How the Nixon Administration Tried to Woo Women

It turns out that the Republican strategy on women in the 1970s was about as nimble as "binders full of women."
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Richard Nixon with his wife, Pat, and daughters, Tricia and Julie (Derrick Bostrom/flickr)

In the run-up to the 1972 presidential election, the Republican Party had a "woman problem" -- or at least, that's what staffers in the Nixon Administration believed. Previously confidential memos released on Wednesday by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum give a glimpse of top staffers' anxiety about attracting woman voters. As Barbara Franklin, who was in charge of recruiting more women to high-level positions in government, put it, "Polls show we're in trouble with women voters. We simply cannot afford a mistake!" The challenge was clear, she said. "We need to create the image that women are very important to the Republican Party."

As it turns out, Franklin later became an important Republican figure herself: She served as the U.S. secretary of commerce under George H.W. Bush. But before she was a cabinet-level official, she was the unofficial ambassador to the White House from the women's liberation movement. "I had an interesting experience today," she wrote to Fred Malek, a special assistant to Nixon, on June 18, 1971. She had just spoken at a conference about the status of women in politics, and about 100 women were there -- "'establishment' women," she called them.

And then something radical happened: Betty Friedan spoke.

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Note Franklin's commentary on the crowd's growing reaction below.

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What Franklin was surprised by, she said, was that regular women who represented government commissions could get so riled up about women's equality.

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All images courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Library

In another memo, Franklin went on to suggest a number of measures the Nixon Administration could take to court female voters, including a comprehensive plan to involve women in the 1972 Republican National Convention. Her tips:

Select women to serve as chairman of four or more on the platform sub-committee. This representation of women is absolutely vital! (Only one woman sub-committee chairman will be labeled "Tokenism"!)

The first lady is a precious commodity! Convention events involving Mrs. Nixon should enhance her new prestige -- and not pull her back down into "women's events" which could appear too frivolous or mundane. (Let's hope we do not have any frivolous or mundane events for women!)

Additionally, we should do all we can to minimize inadvertent and unconscious comments and activities which could undo the image we are trying to project, i.e., great commotion when a woman speaks, men making jokes about 'Women's Lib.,' and so on.

It's hard not to detect a bit of sarcasm in some of her advice. "Wild idea of the week: Nominate a woman for Vice President," she added near the end of the memo.

Franklin's general frustration with government attitudes toward women was particularly keen in a memo to Lucy Winchester, the White House Social Secretary, about busts of suffragettes Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott being stored in the Capitol crypt. "Perhaps the male chauvinist pigs up on the Hill will let you have all three," she said. "Have I ever been taking grief [for this]..."

But other evidence suggests that the Nixon Administration was wary of mishandling women's issues. In 1971, Malek wrote a memo to top Nixon aide John Erlichman about the Equal Rights Amendment, suggesting the administration should reverse its position and support the ratification efforts. "The dangers inherent in our current position are becoming very clear," he wrote. "Our posture on this issue has seemingly tarnished our activity in other activities of concern to women, i.e., recruiting more women for high-level government posts."

Staffer perspectives on the Nixon Administration have been a source of conversation in the film and media world recently with the release of Our Nixon, a 2013 documentary featuring home movie footage shot by three Nixon staffers. On Thursday, The Atlantic will screen the movie at the Watergate.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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