Q: It's Wednesday, February 18, and we're in Helen Bentley's office in Lutherville, Maryland. Helen, tell me about you came to locate in this space.
A: Well, this office happened to be very close to my house. Actually this building was where I had my campaigns and most of my races, and I liked it and I continued to rent it.
Q: Helen, your whole career has been bound up in the maritime industry and the Port of Baltimore. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about? You went into journalism right after you graduated from college, University of Missouri School of Journalism.
A: I studied journalism. As a matter of fact, I worked on a weekly newspaper in my native hometown of Ely, Nevada, while I was in high school and for a summer or two while I was in college. And I wanted to go to the University of Missouri and. I did. I took my first job there at ten cents an hour working in a drug store. It was all I could get. And later graduated to 30 cents an hour working in the dining room serving the GIs. That was the Navy Reserve. I think they called it the Navy ROTC there.
And I also did some working in the photographic lab and was a stringer for the United Press while I was in college.
Left and went to United Press in Indiana, Indianapolis. Moved up to Fort Wayne, Indiana, which was a one-man bureau, did what I think was exceedingly well there. Even though it was a one-man bureau, we were first or second in the nation in what we called red--it was some kind of red clipping. It had the word red in it, which were the fillers that they sent out every week to all their subscribers to fill in the columns. And I always enjoyed doing those and we did them very well.
And when I wanted to be advanced, they finally offered me a night managership in Detroit. But they weren't going to give me any more money because I was already $5.00 above what they called scale. So I told them politely to take their job and keep it and went out to Lewiston, Idaho to serve on the copy desk.
And after three weeks there, I figured this is not my life. I'm a reporter, not an editor. And I didn't like working from 3:00p.m. to 3:00 a.m. six nights a week at that age in particularly.
So I wrote to every newspaper in the East about I'm good, I want a job and how about hiring me? So the two firm offers I got, although I got two or three other very good responses, one was from the Louisville Courier. And I was all packed, ready to go to Louisville, Kentucky, but that was serving on the rim. That was serving as a copy editor. And then the day that I was packed, ready to leave for Louisville, I got an offer from the Baltimore Sun which was $5.00 more a week than what Louisville was offering and they were going to pay my way back here.
Q: Big difference.
A: So those two things were, you know, that was it. So I sent a telegram to Louisville, sorry, I've got more what I want in Baltimore and I headed for Baltimore.
Q: And then did you immediately get assigned to cover--
A: No, no, no. For the first three or four months, I was a miscellaneous reporter. My very first assignment at the Baltimore Sun almost became my last because it was Flag Day and the day city editor told me to go out and do a half -- come back and do a half column on Elks Flag Day observance. The war was still on, so Flag Day was very important. And I came back and I studiously began writing what would be the equivalent of half a column. By that time, the night editor was on duty, a man by the name of Phil Potter who was leaving in a week to--
Q: Yes, a famous editor.
A: Yeah. And I heard this booming voice down the length of the city room, "You stupid son of a bitch. Don't you have enough brains to come up and talk to the city desk when you come back from an assignment?''
That was my welcome to the Baltimore Sun and Phil Potter. And if Phil Potter hadn't been leaving for the war in another week, I'd have exited and gone to Louisville, or anywhere. But he was going and later on Phil and I became pretty good friends.
But I did miscellaneous during the waning days of the war. This was 1945. VJ day came around and I did some stories on war heroes, and what have you, coming home. And then began covering labor because in the postwar period, we began having a lot of labor strikes in this country. And so I was assigned the number two person doing the labor coverage behind a gentleman by the name of Homar Bradley and I worked with him for close to two years, not quite. He left. Probably after a year and a half he moved on.
And so then I was assigned the labor beat. And in 1947, as a result, I was assigned to cover the national conventions of the AFL and of the CIO. They were separate then. Those are the days of John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, Phil Murray. Of course, I'm trying to think if the AFL/CIO had--who was very prominent. They were the ones at that time and I was the first and only woman at that time to ever cover those conventions. This was a man's world.
So from there we began having a strike in the shipyards in Baltimore about the same time and it went on for 20 weeks. And I got I guess you might say personally involved because I felt so sorry for the strikers. And I got angry at Bethlehem Steel for the way they were treating these people. I finally said to my editor, I don't want anymore labor. Get me out of this.
So my city editor at that time was Bill Wells. And Bill said, well, why don't you go down and look at the port? We haven't had anybody there since before the war and cover the port? I already had done some of that on return of the first naval ships from World War II.
So I said fine. And I ended up going down--and I think we had an outstanding maritime section for a number of years. But I ended up covering maritime, labor and all transportation for the Sun paper for a number of years. And during that whole period, we had airline strikes. We had many, many types of waterfront strikes, longshore, seaman, officers unions. We had railroad strikes and what have you.
So I really got enmeshed in the whole transportation world very well. But my publisher liked the title of maritime editor and he didn't want me to change from that, even though I was doing everything else. And I asked for it a couple of times and he said, no, no, no. We like maritime editor.
So that's why I kept that title. And it's been a good--I've loved it. I've done well with it. But it also, by branching out with it as I did with the Sun, it gave me a much broader view of what was going on in the world.
From 1950 to 1965, I also did a television series in Baltimore primarily for 15 years. For six of those years it was also broadcast in Washington. And then I did a second series in 1959 up in Philadelphia. My series in Maryland was called "A Port to Build a City and State." In Philadelphia, it was "The Port to Philadelphia: Gateway to the World." And the one in Washington was the same as the one here. And that was broadcast every Sunday afternoon for half an hour. I sold the show. I gathered the sponsors. I did all the--I guess you'd say I was the bottlewasher, cook and--
Q: You were the producer, director and talent, right?
A: Yeah, I was. And directed the editing of it. It gave me great experience, great exposure, in the television world as well as the business world, because we ended up doing over 800 companies, documentaries on over 800 companies of different types that were tied into various segments of world trade which gave me a wonderful background on, first, what business was like, what world trade was like, what the interdependence of transportation was all about. So it really offered things and opportunities and background that I probably would never have had any other way.
So in 1966, my managing editor, Paul Barker, who just died. In fact, we had a memorial service for him Sunday. He decided I should go to Vietnam. Because one of the problems we were having early on in Vietnam was the fact that the congestion in the courts and although the supplies and that were going over there, the ships were sitting. There wasn't any room to handle them.
There wasn't any room to unload them. So Paul said, why don't you go over and find out what it's all about? It was really an economic--I was doing the economic end of the war.
So I went over in January of '67 for about 4 1/2 months and covered the war from that end. And Bob Baldwin who was then Under Secretary of the Navy, and I had a good relationship with Bob when he was in Washington. So when Bob came over, I flew around in helicopters with him to spot what the problems were. And that's when he decided and I wrote about it and we needed to get containerization into Vietnam. And that's when the whole picture of supplies began changing after early 1967.
Along the way in the maritime field, I had many, many, many firsts. I was one of the first ever to talk to Malcolm McLean, who was the father of containerization. He invented containerization in 1954. And Malcolm still talks about this young twerp reporter who called him up and said are you serious? And I guess he was. He sure changed the world.
And then we have the nuclear merchant ship, the Savannah, the nuclear ship Savannah, named after the first steamship that crossed the Atlantic back in 1819. And the Savannah, I believe, I think I'm right on this, was christened by Pat Nixon when she was, well, when Richard Nixon was Vice President. But the Savannah, which was really a wonderful ship just wasn't destined to live long as an active merchant ship because the Japanese, for instance, didn't want a nuclear ship in their ports and others put restrictions on her. When she did sail, when she did carry cargo, she did very well. She also had a lot of labor problems and even though most of those were on the West Coast, and the Baltimore Sun was on the East Coast, I broke most of the stories on her because of my contacts in the shipping world.
And the other area that I probably, besides all the labor breaks that we had, when on the Castro, on the Cuban deal, on the Bay of Pigs, after the Bay of Pigs and all the negotiations that were going on by the Kennedy White House, when they finally reached some sort of agreement to send a shipload of medical supplies and other things down to Cuba in exchange for a number of our prisoners returning and also many Cubans released.
Well, it happened that the ship they were going to send was the African Glen and it was brought into the Baltimore shipyards to be prepared for the voyage. And I broke the story on it. And, of course, the White House was absolutely livid and denied.it was going to happen, but it did happen. And the ship did go. And then I was down in Florida when they brought the first shipload of people back from Cuba on the same vessel. So it was an interesting time to be there.
Going back to breaking the deadlock in Vietnam, one of the things that we heard out of the White House at that time was that President Johnson would get up in the morning feeling real good. And then he'd read the Baltimore Sun and he wanted to vomit, because we just laid it on heavy about how ill-prepared everything was. So I hope what we did was helpful and I think it was.
Q: You've always been a woman in what was and still is a man's world.
Q: How did you feel about that? And how did you handle the prejudices that must have existed?
A: There were many prejudices that existed. But I guess that I was a pretty strong person, I would say, that had had to make my way from a very small mining town, 8,000 feet above sea level in Ruth, Nevada, and Ely. And I had a wonderful--my father died when I was eight. So there was my mother who was keeping borders and trying to make things go for us and myself.
And in Ely, which was the county seat where we all went to high school, the owner of the weekly newspaper there was State Senator Charles Russell who was a good Republican who sort of took me under his wing, he and his wife Marge. And Charlie backed me up a great deal on what I wanted to do.
And then at the same time a Democrat, U.S. Senate candidate was coming from the area. And at that time, like so many of the areas, there wasn't that much difference between the Republicans and the Democrats then. They were all basically conservative. And this Democratic Senator candidate Jim Scrugham came to Charlie Russell and said I need some help in this county and I need somebody who can do whatever needs to be done in this county and the next county. So Charlie sort of pointed to me and said, I think Helen can do it.
Q: How old were you then?
A: 18, 19. And that was my first taste of politics, my first taste of going around and holding people's hands and listening to their stories as you were trying to sell your candidate--who won. And I did work in his office on Capitol Hill for the equivalent of two semesters, two quarters I guess, 2 1/2 quarters. The quarters and semesters and that were all sort of screwed up during the war. You didn't have the defined length of January to June or January to May as you do now.
So I worked on Capitol Hill for him and went to GW at night for a couple of semesters and I didn't like it. Even though I was working in an office, I preferred going back to Missouri and working in the dining room and finishing school there. But it was a good experience. That was 1942 incidentally.
Q: All that helped you be able to--
Q: Feel confident enough of yourself to ignore the prejudice.
A: That's right. I knew that what I did had to be done well. I knew that women had to work harder. I knew that women had to produce. There weren't that many around at that time. There was a break. I mean, I did have a break at that time when you consider the differences between the male atmosphere over here and the female over here. That it was wartime when I was coming through there. So I probably had some opportunities to do things that under normal circumstances then might never have happened.
Q: Because the men weren't there to be competitors.
A: That's right. The men weren't there. And when the men returned home in 1945 at the end of the war, the Baltimore Sun only kept three women. The Baltimore Morning Sun I'm talking about now. In the beginning, we had a whole office full. We had, you know, many female reporters and a few men who didn't go to war.
But when it came time for the others to come home, there was Marge Mathis who was an old, old time Hearst reporter, wonderful writer, wonderful alcohol, but a great reporter. Ann Hutchison who was a young woman, maybe two years older than I was, from Connecticut who had gone to all the proper schools and was very good and stayed at the Sun for a long time afterwards. She stayed there after I left. And Marge had died in the meantime. But there were only three of us who were kept.
Q: I'm going to get onto our project. As you know, it deals with advancing the cause of women in government from '69 to '74. But I'd like to back up before we get to those years and talk about in the early '60s the period preceding our study period what you observed from your vantage point about women in government.
A: Okay. One of the advantages I had working for the Baltimore Sun was we were only 50 miles from Washington. And since I was doing the labor field and the transportation field and all that, I was in Washington probably four or five days a week.
I would say that during that time, I cannot think of--well, I know there wasn't. There were no women in the federal sector of what you would call the Presidential appointment level, levels one, two, three, four, five. They were all men. And they just weren't around. They weren't selected. You had always you had excellent women who were executive secretaries and all that who were always very helpful, but in the appointment level there weren't any.
The day I came back from Vietnam, I had a phone call from Pat Buchanan and wanted to talk with me about Richard Nixon's campaign. No, I'm wrong. He told me just before I went and I told him I was going. He said, will you call me when you get back? And I said, yes.
So I called him when I got back. So we arranged for me to meet him in New York about a week or two later on a Saturday morning. And I well remember going to Pat's bachelor apartment and he was about half awake and sitting there on the edge of his bed in his pajamas and bathrobe and talking to me about Richard Nixon's campaign. They wanted me to do his sea powers statements.
And I said, fine, I have no problem with it, but they had to realize since I--he did not know I was a Republican. They liked what they'd been reading. I said you have to understand I'm a media person and newspaper person, journalist, and I will have to help the other side if they ask me. And be said, fine.
Well, the other side, interestingly I knew the Humphrey people and I knew Humphrey. I did not know Nixon and I did not know Pat Buchanan up to that point. And I never heard from the Humphrey people. So I did Nixon's sea power stuff.
During that time I worked on the campaign with Alan Greenspan and with Richard Allen, et cetera. Dick and I became very, very good friends from that. And Pat of course. And President Richard Nixon became President.
So after he was inaugurated in January of '69, in February, Ed Luckenback, who had been from the prominent steamship family from the West Coast and who had been doing a lot helping in the campaign and that was doing some of the transition work, called me up and said, Helen, do you want to become Maritime Administrator? I said, yeah, I'd like that, Ed. That's my bag. This was on February the 5th, 4th or 5th of 1969.
I had a big dinner the night before. On February 4th, I had a big dinner that I had called with all of the top people in the maritime industry to try and get them working together. The American maritime industry was just falling apart, strikes, every issue. I had Joe Kern who headed up the NNU, Paul Hall who was head of the seafarers, Jessie Calhoun who was head of the Marine Engineers, whoever was at that time head of the master bank. I had steamship executives at all level, top, from the Franklins on down, about 30 key people from the shipbuilding industry all there.
And very interestingly earlier that day I had been sitting in Paul Hall's office to talk to him about how he saw things. So when Ed called me the next morning, he said you're going to have to have labor support, Helen. I said, I won't have any problems. So I called Paul Hall up and told him that I'd been offered this and will you support me? Well, he'd think about it. Calhoun said he would.
To make a long story short, and if you ever want details, I can fill you in. Paul just danced me around for a week or two. Then he went down to the annual February conclave of the AFL/CIO in Florida. We had all kinds of snow that winter. I went down to Florida for the sun. And so I called him. I said, Paul, I'd like to have breakfast with you. So I did.
And I said, Paul, why didn't you support me? Well, you know, Helen, how I am. You know, that when I want to move a broom from this point in a room to that point, I plan it very carefully. I don't make that move until I know everything. What he was saying was I couldn't control you because I didn't make the point.
So I said, I thought you were my friend. Well, now, Helen, you know. I mean, these are very important and I don't think you really got the offer. I said, well, okay. Forget it. And with that, I finished breakfast and left.
So while we were down there, an issue came up involving the industry, one that involved some of his ships. And I said, okay, you've got to talk to him. Oh, I did call Pat Buchanan up. And I said, Pat, I want to tell you something. Oh, no, Ed Luckenback had called me. And Ed said, Helen, what the hell happened? You have this on the 4th and 5th and by the 11th you lost it. And I said, Hall screwed me.
So then I called up Buchanan. I was down in Florida. And I said, you know, Pat, I'm not mad at Paul for this. I understand these labor people. I'm mad at you. I'm mad at the White House. They gave Humphrey $200,000 and you're letting them dictate your appointments. I said, so I'm mad at you. I'm not mad at Hall.
So then came the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at DOT. And Jim Beggs was there and Charlie Baker were the two under Volpe. And they wanted me there because I'd worked for them on various things. And so it came down to me and a man by the name of Walter something. I don't remember his last name. And Volpe said, a woman can't handle that job. And so he gave it to Walter. They had to fire him three months later. And I laughed.
So then the Federal Maritime Commission had two openings. One was Chairman and one was a commissioner's seat. And Peter Flanagan called me up and offered me the commission seat. I thought about it. It was the White House and everything. I finally called him back a week later and I said, Peter, the answer's no. I'll take the Chairmanship or nothing. You can't have it. It's already designated. I said, well, fine. Keep it. This was July 8th of '69. On July 9th, Peg Heckler, Florence Dwyer.
Q: Catherine Bedell.
A: Catherine Bedell and a lady from Illinois, very pretty lady.
Q: Charlotte Reid?
A: Charlotte Reid had an appointment to see the President. And they told the President, you know, you've got to do something about getting women appointees in here. What you're doing is wrong. I mean, there's nothing there. Well, now you go out. I just was turned down by a woman, Helen Bentley. We need her on the Maritime Commission. We need her knowledge. We need her background. And she turned us down. So dear Peg Heckler calls me up and explains and says, we want you to take that seat.
So I told Peg the story about the chairmanship being open, the commission seat being open. They're going to give the chairmanship to a man from Warren, Ohio, who had never been on a ship, who knew nothing from a bow and a stern, et cetera, but this was a political commitment they'd made. And I said I'm not going to make him look good, Peg. Congresswoman. I'm just not going to make him look good. That's it.
Well, this went back and forth between them. Peg called back and said you can't have it, Helen. I said, okay. I'll take the CAB. That chairmanship is not committed. Oh, a woman can't have CAB. I said, well, that just shows you what discrimination and prejudice there is, because I have been on airplanes since 1941. I've been covering the airplane industry, along with everything else in transportation since the '50s. So I know it much better than the man they're going to put in here as chairman of the commission. But because it's a woman, they won't give it to me. By that time I was calling her Peg. I said, Peg, tell them to shove it. You can quote me. She came back and she said, oh! I said, I'm holding. The chairmanship or nothing.
At the same time I was fighting with Humble Oil. They were going to send a ship through the Northwest Passage, a tanker, 1969. And I wanted to be--they were taking a group of reporters and I wanted to be on the ship. They had no room for a woman. I said, I'm the best maritime person in the country. You ought to take me. Well, we haven't
Well, the morning of July 31st, 1969, Exxon called me--or Humble called me and said, we have worked out a cabin space for you. You want to take the trip? I said, yeah. Thank you. I'll be. there. We left sometime in August. And then the same afternoon Peter Flanagan called me and said do you want to be Chairman of the FMC? And I said, yes, Peter, but only after I take the trip on the Manhattan. I want to do that as a reporter. So that's how. it all came about.
I understand in part in the background that the White House finally began caving in because they were feeling pressures from all over about Homen. Flanagan Has one of the big holdouts. I· think he more than the President. And some of the cabinet members. Women can't do that.
Q: Well, Catherine Badel I interviewed and her memory is that they felt they had the acceptance from the President when they met with him on the concept of your being chairman.
Q: I don't know whether you've heard that excerpt from her interview. I guess you didn't.
Q: But she said she had sensed an inner acceptance by the President and she had known him Hell enough to kind of know the difference between the polite and the actual. That's interesting. What was the significance of that appointment for other women?
A: It was a breakthrough. It Has the fourth highest appointment for women in the history of the U.S. federal government. The first was Frances Perkins under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The next two were Republicans. Oveta Culp Hobby and Bertha Adkins under President Eisenhower. And then we had again that long dry period. So this was the breakthrough, you know, the first. Then we began picking up one here and one there, et cetera. But it was very, it was important. I think if I had accepted just a commission seat, it wouldn't have meant much. But I also knew that being named chairman I really had to do a good job.
The four men who were my fellow commissioners were not happy in having a woman at their helm. But they learned--they were not happy in the beginning, okay? That probably went on for a year or more. I hadn't proved myself. I hadn't proved to myself that I wasn't what they would term a bitch. I had to prove to them that I was firm, that I could manage and that I was fair.
One of the silly--and I say this is more a male thing than a woman thing. But one of these silly things that became an issue among my male commissioners was using the official car to go to lunch or something. They used to drive me up a wall with this damn thing. Take the damn thing and go. Who cares? Just send it back. But this became one of the real crying points of my male commissioners was this damn car.
Q: It was a perk that they felt that they had to have.
A: It should be theirs.
Q: To demonstrate their importance.
A: It should be theirs. Anyhow, it was funny.
Q: I think we need to stop and change the tape.
Q: We've heard anecdotes about your help for other women in government, loaning staff to Barbara Franklin when she first came to government, sharing speeches, et cetera. Why did you do that? Why do you think it's important for women to help each other?
A: Well, I was so delighted when the White House decided to put Barbara Franklin in there. Come on, let's get some women in government. And then I began to talk to her. I found out she had absolutely no backup at all. So I did give her staff. I brought a typewriter over to her. She didn't have a typewriter. And whatever else she needed. I said, here, I want you to do well. Whatever we can do to help, we're there to do it.
And I wanted the women to do well. I mean, men networked with each other. And here we are 30 years later practically and women only now are really learning to network with each other and help each other. It is very important for them to do that and to support each other.
For a long time, again because there were so few women in key places, I remember some of the speeches I gave. Don't try to be a queen bee. Don't try to--you're for yourself and not help others. I've got some of those speeches if you want them.
Q: I would.
A: I'll have them pull them out. I said, it's too important for all women to help each other. That was a message of mine constantly. Don't you try to be out here and keep everybody else down because you want to be the star.
Q: I know it was a message and I know it was consistent with your belief, but can you tell me a little bit more about why you felt so firmly about it? Was it because you'd had to fight so much for yourself?
A: Probably, probably. It was probably just a natural. It came to me naturally to do.that because I have had to fight. And maybe again because I know the strength that my mother gave me to push ahead and to do well. And wanted to see them do well. In my office, my administrative assistant was a woman and had the women in the top row. My first managing director at the Federal Maritime Commission was going to be a woman, Marian from San Francisco. She was an attorney out there. So I offered it to her. The White House accepted her. She asked us to wait something like six or eight weeks until she could come back. And on the day she was to come back, leave there and come back, she called and she said, I've really got a problem. I said, what is it, Marian? She said, well, they've offered me the job as Director of the Port of San Francisco. And I said, what do you want to do? She said, I'd like to be Director of the Port of San Francisco. I said, okay, take it. And we maintained--we were good friends the year she was there. So the White House wanted somebody from the West Coast. At that time they were much more selective about the balance of all the states and everything. So I got a man from San Diego and he was okay.
Q: Not as good as Marian would have been, but he was okay. All right.
A: Her name was Marian Wolff, two "f's", W-o-1-f-f. And Marian did a very good job as Director of the Port of San Francisco. She was the first woman director of the port.
Q: The Task Force on Women's Rights and Responsibilities and its recommendations are part of what we're studying. Did you have any relationship with that task force?
A: I worked some with Virginia.
Q: Virginia Allan?
A: Allan. And whatever she needed. I wasn't on the task force, but I remember I had a number of conversations and meetings with Virginia.
Q: What about its recommendations? Were you involved in their implementation in anyway?
A: Urging that they be done. I was going through--what we're doing now is manifesting all of my files from FMC, Congress, et cetera, et cetera. This happens to be the list of things we've found on women's issues during the time I was at the FMC.
Q: I'm looking forward to looking at that. Thank you.
A: And we have all the backup material to go with that. But Virginia and I frequently conversed and that.
Q: I've been reviewing some of Barbara Franklin's papers and have come across a lengthy letter from you to the White House. I believe it was late, well, mid-70 perhaps, about their lack of action on women's issues, especially women in government after the task force work was completed. And that letter seemed to spur action. Do you remember that letter?
A: Vaguely I remember that letter.
Q: As a matter of fact, I think it was the immediate for getting Barbara Franklin in there. You need to ask Barbara to look at that because there are some, it finally reached I think Bob Finch was in charge of implementation. There are some very interesting kinds of actions to be taken as a result of your letter.
A: Okay. I'll do that. That's interesting. That's probably in some of my files, too.
Q: It may be. You probably have a copy of it because it was obviously a very thoughtful letter which is couched in your inevitable prose, very straight forward, very candid. We're interested also in looking at what support the cause of women in government got from the media, especially women in the media. Do you have any memories of that?
A: Yeah, I do. I have one that Vera was a good friend all the time.
Q: Vera Glaser?
A: Yeah, Vera Glaser. There were three or four or five others who were very strong. I had a very interesting session involving Sarah McClendon. At the time I was Chairman, we were having a lot of trouble on the North Atlantic, freight rate wars, et cetera, which meant that we had to go Europe with some frequency. I had inherited at the FMC a man by the name of--I won't give his name--but who is the public relations man, whatever you want to call him. And I had known him for many years having covered the FMC, et cetera. And I knew how he had stabbed in the back three or four previous chairmen. I was very wary of him. He's a good friend of Sarah's.
So on one trip I was going to go to Europe, Sarah called me up and said, Helen, why are you going? I'm going over there to talk to the Germans and the Brits about the freight rate bill. Well, who are you taking with you? I said, I'm taking my special assistant Bob. Do you think it's right for you to be traveling overseas with a man? Oh, yes. I said, Sarah, do you know what's going on? He's my special assistant. I have to have somebody. It really doesn't look good. I said, Sarah, who in the hell doesn't it look good to, you and Mike? I said, Sarah, I am very disappointed in you of all people making a remark like that to me. If I want to play around, I don't have to go to Europe to play around for Christ's sake.
Q: I'm astounded.
A: I was, too. It took me two years to get him out of there, but I finally did. He had tried. I had known of other things he'd done to try and get me. I had gotten calls from Capitol Hill about his little snake. When I confronted on it, he said, you've got to understand something. He said, I'm just like a rattler. I'm as dangerous as a rattlesnake. The difference is the rattlesnake warns you. I don't.
Q: What a lovely man.
Q: What about there was Helen Thomas of the United Press, Fran Lewine of AP.
A: Fran, I knew. I didn't have that much to do with Helen Thomas then, but we knew each other. She was not unfriendly at all. I mean, she was supportive. But she was doing other things more than just covering me.
Q: She had a different beat apparently at that point, as I recall.
A: Yeah, she did.
Q: And Fran was at the White House I guess by that time. Helen was covering other things. What about women Members of Congress? Obviously, there were about four who helped intervened on your behalf.
A: I remember a statement that Martha Griffith, who was then a Democrat in Congress, said one day when some of us were talking, Martha said, you know, I have a harder time with the women members of the press than I do with the men. She said, after a vote, I can be standing there talking with some of my male colleagues and a woman reporter will come up and ask them why they voted the way they did, but she'll ask me about baking a cake.
Q: So there were women reporters who got the big picture and the others who were still working the stereotype.
Q: And so you couldn't--
A: Yeah, yeah.
Q: Okay. I guess that brings me to another question. A couple of the people I've interviewed said one of the problems of that era was the attitude of women towards themselves and their potential, that it was a part of era as far as women's expectations of themselves. Now, is that an accurate--how would you respond to that statement?
A: Expectations of themselves. What? That they expected to be moved on?
Q: What they expected to be able to achieve, whether their role was truly at home rather than in an office or career.
A: There was probably some of that. I didn't feel it was because--
Q: Obviously, you did not.
A: I always felt that I had a career. When Bill and I got married, I was in two television series, one in Baltimore and one in Philadelphia, the Sun paper, et cetera, and he well knew it and I wasn't about to change. Yeah, I would say there probably still was a lingering of some women or many women who were concerned whether they were doing the right thing. They still haven't fully accepted the fact that careers were that important, as important. And that probably again came from the fact that many men still sort of pat them on the head, you're nice. In that era still, we didn't have many women going to law school, for instance. The breakthroughs in the engineering schools came in the late '70s.
Q: And medical schools.
A: And medical. So they still hadn't broken through them. This all came in the late '70s when the real pushes came.
Q: What were the major obstacles? Can you summarize them as far as attitudinal or institutional to progress for women? Again, I want to be specific to women in government at that time.
A: I think the biggest obstacle, again, were the attitudes of men towards them, and women not having the confidence in themselves, enough confidence to really push forward. They hadn't been allowed to build that confidence up. And that's what they needed to do. They needed them. I wish I had that picture here. Stop your machine a minute. [break]
Q: We took a short break to look for some photos and now we're back. I'm coming back to the period of '69 to '74. I believe the official report was the number of women in government in supergrade and political appointments tripled or quadrupled during that period.
A: Oh, yeah.
Q: So how is it possible to make so much change in such a short time?
A: Well, it wouldn't take much to triple or quadruple them because there had been zero at the beginning of '69.
Q: Well, however, there were some women on supergrade status, right?
A: On supergrade, yeah.
Q: Because Esther Lawton, for example, had been in that status although she was promoted during that period. Part of the effort was to move people up in the career service.
A: Well, they were qualified. Those women were qualified. But they were kept down because they were women and they should have been moved up. It just took pushing and pushing and pushing. And you had to locate them, because here again many of the women were--they didn't want to as we say rock the boat because they didn't want somebody to say out with you. So they were afraid of pushing themselves too much.
Q: Did you have any occasion to be involved in a Department of Transportation Action Plan to move women up? You had a full plate with the Maritime Commission, right?
A: Well, I had a full plate with the Maritime Commission, but I was so angry at John Volpe and what he'd said about women couldn't handle the job that I really nagged. Jim Beggs and Charlie Baker were still there. And Jim and Charlie were fully supportive of moving women up. And I think they had a lot to do with it.
Q: So there was progress for women within the DOT as well as in the Commission.
Q: Do you feel that there was a different level of commitment by women to other women during that era than there is now? Is there any of that evident here? Sort of united effort by, as we say, a few good women to make change?
A: I would say that there were probably stronger ties among a few good women who really wanted to see that number grow for a couple of reasons. Number one, they felt that the country needed the competency and their ability. But secondly, because they wanted to see President Nixon's and President Ford's terms stand out as being very supportive of women. And they were. They were at heart and we had to educate their staffs.
Q: That issue has come up before in our interviews. I guess my question is to what degree do you think that period signified a real change in status for women in government for subsequent years?
A: Oh, I think there's no doubt that the steps that were taken under the Nixon Administration laid the groundwork for the doors being thrown wide open later on. Nixon very definitely opened the first door and kept it open. And with those of us there, the few good women, we kept pushing the door open wider and wider. And finally, both doors to the terrace were wide open. I think very definitely that was done at that time.
Q: Have you had an opportunity to observe what impact of changes at the federal level have on our--
A: But let me say this. Even with all of that and all that kept on going, even in 1982, there was still hesitancy by some of the men about letting women into top spots. John Lehman, who was then Secretary of the Navy in '82, wanted me as his Under Secretary. And Senator Warner put a block on it. Senator Warner said that the Navy was not ready for a woman yet in that position and went on about the fact that I couldn't climb ships out in the stream. Even though I said, John, I've climbed more ships than you ever thought of. Even the Secretary of the Navy, I've climbed more. But that block was put on John Warner. So we still had some time to go.
Q: Well, Barbara Franklin has a story about a block that was put on her nomination at Commerce by a Senator who later came to apologize when she was confirmed. So it's still there, I guess.
Q: You left government for a nine year stint in private business and then returned as a member of Congress in '84. Can you tell us about how things had changed in those intervening years, and again for women in government?
A: During the nine years, there were some women who were appointed to cabinet positions. And there were more and more appointments. When I first began running for Congress in 1980, there was still some hesitancy about financial contributions to women candidates. The money didn't flow. Women, well, I don't know. Can she win? '82, I lost. And I was running not because I wanted to be in Congress per se... But I had a local issue that my predecessor was blocking and that was deepening the ship channel out here that we needed so badly. And that was my issue. '82, it was a little easier because the district had been changed somewhat.
And then when I ran in '84 and I could show everything and I ran then--a Republican John Schmick, David Schmick, who was Jack Kemp's chief of staff, came into the district to run against me in the primary because I was a "two-time loser." And so we had to set him straight, call him a carpetbagger and all that. But it was determination. And finally, people began to think, well, yeah. A woman can win. But I don't think it was until the mid-80s that there was confidence, as much confidence as there is today, and that the money flows as easily to a woman candidate as it does to men. It took some time.
Q: You built your record on constituent service to both labor and management and on economic issues. Nevertheless, you always seem to be there for women without compromising your responsibilities to your constituents. How'd you manage to do that?
A: I guess just because I felt that was what I should do.
Q: And your willingness to work 24-hour days.
A: I've been very fortunate, very fortunate in my life. And I say every day when somebody asks me how I am, I say God's been very gracious to me. He's given me strength and that. So I've always worked many, many hours. I've never, you know, I worked until I fell asleep and get out and start going again. But that's what I like to do. And now that I have my weekends more or less free, on Sunday morning, I go over to my husband's store and rearrange antiques and clean it up and all that stuff. But I like to do things and keep busy. I felt that I had a responsibility towards women. That was my responsibility. But the door had been opened for me and I had to pass it along, and I still do.
I got a very nice letter yesterday. I think it is so important for the young women coming up today and also for many women who are suddenly left alone with family, maybe a divorce, maybe a death, that they have somebody they can talk to who can help them, who can guide them and who will listen, sometimes just listening. And maybe that's because of my background that I have always felt that this was a role, a responsibility that I had to have. This letter yesterday may explain many things. But this was a family in Dundalk, which is my blue collar area, very Democrat, but I always got 70 percent of the vote. The sister, who was a mother but alone, became a paraplegic in an auto accident. Her parents took her in to take care of her. And a year or two later, her brother, the same thing. Now, these two, the kids are probably in their 30s, somewhere. They're both paraplegics. How can one family handle this? So I sent them some money. She sent me a very nice note yesterday. She said, I don't know whether you remember when I was 18 and I voted for the first time for you and President Reagan. Those are the kind of things that I think are important.
The other aspect, you were asking a bit ago about what women should do and how we do that. I've always found that the one most important trait for women as well as men, but more important for women because of the difficulties they always had was to be very honest, tell people exactly the truth. Don't talk out of two sides of your mouth and lie or try to squeal around. Be very forthright. And that will get you as much a long way.
Q: Looking back, is there any one aspect of what you contributed to the cause of women in government of which you are most proud? Can you think of any one thing you did that you feel especially proud of?
A: Probably the fact of breaking the ice and of putting a very good cap on the ice, namely proving that women were capable so that it would make it easier for others.
Q: So that breaking the ice of the whole concept of--
A: Breaking down the barriers. That women could do a job.
Q: So other women could be considered for chairmanship.
A: And higher appointments.
Q: You seem always to have been motivated by an intense desire to be the best at whatever you did. How do you account for that? Is there something about your upbringing?
A: Yeah, I think it goes back to the fact that I remember when I was in the eighth grade how this became very important to me. I was not an attractive person at all. I had a nose that had been broken four or five times. My jaw was way out of proportion. And my parents didn't have the money to do anything about that. And you didn't do those things in those days. And I always felt that to offset that I had to do well. And I remember in 1948 when my sister-in-law, she said, Helen, why don't you go have some plastic surgery done? She said, you need it. And I did.
A: And I've done that. Very, very happy since that I did. But that I think gave me as much motivation to go ahead. In high school, I was the leader in my class, valedictorian, in most extracurricular activities and all that stuff. I wanted to do well.
Q: You've just returned from China and we talked earlier about you were a frequent visitor in Europe when you were at the Federal Maritime Commission. And I'm sure you traveled as a member of Congress. Do you have any observations on the relative status of women in other countries in government versus ours?
A: It's interesting that you ask that question. Just last night we had dinner with the Ambassador of Japan, and that question came up about Japan. In 1973, when we were having some maritime problems with Japan, that there was discrimination against American flag ships, the recent issue that the Federal Maritime Commission had was really just a repeat of what I had. And we had a different kind of a hold on Japanese shipping community at that time because they had to get permission to rationalize their fleets at that time from the United States, from the Federal Maritime Commission, to rationalize their shipping to and from the United States.
So they wanted to rationalize their shipping lines and I said no. I took it upon myself. I probably, I'm told by the lawyers that I was breaking the Administrative Procedures Act and all that and I said, oh, baloney. I was willing to take the risk. I went to Japan with a couple of American flag shipping guys, a couple of staff people from the Hill and from my office. And we started negotiations. We left here on a Sunday. We started negotiations over there on Tuesday morning. They were saying no. So Wednesday morning I said I'm going home. Goodbye. And they came to the airport and got me. By Thursday night, we had a negotiated settlement. They did not like the fact that they were--in Japan, they had never negotiated with a woman before.
And they were not happy with me to put it mildly. But we got what we wanted for the duration of my term. Shortly after I left, they went right back to their system and came out into a brouhaha last year.
The Ambassador said last night that there's still a feeling in Japan among women, and I'm sure that their husbands urge it, that many of them, at least half of them still stay at home. And others are getting out in the workplace. I noticed in China, there are more women in prominent positions than I have in other countries. And, of course, in Europe today you've had two or three Prime Ministers. You had Margaret Thatcher. You have the Prime Minister of Norway. And you've had some other countries so that Europe is much further ahead. And, of course, none of us can forget Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi. But women are still not running for office in many of those countries.
Q: I was wondering about what would be the counterpart of our supergrades. Do you have any sense of that in other countries?
A: I would say that they're still way behind us almost everywhere.
Q: Despite the prime ministerial part.
A: Yes, I would say so. I would say they're still being held back.
Q: What is there that we have not talked about that you would like to discuss? And I can turn it off so you can think about that for a moment if you'd like.
A: Yeah. [recorder turned off and then back on]
Q: All right. We return to our question of what have we not talked about that you'd like to talk about?
A: I think we've probably talked about a lot of things, most things.
Q: One thing you said that touched me in relationship with this letter was that you have to have heart.
A: Yeah, I think that you can be very things have got to be done this way and that way and that way, but you can't trample on people. You have to take people into consideration. You have to think of them as being very sensitive. Many people are not anywhere near as strong as you might be in that and the slightest little thing will upset them. You've got to think of those things along the way.
Q: While you have a reputation for being very tough minded, do you feel it's important to have a soft side?
A: Yeah, you have to take care of people. Because, you know, and actually you want people to treat, I want to be treated with respect and that. I always treat I think almost everybody I've ever known with respect.
One of the, even today, I've been out of office for nearly four years. Just the other day down at the train station, one of the black women who has one of those carts that she's selling some very pretty things. And she saw me, and she said, oh, Mrs. Bentley. Came up and hugged me. That's important. That's important. I probably never saw her before. Maybe she was in an audience or something. But the fact that she remembered and thanked me for all I'd done is important.
Q: It is. Thank you, Helen Bentley. I know that I will think of further questions after the fact.
A: I'm available.
Q: But this has been wonderful. Thank you.
A: I'm available.
Transcribed by: The Ability Group, 1255 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., Suite 112, Washington, D.C. 20036, 202-659-7676