Today is International Women’s Day, and as part of the celebration of Women’s History Month, I know today will be filled with blogs, tweets and stories here in the U.S. and around the world, recounting great moments in women’s history and great leaders who helped advance the rights and opportunities for women. I will have the honor of leading a discussion later today with a remarkable woman, Barbara Hackman Franklin, who was in the Class of 1964 at Harvard Business School—the first graduating class that included women. In researching Barbara’s own history of contributions to our nation, I came across a story I had never heard, despite my lifelong passion for history, and I thought it was one that needed to be shared, especially in midst of this election year. In many ways this story reminds us not just of the important role our nation’s leaders play, but also the role and the power of a single, unexpected voice.
When we think of great champions for women throughout history, chances are most people would not even think to include Richard Nixon in the list. And so it may be surprising to some to learn that in August of 1972, Newsweek heralded that “the person in Washington who has done the most for the women’s movement may be Richard Nixon.” I was quite surprised to come across this statement, and my guess is, you may be, too. Unfortunately, the Watergate scandal and resulting resignation means that President Nixon is rarely given credit for the important role he played in advancing the role of women in government. Nor is appropriate credit given to two women who had a crucial part in his efforts—Vera Glaser and Barbara Hackman Franklin.
But before I get to their stories, it is important to note the rich history of efforts in the 20th Century to empower women in America—particularly within and through government—that helped pave the path for Nixon’s actions.
It was thirteen years after the passage of the 19th Amendment when President Franklin Roosevelt named the first female cabinet member, Frances Perkins, as Secretary of Labor. In 1961, President Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Incremental and steady progress for women’s rights continued, with the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 further advancing women’s rights in the workforce.
But when President Richard Nixon was sworn into office in January 1969, an important step forward for women was set into motion. He had only been in office for a month when, at a press conference, a hand shot up from the third row by a female reporter, Vera Glaser. Her question would reverberate far beyond the room: “Mr. President, you have so far made about 200 high-level Cabinet and other policy position appointments, and of these, only three have gone to women. Can you tell us, sir, whether we can expect a more equitable recognition of women’s ability or are we going to remain a lost sex?” At first there was some laughter but the President, composing himself, grew serious and stated, “I had not known that only three had gone to women, and I shall see that we correct that imbalance very promptly.”
Thus began an effort by President Nixon that changed women’s access to high-level appointments in the federal government in a significant way. A White House Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities was formed the following year and Vera Glaser was among its members. In June 1970, the task force released their report appropriately titled “A Matter of Simple Justice,” which advocated for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, the promotion of civil rights and equal opportunity for women, and as an example for society, the advancement of more women to executive positions in the federal government.
A key player in this effort? Barbara Hackman Franklin, who at the time was on the corporate planning staff of the First National City Bank (later Citibank) when she was tapped to come to the White House to lead the ambitious, behind-the-scenes task of implementing Nixon’s directive to the heads of all executive departments and agencies: to develop and implement plans to attract more qualified women to top and mid-level appointments.
Thanks in no small part to Franklin’s tireless efforts, representation of women in federal government was quickly transformed—the number of women in top-level positions tripled after just one year of the White House Women Recruiting Program, which she oversaw. In all, more than 1,000 women were hired or promoted at a time when budget and personnel cuts shrank the federal government by five percent. Many of these women went on to hold additional significant positions in public service—women like Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who served a seven year term to the Federal Trade Commission and was later elected U.S. Senator from North Carolina in 2003, or Carla Hills, Assistant Attorney General, who later became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to President Ford and U.S. Trade Representative to President George H.W. Bush.
As we look at the world in 2016, we can acknowledge that while there has been much progress related to women and access to high level jobs in the government, we still have a lot of work to do to achieve the aspirations that President Nixon pushed for nearly 50 years ago, when he recognized that “The Nation’s many highly qualified women represent an important reservoir of ability and talent that we must draw on to a greater degree.”
Of course, there have been many significant efforts by our nation’s leaders that followed President Nixon—both Democrats and Republicans. While these combined efforts have brought more opportunity for women across sectors, in the public sector—at all levels of government—we continue to strive for more representation.
There are only six current U.S. Governors that are women, and while the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled since 1975, the total number is still less than 25 percent of all of those holding office. For every five members of the House of Representatives, there is one woman. Similar stats hold in the Senate. And while only 48 women have ever held Cabinet-level positions, there is a silver lining: seven women currently serve in President Obama’s Cabinet. If Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, we will have the first female nominee for President by a major political party—that’s progress!
The story of Vera Glaser’s honest question before a sitting President, combined with the tireless work that Barbara Franklin led in the Nixon Administration, reminds us that progress often comes when diverse voices are heard. In this case, it was one fearless question and a President’s willingness to entertain it that led to dramatic changes. Imagine if the press conference itself hadn’t allowed women, or if the President had simply chosen to overlook them when he called for questions from the journalists who were assembled. How might history have been rewritten?
On this International Women’s Day, in a Presidential election year, we celebrate the often unsung role of President Nixon, Vera Glaser, Barbara Franklin and so many others in advancing the significant role of women in government, and as a result, advancing the representation of women’s voices everywhere.
Photo courtesy of http://bhfranklin.com/.