On October 16, Virginia H. Knauer died at her home in Washington; only late last week did obituaries start to appear from coast to coast noting her passing.  Ms. Knauer had a long and distinguished career, which had among its highlights the fact that, from 1969 until Carla Hills became the third woman to join the Cabinet in 1975, she was the highest-ranking woman in the executive branch of the Federal government – and thus the highest-ranking woman throughout the Nixon Administration, serving as the President’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs and, simultaneously, director of the United States Office of Consumer Affairs.
In the twenty-first century that may not seem like a prominent position for a woman to hold in the White House, but when Ms. Knauer arrived there in April of 1969, in an age when the word “feminism” was almost synonymous in the public mind with bra-burning rallies outside high-fashion stores and beauty pageants, it was rather big news.   At that time there had been only two female Cabinet members: Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor, and Oveta Culp Hobby who served as Secretary of what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the first years of the Eisenhower Administration.  Esther Peterson had been the highest-ranking woman in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations – serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor under JFK, then holding the same consumer-affairs position under LBJ that Ms. Knauer later had. 

Over on Capitol Hill, when Ms. Knauer came to town, exactly nine women sat among the 435 members of the House of Representatives.  Margaret Chase Smith from Maine was the only woman who sat in the Senate chamber. Since her election in 1948 only three other women had ever joined her there – none for a full term.   Three women had served as Governors of states – all of them the wives of men who had been Governors.  But in 1969 all fifty Governors were male.

During the Nixon and Ford years, Virginia Knauer was addressed as Mrs.; in the Reagan Administraton, as Ms.  This goes some way toward showing how things changed during the twenty-year period she worked at the Federal level.  But when she started her career, she was Miss Virginia Harrington Wright, a Philadelphian who studied fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, then spent a year polishing her portrait-painting technique in Florence before going back to the Keystone State.  In 1940, she married Wilhelm Knauer, a lawyer, and settled down to raising a daughter, practicing her art, and breeding prizewinning Doberman pinschers.

But in 1952 her life changed when she campaigned for Dwight D. Eisenhower, and through the rest of the decade she became steadily more involved with local Republican politics, finally winning election to the Philadelphia City Council in 1959.  Eight years later she was appointed director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, holding this office until she was asked to come to Washington. 

It was not long before she made a strong public impression, tangling with Secretary of Agriculture Clifford Hardin over the permissible fat content of hot dogs.  Hardin wanted a limit of 33 percent;  Ms. Knauer wanted 30 percent.  As narrow as that difference may seem in today’s age of fat-free frankfurters, it was seen as a significant victory for consumers when RN, always calorie-conscious in his personal diet, took his Consumer Affairs advisor’s side in the controversy and she prevailed.

During the next eight years under both Nixon and Ford, Ms. Knauer made a continuing impact on the American consumer’s lifestyle.  Although the Office of Consumer Affairs had no real regulatory powers and its director was unsuccessful in her efforts to make it a Cabinet-level agency, she became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill during many appearances before House and Senate committees, tirelessly arguing the case for more comprehensive and better-worded warranties and warning labels; improved quality in food and household products; and recycling of metal, paper and plastic products, making her one of the earliest and most eloquent champions of the ecological side of consumerism in Washington.  She traveled across America making countless speeches to educators, legislators, and civic organizations, promoting those causes and urging greater efforts in bringing consumer education into school curriculums.  

For the first four years of Ms. Knauer’s time in the White House her top aide was a young North Carolinian lawyer named Elizabeth “Liddy” Hanford.   In 1972, Ms. Knauer introduced her assistant to Senator Bob Dole, who in that long-ago time still mainly went by the name Robert; three years later, the two married.  Elizabeth Dole went on to a spectacular career as Secretary of Transportaton, Senator, and Presidential contender.   Last week she said of the woman for whom she worked forty years ago:

“Virginia Knauer was the great inspiration in my life and career, a best friend, wise mentor . . . [a] dedicated public servant and lifelong advocate for consumer protection.”

Speaking with a reporter from the Washington Post in 1970, Virginia Knauer – this was the year before Ms. magazine was founded – was asked her opinion about what the media still liked to call “women’s lib.”  She answered: “I’ve been a feminist for twenty years and I’m all for advancing women in public office.”  In the years from the Truman to the Obama Administrations, she saw enormous advances for her gender in every field of American life – and she herself played a considerable part in making them happen, by the example she set.