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Tokens of Presidential Esteem: Women Appointees

The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the failure of equal pay legislation created problems for both Republicans and Democrats in the postwar period, leaving them open to the charge that male politicians didn't care about women voters and didn't appreciate the contribution women had made toward winning the war. Women within the major parties threatened that without some recognition, faithful female party workers would simply desert their posts.

Ever since suffrage had been won in 1920, both the Republican and the Democratic parties had religiously offered something to women. After World War I, the Democrats had created the Women's Bureau, and in 1921 Congress passed legislation setting up maternal and infant health programs. In 1922 a Republican president signed the Cable Act, which permitted American women married to foreign nationals to retain their citizenship as men did, and in 1923 Congress forbade differential pay by sex in the civil service. Both parties had created special women's divisions, and in the 1920 campaign both had adopted platform planks suggested by the newly formed League of Women Voters. As the first decade after women's suffrage wore on however, it became clear that women, riven as they were by class interests and philosophical outlooks, were not going to form a consolidated bloc of voters, and male politicians relaxed. After that, few legislative initiatives spoke directly to women's needs, but in order not to alienate the women who were concerned about women's advancement, presidential administrations assiduously publicized the names and positions of women appointed to federal posts. Franklin Roosevelt, under the guidance


of Democratic politician Molly Dewson, surpassed his predecessors by far: whereas Hoover had appointed three women to significant Senate-confirmed posts in eight years, in twelve years Roosevelt named seventeen.[1]

In the postwar period women's organizations were divided over the Equal Rights Amendment, a reflection of the nation's general ambivalence toward equality for women. The equal pay bill was stalemated, caught in the backwash of both the ERA battle and the divisions between Republicans and Democrats, business and labor forces. Women's organizations with divergent political objectives remained united on only one point: the need to have women in policy-making positions. Appointments offered an easy way out of the policy dilemma—and the first two postwar presidents eagerly took that route.

The strategy had many advantages. "Policy-making" appointments for women evinced concern for women as voters without the ugly prospect of waging a campaign for controversial legislation or choosing sides among women's organizations. Moreover, because each president could usually work his will on the subject of appointments, it was possible to obtain this objective expeditiously. Finally, appointments represented the premier item on the agenda of the women to whom the two presidents were closest: the heads of the women's divisions of the major parties. Truman and Eisenhower each had close ties to his party's national committee, and party women considered high-level positions for deserving qualified female candidates essential. By proxy, these appointments served as encouragement and reward for the campaign work of thousands of loyal women in local precincts whose efforts were becoming more important with each election.

Women's organizations, despite their disputes over other matters, agreed unanimously on the desirability of increasing the number of women in higher government positions. Women in public office, women leaders argued, would represent women's interests, show that deserving women could attain opportunities commensurate with their abilities, offer examples to other employers that women performed admirably in responsible jobs, and make available to the nation the wisdom that educated and talented women possessed.[2] At a June 1944 conference


called by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and held at the White House, two hundred women leaders had asked specifically that women be appointed as delegates to international conferences and as members of national policy-making bodies. Women's organizations undertook the development of rosters to ensure that "qualified" women would be visible, and Roosevelt herself continued to call attention to this demand, writing to the new president, Harry Truman, and to his associates that women's loyalty to the Democratic party depended on these rewards.[3]

The chairman of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee, Gladys Tillett, also wrote to Truman: "We should like," she reminded him, "to have women serve on all of the Peace Conferences which are to be held." She urged Truman that appointment of women to positions of power in the government would "establish the fact that the president is interested in matters pertaining to women."[4] Truman did not, however, take much of Tillett's advice. In fact, his appointment record of women in the term he served out as Franklin Roosevelt's successor was undistinguished: from 1945 to 1948 he appointed only three women to important Senate-confirmed posts;[5] Roosevelt had appointed thirteen women to such posts during his first three years in office.

But once India Edwards assumed Tillett's post in 1948, the number of female appointments jumped. Tillett had lacked effectiveness with Truman for two reasons: Truman saw her as a member of Roosevelt's team, and he felt no particular attachment to her or her proposals; and Tillett's suggestions for appointments were vague—a list of names of women she would ask the president to "consider."

Edwards, in contrast, had been a strong supporter of Truman even when FDR was president. Moreover, Edwards had pursued the course of finding a highly qualified woman for almost every available position and then making a specific pitch to the president on that candidate's behalf. She thus made it easy for Truman to fulfill her requests.[6]

India Edwards had begun her professional career as a journalist on the editorial staff of the Chicago Tribune, where she worked from 1918 until 1942. But when she left Chicago and moved with her husband to Washington during World War II, she gave up


journalism and began to work as a volunteer at the Women's Division of the DNC. She became the division's executive secretary in 1945 and, in early 1948, its executive director. Edwards's assertive demeanor, coupled with her political know-how, elicited admiration from many of her colleagues, although others, put off by her "unladylike" behavior, called her a "battle-ax." Democratic party women, however, enthusiastically described her as powerful.[7]

Edwards had been a longtime Truman backer. During the 1944 campaign she was one of the few DNC workers who always included the vice-president's name in speeches and publicity materials. In 1948, then director of the Women's Division, Edwards was one of the few campaign workers who thought Truman would pull off the election. In support she organized campaign schools for women volunteers, "Housewives for Truman" trailers, a series of radio shows, and the distribution of many thousands of guidebooks, fliers, platforms, and voting records. Truman, who inherited an administration devoted to his predecessor, clearly appreciated her loyalty. When William M. Boyle, Jr., who coordinated the Truman Whistle-Stop Train, asked Edwards what she wanted as a reward for her work, she replied: "Nothing for myself but a lot of jobs for a lot of women."[8] From 1948 to 1952, Truman's appointment record showed a marked improvement. In addition to naming fifteen Senate-confirmed appointees, he placed two hundred more women in government.[9]

In general, Truman had firm ties to the DNC. Robert Hannegan and J. Howard McGrath, the two committee chairs during his first term, were longtime political associates. But his closest ties were to Edwards, whom he saw more frequently than even McGrath. In 1951 Truman offered the DNC chairmanship to Edwards—a first for a woman in either party—but she declined, believing that the amount of time she would have to spend protecting herself from enemies would hinder her effectiveness.[10]

As the head of the Women's Division, Edwards devised a procedure for getting women into appointment slots that served as a model for her successors. First she scouted among Democratic women's organizations for names of women able to hold govern-


ment jobs and checked their qualifications; then she found jobs that they could fill. Before going to the president, she got the necessary clearances from party officials, senators from the nominee's state, and executive officers. After Truman made the nomination and the Senate approved it, Edwards fulfilled her share of the bargain by making sure the appointment got plenty of publicity. Women journalists, who always believed that women appointees made good copy, were willing collaborators. With regard to ambassadorships, Edwards primed Truman to appoint a woman even before a vacancy appeared. When the post of ambassador to Denmark opened, she had Eugenie Anderson ready to fill it, a special feat because Anderson was a married woman. When U.S. treasurer William A. Julian died in an accident in 1949, Edwards raced to the White House to see whether Truman would consider a woman for the position, a sinecure. When he said he would, if the woman was "qualified," Edwards came up with Georgia Neese Clark, a woman who was both a member of the DNC and a small-town banker. (Although every treasurer after Clark has been a woman, neither before nor since has the treasurer also been a banker.)[11]

In urging Truman to accept women appointees, Edwards emphasized the political consequences of ignoring women voters. "I know there will be unfavorable reactions if not one woman is among the twenty-seven new judges," she wrote in 1949. "I hear often the criticism that most of the women's appointments are window-dressing, not on the policy level. . . . I know this is somewhat true."[12] As a result of this particular campaign, Truman named Burnita Matthews to the district court bench.

Truman had his limits, however. For one, he intended to keep the cabinet a male preserve. He refused to consider Frances Perkins to head the Federal Security Administration because, one of his aides reported, he intended to create a Department of Welfare, and he "did not want any woman in the cabinet."[13] He also allowed Chief Justice Fred Vinson to veto the selection of the first woman on the Supreme Court. Edwards had recommended Florence Allen, who had received her seat on the court of appeals from Franklin Roosevelt. According to aide Matthew Connelly, Truman explained: "The Justices don't want a


woman. They say they couldn't sit around with their robes off and their feet up and discuss their problems."[14] Truman also declined to appoint Florence Shientag to a vacant federal judgeship in New York, on the grounds that "her husband is already a Judge in the New York Courts and it seems to me that one Judge in the family is enough."[15] (Shientag eventually became a judge of the family court in New York City.)

Both Edwards and leaders of women's organizations constantly reminded Truman not to forget women in appointments. The Korean War inspired a special plea for women on emergency war committees, and a new showcase body, called the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, counseled the Defense Department on the use of women in the newly integrated military services. DACOWITS, as the group was known, functioned chiefly to reassure parents (in order to support recruitment) that the government had an interest in the welfare of young women enlistees. Although enlistment of women fell far below goals, DACOWITS did accord several dozen women an ongoing role in "policy making."[16]

The matter of women appointments did not concern the general public, however. Truman's appointments came in response to the requests of Edwards and other women lobbyists. Only a handful of letters arrived at the White House from outside Washington, and public opinion polls showed that the electorate did not want the president to turn over more power to women in government. In December 1945 a Gallup survey showed that only 26 percent of men and 38 percent of women agreed with the statement of "a woman leader" who said that "not enough of the capable women are holding important jobs in the United States Government." Furthermore, only 29 percent of men and 37 percent of women said they would vote for a woman for president even if she were the best-qualified candidate, 52 percent of men and 43 percent of women disapproved of having a "capable woman" in the cabinet, and 46 percent of men and 35 percent of women disapproved of a "capable woman" on the Supreme Court. In 1947, 48 percent polled believed that women should not participate more actively in politics, and only 46 percent said they should. By 1949, 51 percent of women and 45 percent of men would have voted for


a woman for president, and 48 percent of men and 60 percent of women approved President Truman's choice of a woman for minister to Luxembourg. But these data hardly represented a mandate to a president interested in appointing women in order to win votes. In fact, public support for equal pay for women was much stronger: a 1946 poll showed that 71 percent of the men and 81 percent of the women surveyed endorsed equal pay.[17] If Truman displayed more interest in appointments than in equal pay legislation, his actions reflected the concerns of Democratic party women and the advantages of using appointments to recognize women instead of choosing a more problematic political route.

Between 1945 and 1952 Truman named eighteen women to positions requiring Senate confirmation, an average of 2.25 per year. Of these, nine were jobs women had never held before. Truman's appointments included one woman to a subcabinet position, Anna Rosenberg (assistant secretary of defense), and two ministers, Eugenie Anderson (ambassador to Demark) and Perle Mesta (minister to Luxembourg). (By way of comparison, Roosevelt, in twelve years, had appointed seventeen women, eleven of whom were "firsts.") A total of forty women (including those designated as regional comptrollers of customs and similar local officers) served during Truman's administrations in these Senate-confirmed positions (compared with thirty-seven in the Roosevelt years). In 1951–1952 women made up 2.4 percent of all executive appointments, excluding places on commissions (79 out of 3,273 posts). Edwards, counting members of presidential commissions, claimed that Truman had installed more than 250 women in high-level positions.[18] Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 Democratic nominee for president, promised to follow in Truman's footsteps in his "growing reliance upon qualified women for high public posts."[19]

Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican nominee, also understood the utility of emphasizing appointments for women. He wrote to the American Association of University Women: "If it should be my destiny to serve as chief executive, I would utilize the contributions of outstanding women to the greatest extent possible. Indeed, it would be impossible to carry out the responsibilities of the office without their help." He expanded on this


statement in a speech in Portland, Oregon: "I want to speak for just a second about my honest belief, my deep conviction, that we should have more women in public life." Not only, Eisenhower observed, were there two million more women than men, but women more than men worried about "the preservation and strengthening" of American values. Thus Eisenhower urged the election of women to the office of governor, and he counseled Republicans to accept women as "equal partners" in the Republican party. Katherine Howard, the only woman on the Eisenhower Campaign Strategy Committee, pointedly brought these and similar remarks to the attention of the almost nine thousand Republican women leaders with whom she was in contact.[20]

After Eisenhower's election in November, Republican women, following the Democratic model, moved with dispatch. Jessica Weis, director of women's activities for the Republican National Committee, promptly formulated a plan of appointments for the president's consideration. Her list of possible "top-level" positions included director of the Mint, under and assistant secretaries of the Departments of Labor, Agriculture, and Commerce, and assistant postmaster general. The position of assistant attorney general, Weis said, "has aroused more interest than any other post among women." Weis also recommended the appointment of a White House assistant at some level—"a new job for women and one which should have priority." Furthermore, Weis advised, "the United Nations is a fertile field for women's positions as so many of them are in the area of women's traditional interests," and she urged as "a matter of policy" that women be appointed to all presidential commissions. Weis also suggested that Frieda Miller be replaced as director of the Women's Bureau. Although Mary Anderson, a Democrat, had held the office during the tenure of three Republican presidents, establishing a precedent that the director not be replaced with a change in administration, Weis stated: "An early appointment would be appreciated as Miss Miller is most unpopular with Republican women." In addition to the posts Weis specified, there were, she stressed, many more at lower levels in the departments and in the judiciary. She transmitted a list of eligible women and warned that Truman had created a record Eisenhower needed to match: "We must do better."[21]


In planning its program for 1953, the Women's Division of the RNC asserted that women in policy-making posts, accompanied by appropriate media attention, would reap rewards for both the administration and the party. Such appointments would not only inspire women campaign workers but also win favor with the leaders of nonpartisan women's groups. Indeed, in 1953 Independent Woman (IW) , the magazine of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, featured women appointees of the Eisenhower administration in both its January and its March issues. Noting that women had been "frequently and emphatically reminded" during the campaign of the importance of their votes, the journal commented that they expected "substantial recognition" in the form of appointments to important posts. "And," IW stated, "the new president did make two selections that acknowledged the debt to hard campaign work on his behalf and his faith in the ability of the women chosen." IW highlighted the appointment of Ivy Baker Priest as treasurer, "a straight political appointment in which the honor somewhat outweighs the work involved," and of Oveta Culp Hobby as the new Federal Security administrator, and soon to be a cabinet member as the first secretary of the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In March, Clare Boothe Luce, the new ambassador to Italy, appeared on IW 's cover, "the first woman to hold the top-ranking diplomatic post in a world power."[22]

In the appointment of women, the Republican National Committee had a freer hand than had the DNC, because Eisenhower ran the White House differently from the way Truman had. Truman, who had had a long career in politics, and some involvement with political machinery, liked to be personally involved in the selection of political appointees, and he felt comfortable with the idea of patronage. The former general, in contrast, instituted a militarylike hierarchy, making him less accessible than Truman had been to political operatives. Moreover, with no experience in running for office, Eisenhower disdained politics and turned all but the highest-level political matters over to subordinates.[23] Eisenhower's preference for leaving political decisions to politicians made the RNC the main clearing-house for patronage selections, and Eisenhower's willingness to depend on the committee permitted Republican women to of-


fer suggestions on a regular basis and to have them acted upon. The RNC leadership, which sought such appointments, proved generous in granting these requests. As chairman C. Wesley Roberts explained to White House aide Sherman Adams, "The thought behind this is to try to give better recognition to women during this administration than has been done heretofore, particularly in positions of importance."[24]

Bertha Adkins, assistant to the chairman and head of the RNC Women's Division, served as the chief conduit to Republican women[25] and regularly enumerated Eisenhower's appointment record to the press. By July 1953 she had a list of twenty-seven women who were "playing a real role in the daily-mounting achievements of the new Administration"—proper repayment to women campaign workers who had worked "in unprecedented numbers and zeal" for Eisenhower's election.[26] The record redounded to Adkins's credit, and she quickly became known in political circles as a powerful woman. A United Press poll named her one of the ten most influential women in Washington, because she supposedly had a "good telephone line to the White House."[27] Adkins's reputation did not, however, reach so far as Edwards's had, and after complaints from Republican women that they were being shut out, the president began to attend publicized "breakfasts" with women party and civic leaders. Newsweek reported that Adkins had "ready access to President Eisenhower, who calls her by her first name and quotes her views to male politicians,"[28] a clear attempt to evoke Edwards's relationship to Truman. RNC campaign films narrated Eisenhower's achievements in appointing women to important jobs, a theme Adkins sounded repeatedly.[29]

In April 1957 Eisenhower appointed a woman to the White House staff. In a surprise announcement to the fifteen hundred women attending the fifth annual Republican Women's Conference in Washington, he named Anne Wheaton, who had held the post of director of women's publicity of the RNC for eighteen years, as associate White House press secretary. The appointment was a public relations stroke, and the audience responded with "cheers and applause," according to newspaper accounts.[30] Adding this one to the other slots arranged by Adkins and the RNC, Adkins claimed by 1958 that Eisenhower


had appointed "more women to key posts in the Federal Government, in International Affairs and on important committees and commissions than any other Chief Executive in the Nation's history."[31] Shortly thereafter Adkins herself assumed the position of under secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (another "first"), thus becoming the top-ranking woman in the government.

Eisenhower's record of appointments of women did exceed Truman's. In roughly the same amount of time, Eisenhower named twenty-eight women to Senate-confirmed posts, compared to twenty for Truman. Even excluding such positions as collector of customs for localities, Eisenhower still could claim twenty-two such appointments to Truman's eighteen. Eisenhower also edged Truman out slightly in first appointments: ten for the general and nine for Truman. Each president had a woman in the cabinet; Truman, however, had not chosen Frances Perkins, a Roosevelt holdover who stayed only briefly after he took office, but Eisenhower himself selected Oveta Culp Hobby, who served until July 1, 1955. Both presidents had named one woman to the subcabinet (under and assistant secretaries), but whereas Eisenhower designated three women to serve as agency heads, Truman appointed none. Eisenhower also appointed one minister more than Truman (three to Truman's two), although Truman installed one more woman on a federal court than did Eisenhower. The Republican bested Truman's annual average of Senate-confirmed appointments by 0.5 percentage points: 2.75, up from 2.25 (84 out of 3,491 positions). With members of commissions, Eisenhower's distaff contingent numbered over four hundred.[32] Although the actual number of women named to important positions was in fact small, it satisfied the political women who themselves took pride in their access to the chief executives. Of the three groups competing for federal attention, only the party women could claim success.

But however commendable—or unsatisfactory—the records of Truman and Eisenhower, their appointments of women to government posts stood as a symbolic gesture more than an effective method to improve women's economic or legal posi-


tion. Women's groups sought these appointments on the premise that just having women do their job properly would set an example for other employers, which in turn would expand opportunities for women at all levels. Certainly the women appointees of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, all highly qualified and competent, vindicated those who had advocated their advancement. But these appointees, as one observer noted, "did not herald a new . . . tradition in which increasing numbers of women occupied ever higher governmental positions, nor did they advance the status of women either significantly or lastingly."[33]

Nor could they have done so. Chosen principally for their sex, not their qualifications, these women were vulnerable. India Edwards later recalled that Truman had paid her "what men have always considered the ultimate compliment to a female: that I operated like a man." In the absence of a movement for women's rights, when "operating like a man" was the standard of excellence, no woman in an important governmental job could become the champion of the women's cause without calling her legitimacy into question—unless that position dealt exclusively with women's issues.

Mary Anderson, director of the Women's Bureau, which was under the aegis of the secretary of labor, encountered this problem with regard to Frances Perkins. Anderson wrote:

When Frances Perkins came in as Secretary of Labor, we were all jubilant, because we thought that at last we would have someone who really understood our problems and what we were up against and who would fight for us. . . . But it did not turn out to be that way. . . . The terrible publicity she was subjected to because she was the first woman cabinet officer was a great handicap. . . . It was especially discouraging to me to find that the Women's Bureau was not of great interest to her though I understood that she was preoccupied with other things and did not want to be thought of as a woman who was too closely identified with women's problems.[34]

Perkins, herself in part a token, understood the difficulties common to token appointees. Often highly qualified, but selected because of their sex or because they possess a specific


visible racial, ethnic, or physical characteristic essentially irrelevant to the execution of their job—selected, that is, for the specific political purpose of recognizing the group they represent—token appointees are expected to ignore in the fulfillment of their duties the very attribute for which they were chosen. Tokens have the responsibility of proving that the trait that identifies them does not in fact constitute a handicap. They thus labor under the burden that their mistakes impugn not only their own abilities, but those of all members of their group as well. Conversely, of course, the successes of "token" appointees do both confirm their abilities and confer at least a modicum of status on the group they represent.

But the postwar experience of the pursuit of token appointments for women reveals the drawback of this strategy. By diverting attention from policy questions, a roster of token appointments made in response to requests from an interested group allowed the presidents to duck thorny political problems without serious reprisals and to evade the debate over more significant issues. Convinced of the value of female appointments for both women and their parties, and concerned with the publicity deriving from the appointments rather than with policy goals, the party women who nominated the candidates did so in general without regard to the views of the designee on specific matters of interest to women activists. The appointees for the most part had no policy role with respect to women's issues.

Both Truman and Eisenhower met their obligations to their female constituents in a way that was ultimately cosmetic, without addressing more fundamental questions regarding the position of women in America. Because token appointments represented a traditional means of recognizing groups excluded from real power, the political system yielded willingly to the requests of party women. The ease with which the appointments were obtained signaled the limits of appointees' ability to alter the status of the group they personified: if these appointments had been of greater consequence, they would have been harder to come by. Moreover, the benefits of the appointment practice did not filter down to the women who were not direct recipients of presidential largesse.


During World War II, American women had proven themselves heroines on the home front; afterwards, they quietly took up again the responsibility to reestablish secure and stable homes. By 1960, a supposedly grateful nation had left them without any legislative or executive protection from discrimination, as vulnerable to arbitrary treatment in the public and private sectors as ever they had been before.


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