Editor’s note: This is the third of a series of reviews of books by authors scheduled to visit Book-FestPa on July 14.
“A Matter of Simple Justice: The Untold Story of Barbara Hackman Franklin and a Few Good Women” details how women were able to break through the glass ceiling in the Nixon administration thanks to the efforts of Penn State alumna Barbara Hackman Franklin.
In the book, former Penn State archivist Lee Stout suggests President Richard Nixon was caught off guard by the women’s movement. Stout wrote that when a reporter pointed out that only three of Nixon’s first 200 high-level appointments went to women, Nixon rolled his eyes.
Enter Barbara Franklin. With an MBA and a scant seven years’ business experience, she was hired in 1971 to recruit women for federal appointments. It wasn’t an easy task, Franklin recalled: “I was a one-man, or one-woman band. There was no structure there, not even a secretary.”
While Franklin may have been hired as window dressing, she ultimately overcame opposition to hiring women by demonstrating that those hires could help Nixon’s re-election campaign.
The first half of the book includes a quick history of women’s suffrage and the 1950s backlash against women in the workforce. Then Stout introduces Franklin and describes how she was able to turn the groundswell of support for women’s rights into more than 100 high-level jobs for women — most of them Republicans who would not have called themselves feminists.
The second half of the book gives long excerpts from interviews with many of the appointees. In one interview, Betty Southard Murphy, who Nixon appointed general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, described one of her tactics for getting board members to consider using woman lawyers for the top positions.
“I had told all my male colleagues at the NLRB about a Health and Human Services study that showed that men who had intelligent mothers or intelligent wives gave women opportunities and those who did not, did not. No one wanted to think that his mother or his wife was not intelligent, so they all began hiring women lawyers,” she said.
Perhaps because the interviews took place more than 25 years after the appointments, many of them feel distant.
They often lack drama or the level of detail needed to engage the reader. But there is period detail, such as when the president’s daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, describes why her father liked Republican National Committee co-chair 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.”
Those who proudly call themselves feminists will chafe at Nixon Eisenhower’s assertion that one needs to be a “lady.” Still, this book is important for the light it sheds on a chapter of our history that was largely overshadowed by President Nixon’s fall from grace. (For those who want to hear the voices of the interviewees, some full interviews are available at www.afgw.libraries.psu.edu.)
Cindy Simmons teaches in College of Communications and the School of Law at Penn State’s University Park campus.