Academic Spotlight
Faculty Research, Performance and Exhibitions

The Presidency and Women

Story posted October 23, 2003

As a political scientist and scholar of the presidency, Professor of Government Janet Martin had never thought in terms of gender. But when she came to Bowdoin in 1986 she found herself in an all male department, with a preponderance of male students in her classes, at a school that had been co-ed just over a decade. It was in that atmosphere that she first began to think about issues of gender.

"[Before that] I never gave much thought to a woman doing or not doing something," Martin said. "I guess it became part of my consciousness."

Martin had recently inherited a data set of presidential appointments from another scholar, and she started looking at women as a variable in government appointments.

A decade and a half later, the result is "The Presidency and Women: Promise, Performance and Illusion" which was just published by Texas A & M University Press. ("It took so long to write about it because it's so interesting and so little was known," Martin said.) Through the years of research, what began as a look at women appointments broadened to become a narrative of the evolution of women's issues, how they were dealt with by presidential administrations, and the role of women in each administration.

In the early 1990s, when Martin first started researching government appointments, she also began to notice that so-called women's issues, such as family leave, sexual harassment, and Title IX, were fixtures in the news despite the fact that they were first broached much earlier in relation to the women's movement.

"And you're kind of wondering," Martin said, "if the women's movement is viewed as taking place in the 1960s and 1970s and women's rights as being a given, why are we talking about these issues now?"

The agenda of the women's movement didn't seem to have moved forward as quickly or definitively as might have been expected. So Martin began examining the ways in which the president has directly related to women and women's issues.

Martin's book marks the first time a scholar has looked specifically at the presidency and women, and Martin was conscious of telling stories that hadn't been told before.

"If I pick up any book on the presidency, nothing I have here would be included in any of those books," she said. "People ask why I didn't write about the ERA; we know about the ERA, but what we don't know is what was happening around the ERA."

Martin found that a key factor in the relationship between women and the presidency is how much access women have to power. When they are a part of the institutional framework and have access to the president, women's issues play a larger part in the White House's agenda. But when they don't, headway is much harder to come by, even if activist groups are trumpeting the issues.

"I think that the most influence has come from women who have been inside the White House and have been part of the structural apparatus of the White House and have had access to the president in that way," Martin said.

Esther Peterson, for example, was a labor union representative who met John F. Kennedy when he was a member of Congress. He got to know her as a lobbyist, and because he respected her, he used her as an advisor in his presidential campaign, then made her an assistant secretary of labor. She advised him during his time in office, and her influence helped lead to the creation of the President's Commission on the Status of Women, which was the first formal institution created by a president to address issues of concern to women.

Though women have long had informal access to power as wives and mothers, and have also been lower-level government employees, it took until the latter part of the 20th century for them to have much real influence on policy.

Access doesn't always depend on high-level appointments, though. Liz Carpenter was a press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, but she had a close friendship with the Johnsons, which gave her access to Lyndon Johnson that few had. She even put notes on his pillow to alert him to issues she felt deserved his attention.

Though women have long had informal access to power as wives and mothers, and have also been lower-level government employees, it took until the latter part of the 20th century for them to have much real influence on policy.

"I think the one thing that I found surprising is that so much should have happened, could have happened, so much earlier in terms of change," Martin said. "There are moments in time where things could have gone so differently."

For example, during World War II Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a conference to discuss the role women would have in society after World War II. Many prominent women supported the GI Bill because it would not only allow returning soldiers to go to college, but it would help women remain in the work force after the men came home, by running the factories while the men were in school, and then by continuing their own education and entering other professions. These and other important issues concerning women in the workplace were discussed at the conference, but the conference took place very close to D-Day, so it received no coverage in the media.

"There wasn't a sense of women being in those positions permanently," Martin said. "So that's a dialogue that could have taken place."

But it didn't. FDR didn't view women as permanent members of the work force, and since these issues never became a part of public consciousness, they didn't become a part of the presidential agenda.

A more recent example of historic events affecting policy comes from the Kennedy administration. The report from the President's Commission on the Status of Women was released just weeks before Kennedy's assassination. How much more impact might it have had if Kennedy had not been killed?

"Human rights for women has been an issue around the world since the 1940s," Martin said. Yet for U.S. policy makers, the issue is still often in the back of people's minds, rather than at the forefront of policy.

To illustrate, Martin used an anecdote from Bill Clinton's presidency: Clinton was in China around the time that the Supreme Court handed down several decisions involving sexual harassment, but when he was asked by reporters about human rights issues in the United States, the president spoke only in terms of racial discrimination.

People also have a tendency to think that the work is done once a bill passes, but in fact it takes diligence to keep an agenda a part of public policy - something especially evident when dealing with women's issues.

For example, Title IX was passed in 1972, but there were no provisions for funding and enforcement of it until years later. The 1964 Civil Rights Act contained prohibitions for discriminating on the basis of sex, but gender was not included in the enforcement section of the act.

"There's a headline [when a bill passes], and it doesn't necessarily tell you what is happening," Martin said.

"I think the one thing that I found surprising is that so much should have happened, could have happened, so much earlier in terms of change...There are moments in time where things could have gone so differently."

Martin does not delve into differences in power and influence between genders, but rather looks at how women have wielded influence on the executive branch of government. While the book gives insight into the progress of women's issues, it is perhaps more valuable for the insights it gives into the presidency by looking at presidential influence framed by a specific interest group.

"From my perspective...if you were a women's studies person coming at it, you'd probably totally disagree with what I say," Martin said. "But I come at it as an institutionalist. I see the world in terms of institutions."

It's important for women to understand the institutions of government and to become a part of the structure of government because "this is how power is used; this is how decisions are made," Martin said. "You can use institutions if you understand them."

Martin plans to next turn her attention to the relationship between congressional influence and presidential action on similar issues.

A final note on family dynamics:

Though it's not a part of her book, Martin made an interesting observation during her research - how a president perceives women and women's issues seems linked to the gender of his children.

"What I found out is that if a president only has daughters...he seems to be far more understanding of women than if a president has sons or sons and daughters."

Martin said this holds true going all the way back to Herbert Hoover.

Much of the evidence Martin used in making this observation is in the language presidents used in talking about women and what that demonstrates about their perceptions of women and their abilities.

"Probably the most surprising is Franklin Roosevelt and his language and how he talks about women in World War II and women working in factories," Martin said. "Roosevelt seemed really surprised at women's abilities when they moved into the work force."

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