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The Woman Who Might Have Been President

As former Goldwater Girl Hillary Rodham Clinton is poised to become the first woman president of the United States, it is worth asking: what prevented Elizabeth Dole — Clinton’s former Senate colleague — from breaking that historic barrier?

Sexism, not just within the Republican Party but also in a larger political world saturated by media coverage, is one obvious answer.[1] The misogynistic rhetoric emanating from the campaign of Donald J. Trump has a long history in both parties. Regardless of how accomplished they have been, male politicians’ wives who have aspired to political office themselves, have never been able to shake the stigma of being wives. In 1999, when rumors had Dole preparing for a run at the White House and Clinton for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Senate Seat, Margaret Talbot, then a senior fellow at the New American Foundation, wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Remember the Year of the Woman? Well, it’s beginning to look like 2000 might be the year of the wife.”

Labeling both these female candidacies – one from the right and one from the center — a symptom of political “dynasticism… in which a woman’s own political career is an outgrowth of her husband’s,” Talbot then warned in a burst of regional stereotyping that Dole’s “sugary southern charm will only carry her only so far; who wants a magnolia, even a steel magnolia, for President?”[2] The nation proceeded to elect (or not, depending on which hanging chad you look at) a male southerner, and a dynastic candidate with a far shorter resume and fewer intellectual accomplishments than Dole, George W. Bush.

I am deeply interested in sexism, and how it does and does not change over time. But I am also interested in the fact that Dole’s accomplishments have been largely ignored and forgotten by historians of feminism. Although I doubt that it is the last glass ceiling, Clinton’s election as President will embed feminism in the White House, perhaps the primary reason she is so reviled by the alt-right. Yet Dole’s achievements has shaped the world little girls grow up in too: Harvard Law School, a career in federal consumer protection, a stint on the Federal Trade Commission in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Director of the Office of Public Liaison and first woman Secretary of Transportation in the Reagan administration, Secretary of Labor under George H.W. Bush, President of the American Red Cross, and a term as Senator from North Carolina. You cannot look at Dole’s resume and not ask the obvious question: how has sexism functioned to suppress the political careers of conservative women? But the insignificant pool of female presidential candidates in a contemporary Republican party that boasts numerous female policy makers also forces the question: is it possible to conceive of a woman president who does not publicly embrace a feminist identity?

In many ways, Mary Elizabeth Alexander Hanford’s life mirrors her younger counterpart, Hillary Clinton. She was born a Democrat, on July 29, 1936, in segregationist Salisbury North Carolina. Later, in a campaign biography that Liddy and Bob Dole published prior to his unsuccessful attempt to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988, she would downplay her ties to the Democratic party, characterizing her father as a “nominal Democrat” and an anti-New Dealer. In fact, conservative segregationists were the backbone of the party’s Southern wing. Dole remained a Democrat long after her father left the party that hitched its star to the civil rights movement. “I was twelve years old before I learned that there were two political parties,” she wrote, an allusion to the 1948 “Dixiecrat” rebellion.[3]

Unlike the memoirs of feminist politicians like Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and later, Geraldine Ferraro, Dole also skipped over her decision to pursue a career rather than marriage in her twenties and thirties. Describing herself as having none of the talents expected of a wife, she majored in political science at Duke University. Recounting her mother’s insistence that she major in home economics instead of political science, Dole cited the aid of a male mentor who argued that a career did not preclude a traditionally feminine future. “Let her take political science. We need more women in government,” Dole recalled that he told the Hanfords, who had driven to campus to address the crisis of their daughter’s major, he said: Besides, he said, “They all get married eventually.”[4]

Indeed, this seemed to be Elizabeth Dole’s trajectory. In 1957, she was elected student government president as well as May Queen. After graduation, she studies at Oxford University in England, and the summer of 1960 found her on the staff of North Carolina Senator B. Everett Jordan, where she “sought out prominent women in government for professional guidance.” These mentors included the only two female Senators: Margaret Chase Smith, from Maine; and Oregon Democrat Maurine Brown Neuberger, who was completing her husband’s term and would then be elected in her own right.[5]

It was Smith who advised Liddy Dole to become a lawyer, a daunting goal in a day and age when law schools had female quotas, and it was legal to exclude a woman because of her sex. After a whirlwind trip on Lyndon Johnson’s campaign train, and two years working in the library at Harvard, Dole was accepted at Harvard Law School in 1962. Out of 550 members of the class, fewer than 25 were women, and they suffered harassment and exclusion because of their sex. As she and Bob embarked on the campaign trail twenty five years later, she recalled that overcoming discrimination had given her a “common point of reference” with classmates like Pat Schroeder and Elizabeth Holtzman, both of whom would be elected to Congress as Democrats. Even the praise was insulting. Upon graduation in 1965, President Nathan Pusey had welcomed these path-breaking women into “the fellowship of educated men.” Dole commented in 1988 that Pusey was simply unaware that “Harvard’s sexual caste system was crumbling. Take it from an old hand at leaping walls.”[6]

But the walls were not crumbling fast enough. Despite their academic achievements, in 1966 sexism prevented women like Dole, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg from getting the prestigious offers and clerkships reserved for their husband and male classmates. Still a Democrat, Dole went to Washington to join Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Starting at Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), she soon moved to the Food and Drug Administration, where she worked first for Betty Furness, and then Virginia Knauer, at the Consumer Affairs Division, an office that became the United States Office of Consumer Affairs under Richard Nixon. With Liddy Hanford as her top aide, Knauer promoted reforms associated with “good government” liberalism by the 1980s: recycling, accurate nutritional labeling, unit pricing of groceries, and car safety.[7]

Although consumer protection had long been associated with women’s politics,[8] Dole continued to feel the sting of sexism. Nearly forty, she heard herself referred to as a “kid” by a congressman during a hearing, and she was turned away from a meeting with male legislators at Washington’s gender segregated Metropolitan Club. In 1973, Knauer urged her aide to apply for an open spot at the Federal Trade Commission where Dole worked to enforce key feminist legislative achievements like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act that gave women access to credit cards, mortgages, and other loans in their own names. At the same time, she had begun to date the divorced Republican majority leader who would become her first and only husband. Later Elizabeth remembered perceiving Robert Dole as “someone I could look up to but also be a peer to.”[9]

This leading conservative respected her ambition. “Clearly, I was never going to be the kind of wife who worried about my husband being home in time for dinner. Luckily, Bob didn’t want that,” Dole remembered in 1988. And yet, when the two married in 1975, she made an important compromise: she changed her registration from Democrat to Independent, and she took a leave from the FTC to go on the campaign trail with him in 1976 when Gerald Ford picked Bob Dole as his running mate.[10]

Elizabeth Dole blossomed on the campaign trail, perhaps imagining for the first time that she could be more than a skilled bureaucrat. More importantly, the four women on the campaign trail in 1976 were a collective study of what feminism in the Republican Party looked like, a decade into women’s liberation and three years after Roe v. Wade had galvanized conservatives. First lady Betty Ford had been a professional dancer and was vocal in support of the ERA, premarital sex, and abortion; First lady in waiting Rosalynn Carter had helped run the family peanut business; and Dole’s counterpart, Joan Mondale was an artist, a writer, and a museum volunteer. All but Dole had married relatively young and had children. Only Liddy Dole and Joan Mondale had graduated from college, and only Dole had a professional degree and a career independent of her husband. When a reporter insinuated that Dole had built a career at a cost to having a family, she replied as a feminist without attaching that name to it. Women “should be able to choose,” she responded, “whether it’s a career, or the role of homemaker and mother, or both. Choice is what it’s all about.” The word “choice” was pointed language: by the campaign of 1976 “choice” had become a euphemism that many feminists preferred to saying the word “abortion.” In fact, Dole was both pro-choice and pro-ERA in 1976, a past she would obscure by 1980.[11]

Although Dole recalled the 1976 campaign as her introduction to campaigning, she had been studying electoral politics from the inside since the 1960s, and she was a skilled public speaker. Women at the Republican National Committee persuaded her to go on the road alone in 1976, as “an independent career woman…with ten years of government experience,” undoubtedly an attempt to draw feminist support. After Jimmy Carter was swept into office, Dole returned to her job at the FTC, remaining there throughout the Carter administration, and only resigning for good in 1979 when Bob Dole once again ran for the Republican nomination.[12]

Bob Dole’s powerful role in the Senate in the 1980’s may indeed have propelled his wife’s career, but like Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole was never perceived as only a gatekeeper for her husband. So why is she not perceived as one of the women who has paved the way for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016? One answer may be the circumstances of Dole’s exit from politics in 2008, in which she lost a formerly safe Republican seat and her reputation because of an ill advised, highly personal, attack on her opponent Kay Hagen. Her achievements, and the stubbornness with which she repeatedly overcame sexist barriers within her own party, have certainly been obscured by her retreat from public view following Hagen’s, and the voters’, resounding rebuke.

But our amnesia about figures like Dole points to a larger lack of interest among political historians about Republican women who were not conservative grassroots activists. Dole’s mentor, liberal Republican Margaret Chase Smith, who came to the 1964 nominating convention with 27 delegates, is one prominent example. More importantly, perhaps, even when they stopped calling themselves feminists towards the end of the 1980s, [13] Republican women confounded the narrative of ideological hostility between the two major parties by continuing to work effectively with women in the Democratic party, not only throughout the Reagan years, but to this day.

Elizabeth Dole saw an opportunity in the Republican part that Democrats may never have offered her, and she may have begun to dream a presidential dream while on the campaign trail in 1976. By 1981, the impending defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, and liberal feminists’ opposition to Ronald Reagan made the promotion of female politicians – without promoting feminism itself — ever more urgent for the Republican Party. This, in turn, led to the appointment of Elizabeth Dole as head of Ronald Reagan’s transition team, with the explicit directive of appointing more women to the administration than ever before (she succeeded); and the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. Both appointments were strongly opposed by conservatives, including conservative women. That opposition led to Dole being awarded the job of Director of Public Liaison, rather than the cabinet post she had hoped for.

It is also true that Elizabeth Dole is a complicated person for feminism to own. Once she became a Republican and began to move up the ranks, together and separately from Bob, Elizabeth Dole adopted policy positions that matched a party energized by so-called “social issues.” Remaining in, and moving up the ladder, after the Reagan Revolution required this. Dole watched as Sandra Day O’Connor’s chance to be the first woman on the Supreme Court was nearly derailed by the party’s right wing because she was said to be “soft” on abortion. Dole watched as Margaret Heckler, a founding member of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, was jeered in her home state as “Pirouetting Peggy” when she tried to balance her allegiance to key feminist issues like ERA, abortion and birth control with the new conservative reality in the GOP.[14]

Conservatism narrowed the political space and the possibilities for feminism in the GOP by the 1980s, a situation that has become so extreme that in 2016 many moderate Republicans view a centrist Democrat like Hillary Clinton as radical mostly because of her feminism. Women like Dole are also an increasingly bad fit in a women’s history research practice that has not only been profoundly shaped by women’s liberation, but has also relegated conservative feminism to a distant past of temperance leaders, eugenics and lily-white suffrage politics. Yet Elizabeth Dole’s career suggests we might want to look harder. After her election to the Senate in 2003, communications scholars Molly Meijer Wertheimer and Nicola Gutgold asked Dole whether she considered herself a feminist. She responded that she had not been part of a social movement, nor did she have “pre-packaged views that are handed down at a political correctness club. But,” she said, “If we’re talking about more freedom for women, more opportunities for women, my whole career has been part of that.”[15]

Yes, it has. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Elizabeth Dole casts her first Democratic vote in almost fifty years this November.

[1] Erika Falk, Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns (Champagne-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.)

[2] Margaret Talbot, “Here Come the Wives,” New York Times Magazine, March 14, 1999.

[3] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, with Richard Norton Smith, The Doles: Unlimited Partners (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 29.

[4] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, 36.

[5] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, 62-9.

[6] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, 69-78.

[7] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, 135-141; William Grimes, “Virginia Knauer, Consumer Advocate, Dies at 96,” The New York Times, October 27, 2011.

[8] Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: the Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Vintage Books: 2003).

[9] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, 145, 153.

[10] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, 153

[11] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, 163.

[12] Bob and Elizabeth Dole, 171, 185

[13] Faye Ginsburg’s study of the battle over an abortion clinic in Fargo, North Dakota showed that as late as the mid-1970s, some conservative women called themselves feminists; see Contested Lives: An Abortion Debate in An American Community (Berkley: University of California Press, 1089)

[14] Kathleen I Kouril, “Peggy’s Pirouette,” The Harvard Crimson, April 4 1983.

[15] Quoted in Molly Meijer Wertheimer and Nicola Gutgold, Elizabeth Hanford Dole: Speaking from the Heart (Westport CT: Praeger, 4004), 85.

  • Chiara Bottici

    thanks claire! interesting piece!

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