Pat Nixon: Caught Between the Housewives and the Feminists


Mary C. Brennan is professor of history at Texas State University%mdash;San Marcos. She is the author of Pat Nixon: Embattled First Lady (Kansas, 2011).

As the feminist movement grew radicalized in the climate of the late 1960s, many women became increasingly critical of their peers who maintained traditional roles as supportive wives, and the tensions over women’s roles in society became increasingly polarized and debated.  As if Pat Nixon did not have enough strikes against her as First Lady, she also had to deal with the changes women faced as a result of this growing feminism.  Her years as Richard Nixon’s wife earned her the nickname “Plastic Pat,” a spineless automaton who smiled on cue with never a hair out of place.  Moreover, she followed First Ladies who had established distinctive reputations:  Jacqueline Kennedy epitomized elegance and style and worked to restore the White House and Lady Bird Johnson was actively engaged in the beautification of America’s highways.  Pat seemed unable to live up to her predecessor’s standards or to bridge the gap between the new feminism and the wives of her generation.

Pat, no stranger to difficult challenges, navigated the situation the best way she knew how—by working hard and living up to her own beliefs.  Pat’s early life was hard.  She grew up on a hard scrabble farm.  Her mother and father both died before she was out of her teens.  For all of the tragedy, she also found joy in friendships, in school activities, and in her family. 

Although the Republican party, and her husband, created the image of Pat as the perfect housewife and mother, the reality of her life had never quite matched that reputation.  She was an excellent seamstress and decorator who put her personal touch on all of her homes.  She was only a fair cook, but she could be a maniac about cleaning. She was also a doting mother who participated actively in her daughters’ educations and lives, volunteering at school, overseeing homework, and closely monitoring the girls’ activities.  She could relate to the millions of women whose lives revolved around home and family.

On the other hand, in spite of her public image, like many women of her generation, Pat had worked her entire life.  She lived in New York City for a few years, working at a hospital to support herself.  When she returned to California, she held down several jobs to put herself through college.  After graduation, she took a job as a teacher.  After marriage, she continued working while Dick was away during World War II.  When he returned from overseas and ran for Congress, she jumped on the band wagon.  She was office manager, secretary, and jack-of-all-trades for his campaign despite being pregnant.  Just hours after the birth of her daughter she was sitting up in bed typing press releases and doing research.  She left her newborn with her mother-in-law so that she could continue to work.  This campaign was more than just something she did for her husband, this was her new career, even if not the one she would have chosen.

Pat continued this pattern throughout the ups and downs of her husband’s career.  While he was vice president, she frequently traveled with him.  Although Pat regretted leaving her daughters, she believed she and Dick were doing important work.  She did not have to do this.  Other political wives cut back their travel when they had small children.  Pat was proud of being a mother and wife, but she was also proud of being part of a political team.

When her husband lost his presidential bid in 1960, things changed.  Even as Dick worked on rebuilding his career, she struggled to figure out what to do with herself.  With her daughters growing up, she had lost both her careers as mother and as part of a political team.

She found her new job as First Lady.  Although it took her a while to adjust to her new role, eventually she saw the potential in her new office.  She used her position to open the White House to the traditionally excluded:  the blind, the deaf, the working class.  Her “project” was grassroots volunteerism and she traveled the country celebrating unsung heroes.

Even as Pat explored her role as First Lady, a revived feminist movement gained prominence and strength.  Professional women from the National Organization for Women joined with women of color and younger white women who had worked in the civil rights, student, and anti-war movements to push for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights.  In addition, they encouraged women to see the discrimination that existed in their own lives.  Some of the new feminists mocked marriage and motherhood as traps that stifled women. They focused on the importance of paid labor.

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.

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Maarja Krusten - 3/5/2011

An interesting essay and I look forward to reading your book. I came of age during the Nixon administration, indeed, I campaigned for him as a senior in high school and attended the Youth Ball at his 1969 inauguration. (My late sister and I are pictured as teenagers in the book issued in 1969 to mark the Inaugural activities, The Inaugural Story.) During my college years in Washington, I was a member of Young Americans for Freedom and attended some Young Republican events, including at the Nixon White House.

After graduate studies in history, I worked as an employee of the National Archives, screening Nixon’s then secret tapes to see what could be released to researchers. I also reviewed textual collections. My team did some oral history interviews, including with some members of Mrs. Nixon’s East Wing staff. My former employer also holds some interesting exit interview transcripts. I’m sure you drew on many of these materials.

You write “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.” As someone who turned 21 during the Nixon administration, I represented a third group—the feminist (yes, there were some of us who voted GOP in the 1970s) who enjoyed the new field of women’s studies, who aspired to do paid work outside the house, but who did not disdain or lack understanding of those who chose not to or did not need a paycheck.

It’s important also to remember that because of the Vietnam war and Watergate, Nixon’s family suffered through uncommon vilification of a family member they undoubtedly loved. (Interestingly, one of Nixon’s former chiefs of staff in the post-presidency period recently said that what the left did to Nixon in terms of vilification and attempts at delegitimization was not as extreme as what some elements of the right now are trying to do to Barack Obama.)

The emotional toll that attacks on a loved one take, day in and day out, is an important element in considering the lifef of the political wife. In this day and age, where the Internet enables people to share their loves, hatreds, anxieties, fears, and enthusiasms – letting it all hang out, to use a Nixon era term – it’s important to step back and to note (with admiration in my case) the discipline and repression of expression of human reactions that is required of political spouses such as Mrs. Nixon.

At public events, the president’s family is on stage, in the spotlight with him. Many of us in the workaday world are mindful of employer required representational functions, but for some of us, those take up only a small part of our work week. We get long periods where we can “stand down” and work on our tasks, unobserved by strangers and outsiders. There are fewer such moments for First Ladies. Add to that the extra pressure of representing a U.S. president abroad and you really get an appreciation of how we get “two for one,” not just with First Ladies such as Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama, wives who once worked in law firms and advocacy roles, but with women such as Mrs. Nixon, as well. As you point out, her early life was not easy. Although I have the impression she did not really want to be a political wife, she carried out her responsibilities very well.