The Magazine

Nixon’s Women

A champion of gender equality gets some credit.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

While he couldn’t resist exaggerating a little for effect, the longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer had a point when he observed that, all too often, great movements “start as a cause, evolve into a business, and end up a racket.” Consider three of the major social crusades that reshaped modern America: trade unionism, the civil rights movement, and women’s rights. Each shares a common trajectory, beginning as a visionary but clear-cut moral striving for simple justice, then overcoming enormous odds to achieve most or all of its original, commendable goals—only to morph into something very different from the high ideals of its pioneers.

Photo of Richard Nixon and Consumer Affairs Adviser Virginia Knauer

Richard Nixon and Consumer Affairs Adviser Virginia Knauer (right), 1969

Bettmann / Corbis

A Matter of Simple Justice is a story drawn from the early, heroic phase of the drive for women’s rights, and one that has been shamefully neglected by those latter-day feminist leaders who (like many of today’s union and civil rights activists) are more interested in pursuing a far-left political agenda than in serving the interests of the people they claim to represent. Much of the action takes place in the Nixon White House, which may also explain why this particular story hasn’t become part of politically correct feminist lore. As a Washington writer and later a member of the Nixon White House staff, I witnessed a lot of it firsthand and had the pleasure of counting several of the key players as friends as well as colleagues.

The story begins on February 6, 1969, at Richard Nixon’s second presidential news conference, when correspondent Vera Glaser, who would become a close friend of mine, asked, “Mr. President, in staffing your administration, you have so far made about 200 high-level cabinet and other policy position appointments, and of these only 3 have gone to women. Can you tell us, sir, whether we can expect a more equitable recognition of women’s abilities, or are we going to remain a lost sex?”

After reportedly rolling his eyes “in a kind of sighing chagrin,” Nixon engaged in a bit of characteristically heavy-handed banter (“Would you be interested in coming into the government?”), paused for a moment, and then added, “Very seriously, I had not known that only three had gone to women, and I shall see that we correct that imbalance very promptly.” And he really did, in a way none of his predecessors, Republican or Democratic, ever had.

Although Franklin Roosevelt had appointed the first woman cabinet member, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, in 1933, his successor Harry Truman was quoted as saying that women’s rights were “a lot of hooey” and never followed up on FDR’s example. Dwight Eisenhower named a woman, Oveta Culp Hobby, secretary of the newly formed Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953, and appointed more women to senior posts requiring Senate confirmation than his predecessor, Truman, or his successor, John Kennedy. But that was about it.

As for Kennedy, while Washington natives like myself were long aware of his informal efforts to recruit female talent while in the White House, most of them were confined to invitations to late-night, impromptu parties held when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy was out of town. JFK did establish the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women; ironically, it is best remembered for “proclaiming motherhood to be the major role of America’s women.” Lyndon Johnson—obsessed with Vietnam and his egomaniacal desire to fashion a Great Society in his own image—had little time or interest to expend on women’s issues.

So it could be said that journalist Vera Glaser, more than any political operative, jumpstarted the first major breakthrough for across-the-board, senior-level female participation in government at that early Nixon press conference. In the weeks and months that followed, the predictable behind-the-scenes tussles took place among administration power players, some hostile to, some friendly to, and many if not most previously unfocused on the issue. Some of the latter, notably presidential counselors Arthur Burns, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Bryce Harlow, and senior aide Peter Flanigan, were won over after being presented with the facts by Glaser, Rep. Florence Dwyer (R-N.J.), and others. Even first lady Pat Nixon weighed in, asking Glaser for a list of prominent woman attorneys and jurists for possible consideration on the Supreme Court.

The result: At a July 9 cabinet meeting, “President Nixon requested those present to place qualified women in high-level positions in the administration as a first step to correcting the imbalance.” On October 1, the President’s Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities was announced, and one of its private sector members was the “little lady who had started it all,” Vera Glaser. She would play a key role in writing its report, which went to the president in December. Many of its recommendations were ignored or pigeonholed, but some of them eventually bore fruit.

Meanwhile, a gradually growing roster of female talent was being recruited for the Nixon White House and throughout the executive branch. A major turning point was reached in April 1971 when a 31-year-old New York bank officer named Barbara Hackman Franklin was appointed staff assistant to the president for executive manpower with a specific focus on recruiting qualified women. Backed by presidential directives and White House heavy hitters like Fred Malek, Franklin performed heroically, bringing over 100 more women into executive government positions. 

If that number sounds puny by today’s standards, it was almost four times more than in any previous administration.

A Matter of Simple Justice traces the struggle, first with a narrative history by Penn State librarian emeritus Lee Stout, who launched the oral history project that, thanks to the tireless fieldwork of another pioneer careerwoman, Jean Rainey, generated in-depth interviews of more than 50 principal participants. The history section is followed by a collection of thoroughly annotated excerpts from the interviews themselves. The result is a primary source that will prove invaluable to future historians and, more immediately, a corrective to the standard leftist-feminist line prevalent in academia and the popular culture. Just in the nick of time, too;  many of the interviewees, including “founding mother” Vera Glaser, consumer advocate Virginia Knauer, and Ambassador Anne Armstrong, died before publication.

Another of those interviewed who is no longer with us was the first woman appointed to a regular White House staff position as a presidential speechwriter. Her name was Vera Hirschberg and, as it happened, she and I both started work at the White House on the same June day in 1972, meeting  Nixon for the first time together and taking up office space next to each other. She and her late husband, Peter, became lifelong friends, for which you might say I have Barbara Franklin’s female executive outreach program to thank. Others, like Franklin herself, Ann McLaughlin Korologos, and Elizabeth Dole, went on to high office in later years as cabinet members and senators, and to occupy other posts of distinction. And they did it through merit and without losing the womanly qualities that brought a fresh and much-needed feminine sensibility to the traditionally male-dominated field of government.

In short, they were women—and Americans—of whom we could all be proud. All of us, that is, except for a certain kind of radical feminist whose goal was once summed up by that terrible old Marxist termagant, the late New York Democratic congresswoman Bella Abzug: “Our struggle today,” she once brazenly declared, “is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”

What a far cry from the brave, brilliant, and unashamedly female pioneers commemorated in this useful volume. As Julie Nixon Eisenhower says of one of them (Republican National Committee co-chairman, and later ambassador, Anne Armstrong), Richard Nixon thought she “was the best kind of representative for the party because she was always a lady and always so charming, but she was smart and articulate and this is exactly what we need today for women.” Julie added, “I don’t think you need to sacrifice being the lady who can bring all those wonderful graces into a job as well as the brains and the drive.”

Bella Abzug, wherever you are, eat your heart out.

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.