Oral History Interview with
Julie Nixon Eisenhower
March 9, 1999
For "A Few Good Women: Advancing the Cause for Women in the U.S.
Government, 1969-1974"- a collaborative project with
the Pennsylvania State University Libraries, Special Collections Library http://afgw.libraries.psu.edu/
For permission to publish and other questions, contact the
Penn State University Archives, 104 Paterno Library, University Park, PA 16802.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Voice: 814-865-7931, Fax 814-863-5318
Q: It is March 9,  and we are in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, with Julie Nixon Eisenhower in her lovely home.
Julie, I am going to start with your graduation from Smith College in 1970. Can you tell us something about the career expectations of your college classmates and yourself at that time?
A: Well, 1970 was maybe the second or third year of the women's movement. It had just really begun, and so there was a great deal of consciousness of women graduating from college with the expectation of having a career, which was not true of some of the girls that I was in school with who were seniors when I was a freshman. There was quite a change as I went along at Smith.
My expectations, I always thought I would go into documentary film making. I never did that, but I think that was what I had in mind. My major in college was history. My classmates all had plans to get jobs and to combine that with motherhood. None of my classmates thought they would just be a mother. There was quite a bit of eagerness to do it all.
Q: Do you have any sense of your parents' career expectations for you? Were they aware of how things were changing in that respect?
A: Yes. My parents were really quite wonderful the way that they encouraged Tricia and me to always have opinions and to be part of my father's political career. For example, we had many important people come to dinner and lunch in our home during my teen years. My parents often included Tricia and me. Looking back on it now, I realize that it was quite unusual that I would be asked my opinion. I would be encouraged to speak up. Hopefully it was never an obnoxious my parents encouraged this. It was a very family kind of a feeling.
My parents talked about current events all the time. At my private high school in New York, the Chapin School, which is a very fine preparatory school in the city, there was each year, I believe it was called the Time Magazine Current Events test. I remember for two years I received the number one score and how thrilled my parents were that I knew more about what was going on.
This was just because they included us. I am sure I would not have been interested in reading the paper or in watching the television news if I didn't always hear the events discussed. The war in Vietnam was discussed in our home for quite a few years before my father ran for President, and so when he did run, I knew exactly what he was getting into and how difficult it was going to be. That was just an example of the way my parents encouraged Tricia and me to have ideas and opinions and the fact that we were young women made absolutely no difference.
Q: And you were involved in the campaign?
A: I was very involved in the 1968 campaign. I went to over 35 states during that campaign and did some speaking, quite a bit of speaking, a lot of receptions, and was quite active in getting out the youth--there was no 18-year-old vote but in encouraging younger voters to go to the polls.
Q: Your Master's degree was in education a--
Q: --career field for women?
Q: Did you consider other fields or was that your natural inclination? You've already told me about your interest in film making.
A: No, I think I was always going to do the film making, but because of the presidency, things intervened. The teaching I thought would be a good career that I could use when we moved--when David and I moved. He was in the Navy for three years, and we were being moved around a lot. I felt, well, this would be a good career. I never used the teaching. I actually went into magazine editing when my father was in the White House. Worked for the Saturday Evening Post and began a book division for that company. So I never used the teaching, either. I tried to, but it was a circus with the Secret Service at the public school where I was assigned, and so I abandoned it very early. It just wasn't going to work with the Secret Service.
Q: We know from looking at Barbara Franklin's papers that you kept in touch with her project and its progress. What triggered your interest?
A: Well, my interest was triggered because my parents were always such advocates of getting women into government. Just in little symbolic ways from the very beginning of their presidency, they were trying to think of ways to get women more involved and be more a part of government and of the administration. Here's a little small example.
There is a role at the White House which is called the Military Aides. These men, until 1970 all men, had a really very important job at the White House because not only did they fulfill a ceremonial guards duty with greeting of heads of state at arrival ceremonies, but for most functions that are held in the White House, whether it's a breakfast, a lunch, a tea, a state dinner, a drop by, a poster child coming, a military aide is usually involved. They are ambassadors for their country. They represent the military branches of government but they most of all represent the White House. They have to be informed, articulate. They have to be able to anticipate difficulties, help people who are shy, rise to the occasion when something goes wrong. So in 1970, which is really quite early in the women's movement, my mother had the idea of why are they men? There should be women. So that's when they first began at the White House having military aides who were men and women.
Another change that happened at my mother's encouragement, and I think it would have happened anyway but I think the fact that my mother was in favor of it made the difference, and my father, was to begin in 1973 women Secret Service.
Q: So that was your mother's--
A: Well, I'm not saying it was her idea, but her encouragement. I'm sure if the Secret Service had gone to her and she had said, "No, I think it's a terrible idea," but it was just another way to bring women in. But, of course, the significant thing that they followed and that was really my father's keen interest was Barbara Franklin's role as an assistant to the President to get this name bank of qualified women so that women could be moved into positions of government.
Q: Did you have occasion to meet any of the women who were involved in the project in addition to Barbara? I guess I'm thinking particularly of the Task Force on Women's Rights and Responsibilities that preceded her appointment? Were you aware of that--
A: Yes, and I'm not sure to be honest with you since the White House was such a busy time and I wasn't there all the time. I know that--was Virginia Knauer on that task force?
Q: No. Virginia Allan chaired it. Vera Glaser was a member, and Pat Hutar was a member.
A: Right and I knew Vera and Pat. I knew all these women. I mean, I knew Vera and Pat. I can't say all, but of those you've just mentioned, I knew them all. The task force, I was not a member of it, so I was not a participant just a believer in it.
One thing that's interesting is that when you mentioned the campaign role in 1968, I was even more active in 1972, and one of the issues that I talked about in 1972 was the fact that there was for the first time in history a presidential assistant who was trying to make sure that if a woman was qualified, she was considered. I talked about that during the campaign.
Q: What about the women who were promoted as a result of the project? I'm thinking of Helen Bentley, Anne Armstrong, Elizabeth Dole, and Virginia Knauer was appointed. Did you know them?
A: Yes, all those women. All I can say is my parents took a, you know, my father, I don't think he's noted for being particularly for women. But really if you look at the administrations, I think he was more for women than any others because of his appointment of Barbara Franklin but also because his attitude, I mean, he thought these women were terrific. There was no question but that they were, you know, Helen Bentley, what a feisty, talented woman. He was proud that she was associated with his administration. Elizabeth Dole. Virginia Knauer. He loved Anne Armstrong. He thought she was the best kind of representative for the party because she was always a lady and always so charming, but she was smart and articulate and this is exactly what we need today for women. I don't think you need to sacrifice being the lady who can bring all those wonderful graces into a job as well as the brains and the drive. He really felt that Anne Armstrong was a wonderful role model for the Republican party, and he was very conscious of the women's vote. Very conscious of it. And it's one reason why he always referred to my mother--and she was indeed--his partner, why she traveled with him, why she went abroad with him from the beginning of their campaigns. The whole women's issue was very important.
In the first campaign they ever ran in, my mother carved out a role of holding coffees for women, for volunteers, because you see it's the women who are the volunteers in a campaign, as you know. So my father never underestimated the women, and I'm sure that's one reason he wanted to see the Barbara Franklin project succeed.
Q: Were there family conversations about the project? I gather there were.
A: Yes, there were. Right. He was very pleased that we were doing this. You have to realize, too, that the women's movement when it first began, it was a very in some way partisan, not partisan, what is the word I need? It was rough and tumble and a lot of sort of anger below the surface on the part of some women because women had been excluded for so long and not given a fair share. There were a lot of wrongs that had to be righted, and there was that edge to the women's movement. In its extreme form, you would give as an example the women who decided not to wear bras and who even burned the bras. I mean, today that's a cliche, but this was very real as you remember, Jean, when you and I were active in the seventies and the sixties. This was a symbol that women were going to have a different kind of life.
So my father was aware, and my mother, too, that this was yet one more upheaval to this presidency. We had the war in Vietnam. We had student protests. We had racial tensions, especially over bussing, but in general the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, etc., all these violent groups. And then you had the women's movement. This was an area that had to be looked at seriously. It was all part of this unrest in the country. We were all aware of it throughout the entire Nixon years because it was another thing that was churning society up. It was a very real problem, and it had to be dealt with seriously.
Q: And the hard edge of some of the women's movement created some backlash among some conservative males, right?
A: Yes. Well, I mean, there is always going to be an element of the males who really don't feel women are equal. Maybe that will change in the next 20-30 years. But I still feel, and I was just talking to a friend of my who is a former member of the cabinet of the governor of Nebraska. She is now the Dean of the Business School at the University of Nebraska. She was talking to some executives who head major companies because she is on the Kellogg board and they were at a board meeting. She just felt the way they were talking that it was the old school boys are against Elizabeth Dole because she is a woman, not for any other reason. I have had other women tell me that. So there are going to be elements in the hierarchy of older men particularly who still aren't ready to accept a woman. Of course, back in the sixties and seventies that was a hundred times stronger.
Q: Do you have any idea of why your father gave such a high priority to advancing women in government?
A: Yes, just what I tried to explain just now. The fact that the women's movement was a serious movement. It struck the right chord. The time had come. Instead of letting it disintegrate into angry people, the thing to do was harness it for good.
Q: As you know, the release of the tapes from your father's presidency have triggered news stories saying that they, the tapes, reveal deeply held biases against African Americans, Jews and women.
A: I don't see that.
Q: The Washington Post had a story about that and Secretary Kissinger and others who know him well said your father was a very complex person who sometimes said things he did not mean. Do you have an opinion about that?
A: All I can say is that 33 hours of 56,000 hours of tapes have been released, and the 33 hours are called "abuse of power." The archivists have spent 25 years pawing through the tapes to release what they call abuse of power, so what they've done is look for anything negative and what could possibly be construed as an abuse of power. So there is not the prayer of a chance to have a full picture. I think that speaks for itself. I'll be delighted when the cabinet room tapes come out. I'll be delighted when the tapes on China, Russia and all these other topics that are talked about come out. But to look at the abuse of power tapes, which is what Congress did say must come out first, is just an impossible situation and no human being could withstand it. My father never meant for the tapes to be made public, so obviously these are unsanitized.
Q: And don't reveal his real state of mind?
A: Well, I'm sure it reveals a state of mind, but it may have been a state of mind when he was angry with Jewish support of his opponents for no reason, or because he felt the black community hadn't supported him even though he felt he had a better record, whatever. I don't know what might have triggered it. But I'm saying we all say things when we're angry, or whatever.
Q: You've been active in both the publishing world and as a volunteer in the intervening years. What changes have you seen in attitudes toward women in the meantime?
A: I think tremendous changes, and I think that what I was saying earlier that there is still going to the old school boy attitude towards women, that's really dying. So I think it's been very positive. Positive changes.
Q: You have two daughters. Jennie and--
Q: Melanie, whom I just met. What are their career expectations at this point in their lives?
A: Well, Melanie is thinking that she might like to go into the field of social work or guidance, child psychology. All those fields she's thinking about. She's only 14. Jennie has a wonderful talent of singing, performing and playing the piano. She is a musical theater major at Northwestern and has already appeared professionally in a play in Chicago. She is dual majoring in communications and musical theater. She knows musical theater is hard to make so she is either going to be in the communications field or that. She does not get her voice from me is all I can say.
Q: That's wonderful.
A: Not my talent.
Q: You serve on the board of directors of Jobs for America's Graduates, which aids at risk youth. What are the challenges that group faces, and are there special challenges for women?
A: It's an interesting question because what we find with the young people, and these are young people who in their own public high schools have identified as those most likely to fail and drop out of high school. Those are the ones that we are helping, the ones that the high school determines are the most at risk. What's so interesting, Jean, is that two-thirds or more of our students that we help are women because it's a voluntary program that we offer and the women are the ones who are willing to get the help. The young men are much, much harder to reach. I think it shows a strength that women have, which is to learn from others that you can get help.
It's not a sign of weakness to ask for help. We have two-thirds of our program are the young women. Probably more young men are in danger of dropping out and failing. But the young women are the ones who are more likely to join our program. So I think it's very interesting.
Q: You and your husband are working on a book about 1968, the year your father was elected President. Will you be dealing in that book with the problems women face in education, government and professions at that time?
A: We're really focusing on the war in Vietnam. That's the focus of the book, so we probably won't touch on that very much.
Q: Many of our interviewees regard the period 1969 to 1974, the years our project is covering, as watershed years--
A: They were, yes.
Q: --that represented political breakthrough for women in government.
Q: That had ripple effects for women in other fields. You're from a later generation, so we're interested in your evaluation of that period. I realize in some ways you're closer, you're looking at it from a different perspective.
A: No, I agree totally that these were the most--I'm not sure it ended in 1974 necessarily, but certainly the late sixties were the key time where the movement really took hold. I just remember what an impact the book The Feminine Mystique had on me and my college friends. It was unstoppable, this whole concept that we'd reached an era where women had to think beyond just being dependent on someone else.
Q: What about the fact that this project with your father's instigation also helped move women in government forward as they never had been before, which is another--
A: What about that?
Q: It helped move women in government ahead as they had never been moved before.
Q: So that had a still further effect.
A: Well, that's why I say I think he deserves the credit for truly being an advocate of women. There is no doubt that these are watershed years. I agree.
Q: Beyond the burgeoning women's movement, do you have any impression of any other factors that were at play? There was, for example, some pressure from women in the media, some pressure from women in Congress, some pressure from women's organizations such as BPW. Were you aware of those?
A: As far as on the administration?
Q: Well, on society in general to try to get things happening and on the administration.
A: Oh, definitely. In fact, what's interesting is that my mother had many projects in the White House, including finding antiques and original paintings of the presidents. We were missing a great many of those. She lit the White House. She started the garden tours and the candlelight tours. She traveled all over the country, and she promoted volunteerism. I remember it, but she refused to let volunteerism be called her only project. She said "people are my project" and she did many things. But I remember talking to the newswomen who were covering the White House, and they were upset with her choice of volunteerism because they felt that maybe it was a field that only wealthier women who had the time could be engaged in and that at this time of importance to encouraging women in the workforce that volunteerism wasn't right, which is interesting because, of course, today we recognize and we're proud of the fact--you know, President Bush calls it points of light--and all the succeeding presidents have talked about how great it is that America is a nation of volunteers and as many men volunteer as women. So that was not the issue, but it shows how sensitive the women in the press corps were and what a sensitive time it was that they would be annoyed, so to speak, that this was one of her interests to encourage the helping hand, people helping each other, that they would somehow read more into it than what she meant with it. It certainly was not saying that women should just be volunteers and not in the workforce. Do you see what I'm saying?
A: It was interesting.
Q: Very significant. What challenges do you see for your daughters' generation?
A: The myth that you can do it all. That really is a myth, because to be a good parent you really can't have a high powered job because something has to give unless you have a husband who is a househusband and who can really be there for the children. If you have a job where you're traveling a great deal, working extremely long hours and under a lot of stress and have young children, you really can't do it all. I think that's why there are not as many women in politics as there are in the other professions. Law schools, more than 50 percent are women now and more than 50 percent of the med school classes are women. But in politics, it's lagging.
That's because politics is not a normal existence. You have to travel. It's the extra things you have to do. You just really, the children just do get ground up in that process.
Q: You survived very well.
A: Right. But my mother also wasn't the primary one in politics. But it was still hard. Yes. She traveled too much, looking back on it. But she realized it at the time and had great guilt about it.
Q: That ends my prepared questions, and so my question is what have we not talked about that you would like to?
A: Let's see if I have anything. Yes, I do have another thing that I think is interesting. My mother was, of course, as supportive of this concept of bringing women into government as my father. One thing she felt strongly about is that she felt in 1971 a woman should have been appointed to the Supreme Court. As you know, my mother's style was not confrontational. She did things in a quiet way. She tended to be very supportive of my father and she really didn't think it was her role to argue policy with him, but I remember she was very strong about a woman on the court. This was one instance where she really spoke up. I remember a family dinner where she didn't tell him off, but she said I think there should have been a woman and I'm very disappointed, etc. My father, as you know, he did have John Mitchell prepare a list of women, but there just wasn't anyone conservative enough for his taste.
Q: I've heard there was a real strong effort.
A: And there was a strong effort even on his part, but at that stage, 1971, which is early, women hadn't been in the judicial system, not that many had been around. So two men were appointed. But I remember my mother really was hoping that a woman could be appointed because the symbolism of it would have been great.
Again, going back to the tapes, I think you have to look at deeds not words when you judge historical figures. What my father did, the way he respected women and brought them into government and worked with them. Again, the Ann Armstrong example, and all the other women in his administration. These are the examples you have to look at.
Q: Well, Virginia Knauer tells the story of her first cabinet meeting. She was terrified. So your father made sure that she sat down next to him.
A: See, that's the way he was.
Q: And then when it was her turn on the agenda, he said, "Now, Virginia tell them about our project," which gave her great self confidence.
A: And also showed that he was totally behind it and it wasn't just some, oh, here's the little lady, let's listen to the little lady. Right. But, you see, he was astute enough to know that there were going to be men sitting around that table who if Virginia had gotten up with no introductory remarks would have tuned out and/or thought, well, yes, this is something left over from the Johnson administration. Consumer rights. What is this? It's nothing. I think that's a great story.
I'm glad she had an opportunity to tell that.
This is an important project because this is the beginning of the women's movement. This is it. So how did an administration respond? They responded, I think, at the highest levels. It had to be done in the right way. You just couldn't bring it unqualified people. I know one thing that people do look at the Clinton cabinet a little bit today and they're a little bit skeptical because they think he's tried so hard to have the rainbow coalition in the cabinet, and I'm sure most of the people there are qualified. But you almost feel he's punching a ticket somewhat in his cabinet. That's fine, but in a way it hurts those cabinet members who may not be as prepared as some of the others. In my father's administration, he couldn't just bring in women just right at the start if they didn't have the experience. But he knew that they would be brought in the minute they had the experience, so the thought was let's get women into the middle management now and they'll be groomed and they'll be ready and they'll move on.
Q: And the people who were appointed performed superbly.
A: Superbly. Superbly. They were the best. It's just too bad more couldn't have been appointed.
It really was, Jean, a delicate time. Things had to be handled in the right way because there was so much unrest over so many issues at that time, particularly with the war atmosphere overhanging everything. You couldn't go too far, and yet you had to go far enough. I think it was done in the right way.
Let's see if there is anything on my notes.
Oh, I also think it's interesting that my father did endorse the idea--of course, in 1968 ERA was part of the Republican platform. My mother encouraged it for 1972. My father always thought ERA, you know, legally that it might open a Pandora's box, but he knew the symbolism of it was so important that he did agree that the Republican convention would endorse the ERA, Equal Right Amendment, but that was a push from my mother, which is interesting.
Q: It's very interesting the additional information we're getting on your mother.
Q: It's very helpful.
A: Yes. The other thing is, too, see, my mother when she married my father, she had a career. She had been not only a teacher but during the war she was a government economist. So she had two careers there, and then so when the campaign began she worked full time. Either she was on the campaign trail or she was in the office.
Just to give you one little vignette that I tell in my biography of my mother, my Uncle Tom remembers going to the hospital when Tricia was born. It was February 1946 and my father was then involved in his first race. He was running for Congress. A couple of hours after the birth, and it had been breech birth, so it was a really difficult birth, but my mother was sitting up in bed and she had newspapers and magazines and folders all over the bed. She was doing research for the campaign.
So, you see, this is a role that she played and so I think it's very false when people try to say that my father did not respect women. And just the way he raised Tricia and me to speak out.
Again, I hope it wasn't irritating to those visitors who came and had me putting in--had my father encouraging Tricia and me to put in our two cents worth. But we certainly were encouraged to do so.
Q: That's great. So we'll turn it off right now and give you a little time to think if you think of something else you want to add.
A: I can't think of anything else I want to add.
End of Transcript