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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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.