Monday, February 28, 2011

A Transformative First Lady

Thoughtful reflections on Pat Nixon's place in the women's movement from Mary C. Brennan, author of the new book Pat Nixon: Embattled First Lady:

For many women of Pat’s generation, feminism seemed confusing, threatening and insulting. Many had worked their whole lives, not just as wives and mothers, but outside the home. They had not seen themselves as oppressed. They were proud of their accomplishments as wives and mothers. These women related to Pat’s loyalty to her husband and daughters, and her appreciation of their unpaid labor for good causes.

Pat was not unsympathetic to the feminist camp, however. She lobbied her husband to appoint a woman Supreme Court justice and gave him the silent treatment when he failed to listen to her advice. She quietly voiced her support for the ERA. Pat pushed even the limits of fashion: she was the first First Lady to appear in public in pants. Importantly, her career as her husband’s representative to foreign countries such as Venezuela and Ghana established a precedent for future First Ladies.

Pat’s low-key actions were not enough to please the feminists, who characterized her as the epitome of the suppressed wife who did her husband’s bidding. What they overlooked was her choice to adopt the job of political wife and her efforts to expand that position. Housewives around the country who supported her and feminists who disparaged her efforts did not realize the part she was playing in transforming women’s place in American political life.

Hat tip to Maarja Krusten

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