Today’s guest post was written by Barbara Hackman Franklin, former White House staff member for the recruitment of women and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce. The story of how Franklin and other women cracked the glass ceiling is finally told in a new book that draws from “A Few Good Women,” an oral history project at the Penn State University Libraries. The National Archives will host a special program to launch A Matter of Simple Justice: The Untold Story of Barbara Hackman Franklin and A Few Good Women on March 8.
The Nixon administration is remembered for many things, but advancing women’s roles in the workforce is usually not one of them. Yet in August 1972, Newsweek wrote that “the person in Washington who has done the most for the women’s movement may be Richard Nixon.”
Here is what happened.
First, on April 21, 1971, President Nixon issued a Memorandum for Cabinet Secretaries and Agency Heads outlining the administration’s new women’s initiative. The President called on all departments and agencies to create action plans to hire, promote, and advance women. Specifically, the plans had to address appointing more women to top-level positions, increasing the number of women in mid-level positions as well as on advisory boards and commissions.
This Presidential directive wasn’t just for show. It required specific targets and action plans to increase the numbers of women by year’s end. The President required the plans to be submitted to him in May along with the name of the person in the department charged with the implementation of these new plans.
Government officials back then had a lot on their plates—as they do today—and quite frankly, advancing women would not have been a top priority. However, the President’s requirement of targets, action plans, deadlines, and specific names was a crucial element in the success of this effort.
The second component of the initiative was the creation of my position in Presidential Personnel on the White House staff. This was a first. I was tasked to recruit women for high-level jobs, to build a talent bank of women, and to monitor progress by departments and agencies. I spent a great deal of time working with the departments and agencies to develop the action plans and help with implementation. I made speeches throughout the country and worked with women’s groups to identify potential appointees and worked to bring them into government.
The third element of the plan was the appointment of Jayne Baker Spain as the Vice Chairman of the Civil Service Commission to watch over the advancement of women in the Career Services.
The President’s initiative worked.
Before the end of 1971, we had exceeded our goal of doubling the numbers of women in policy-making positions and instead had tripled them, from 36 to 105. Many were jobs women had never held before—the “breakthroughs.”
For example, Helen Delich Bentley was the first woman Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Marina Whitman was the first woman member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Dixy Lee Ray was the first woman Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Women became generals and admirals. In addition, nearly 1,100 more women were placed in mid-level positions. For the first time women became sky marshals, tug boat captains, FBI agents, and forest rangers. Nearly 400 women joined advisory boards and commissions.
Despite the progress made since 1971, there is still more to do to maximize the contribution of women in leadership roles in our government. However, we also know that this Presidential initiative and the pioneering of a few good women 40 years ago opened the floodgates and made a difference.