The Magazine

Nixon’s Women

A champion of gender equality gets some credit.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.
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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.