Historian and Pat Nixon biographer Heath Lee and former Nixon White House staffer Barbara Franklin discussed the evolving role of women in public service as a part of the White House Historical Association’s virtual programming. Hosted by Colleen Shogan, Senior Vice President and Director of the David M. Rubenstein Center for White House History, the conversation focused on President Nixon’s initiative to bring more women into leadership roles in the federal government, including the influential roles that Pat Nixon and other prominent women played to promote gender equity in the 1970s.

Secretary Barbara Franklin served as the 29th U.S. Secretary of Commerce for President George H.W. Bush but her career in government began in 1971 when she led the first White House effort to recruit women for high-level government jobs.

Heath Lee set the context of the feminism during the years of the Nixon administration. She credits a White House press conference in 1969 as a turning point. This is when female reporter Vera Glaser asked “Mr. President, in staffing your administration, you have so far made about 200 high-level Cabinet and other policy position appointments, and only three have gone to women. Can you tell, us, sir, whether we can expect more equitable recognition fo women’s abilities, or are we going to remain a lost sex?” This question became the push that led the Nixon administration to making unprecedented progress in the women’s movement. 

Barbara Franklin was appointed staff assistant in April 1971 and charged with fulfilling  President Nixon’s goal to double the number of women in policy making jobs in one year. He also sent a memo to agency and department heads in the federal government asking them to send back a plan of how to progress women in their agencies and departments. Franklin recalled that there was a cultural change that started. “It’s wonderful to look at the numbers but what was really changing was attitudes.” The government established an example that led other organizations, both public and private, to advance women.

The conversation included a look at First Lady Pat Nixon’s role in progressing women’s equality. She was a self-made woman who was clear that women should be part of the administration, even supporting appointing a female Supreme Court nominee. Nixon’s two daughters, who were in their 20s at the time, also encouraged and supported efforts to advance women.

The efforts of the Nixon administration laid the groundwork that continues to be built upon today. Lee remarked that “this is when the floodgates open and things change dramatically” for women. Secretary Franklin concluded, “It’s a climb. We have to keep climbing. That’s my message, particularly for young women. The forward momentum is something we need to keep going.”

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