen capacity for learning, and a knack for long-term strategy. The fight against the facility was so prolonged that the Post labeled it “Holton’s Vietnam.” But Ely won.

And the prison fight was only the beginning. After Holton, Ely tangled with other powerful men who, in her opinion, threatened to destroy the unique rural character of her neighborhood—lowering the value of her property—and her rights as a fully empowered citizen. Her struggle with the multinational mining conglomerate W. R. Grace & Co. was her second battle, and it lasted even longer than the prison fight. She won again. Along the way, Ely and her allies established the first national historic landmark to be honored explicitly for preserving rural history.

Creating the Green Springs National Historic Landmark District was all the more remarkable because nobody in Louis County’s political establishment believed that Green Springs had any history. The district’s own supervisor told Time magazine, “Virginia is full of old houses like that.” The majority of the county’s voters vigorously supported the courthouse crowd’s agenda: protecting the privilege of the white men who ran it, safeguarding property rights, prioritizing economic development, and, most of all, keeping the federal government out of the county’s business.

Ely engaged the full range of political venues directly—mass meetings, petitioning, lobbying distant federal agencies, litigating in federal courts—to overcome this stacked deck. By 1980, local land-use policy in her Green Springs neighborhood was shared with the federal government and with a nonprofit organization led by Ely and powered by female citizen activists.

Rae Ely was able to navigate multiple obstacles to accomplish something remarkable, but the barriers to entry that she overcame still loom large for many others. It is not hard to imagine the challenges faced by those with fewer financial resources or social connections, or by those contending with racial discrimination. But Ely’s story demonstrates the importance of welcoming a wider array of voices into the institutions of participatory democracy—even, or perhaps especially, when we strongly disagree with their objectives.

This article has been adapted from Brian Balogh’s new book, Not in My Backyard: How Citizen Activists Nationalized Local Politics in the Fight to Save Green Springs.

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