Tracking Feminism, From Inside Nixon's Administration

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Aug. 22 2013 1:40 PM

Tracking Feminism, From Inside Nixon's Administration

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Yesterday, the Nixon Presidential Library released the last of the tapes from the President’s hidden office recorder. Along with the 340 hours of tape, the Library also opened 30,000 pages of documents, including the office files of Nixon’s Staff Assistant Barbara Franklin, who headed the President’s program to recruit women for high-level government positions.

In this 1971 memo, sent to her supervisor Fred Malek and to Jeb Magruder, a Nixon political advisor, Franklin reported on the tenor of a meeting she witnessed from the podium.

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At the opening session of the Interstate Association of Commissions on the Status of Women, Franklin and a number of other women working within the administration gave speeches. But it was the speech by Betty Friedan—author, as Franklin reminded her readers, of The Feminine Mystique, and founder of the National Organization for Women—that seemed to Franklin to be worthy of special report.

Franklin sketched Friedan’s talking points, noting that the activist spoke in a general way about women being “tired of working to elect men to office – men who don’t represent them.” She also reported Friedan’s specific criticisms of the administration, noting that Friedan attacked their record on the very issue Franklin had been hired to address: “Appointing 38 women to high-level positions…out of how many thousand positions? It’s nothing!”

Franklin made sure that her readers knew that the audience—“not radical feminists, but ‘establishment’ women who are deeply concerned and very restless”—applauded and applauded at every turn. “I’m absolutely convinced that the ‘women’s issue’ is gathering momentum,” Franklin concluded. “We should be listening and thinking!!”

Nixon, who had a documented personal antipathy for women’s groups, was nonetheless quite canny about the political capital to be gained from their growing mobilization. Besides appointing Franklin and supporting her efforts to bring women into the administration, he supported the expansion of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and directed the Office of Federal Contract Compliance to add sex discrimination to its remit.

In the spring before the 1972 election, Nixon signed Title IX into law. In that election, his share of the female vote was 14 percentage points larger than his rival’s.