The Presidency and Women: Promise, Performance & Illusion

The Presidency and Women: Promise, Performance & Illusion

The Presidency and Women: Promise, Performance & Illusion

The Presidency and Women: Promise, Performance & Illusion


Although no woman has yet served as president of the United States, women have played important roles within the executive branch--and they have found many ways to exert pressure on the president. In this imaginative and illuminating work, presidential scholar Janet M. Martin studies the influence of women on and in the American executive branch.

During the Kennedy administration, the President's Commission on the Status of Women (1962) and the passage of the Equal Pay Act (1963) were milestones in the history of the relationship between women and the executive branch. The growing participation of women in the political process throughout the twentieth century had made the inclusion of women--or at least the appearance of such inclusion--in the decision-making processes in the White House a political imperative for the Kennedy administration and for all the presidents who have followed.

The Presidency and Women offers a sophisticated understanding of the functioning of the nation's largest interest group and insight into the nation's most visible office. Martin studies in detail the presidencies of Kennedy through Carter. She demonstrates both the substantive growth in women's involvement in policy making and the political showcasing of women appointees, which has led to an ongoing illusion of even greater change. Her analysis provides insight into the day-to-day interactions between the White House and outside groups, the outside political pressures for certain policy agendas, and the internal White House dynamics in response to those pressures.

This book weaves the actions of presidents, their White House staff, and others in government with the actions of women and women's organizations. The result is a longitudinal political narrative of the presidency and women from 1961 to 1981, with a focus on domestic policy and the departments and agencies relating to that policy.


Research can begin with a carefully focused question in mind, but often that question leads to other questions, and before long a project expands into unexpected territory. This project began in 1989 as a study of women and the presidency with a focus on the impact of women appointed to positions in the executive branch. With so few women appointed to positions until the Carter administration, my intended focus was the last two decades—starting with the Carter administration and proceeding through the Reagan and Bush administrations. However, in looking at those administrations I began to look beyond appointments at the wider web of women’s organizations, agenda items, and White House structures, all addressing the question of the inclusion of women in the executive branch. An appropriate starting point would need to extend back in time, before the ERA became a singular focus in the 1970s and early 1980s. I noted a broader agenda for women, one with the same recurring issues (e.g., issues of equal pay, child care, health care, pensions, discrimination, and sexual harassment), recurring year after year.

My research broadened to include these new elements. I began to see my research providing a story, and an historical narrative was the best way to tell that story. An historical narrative has allowed me to lay out, in a systematic and quite comprehensive fashion, the players (presidents, staff, appointees, interest groups, Congress, the courts, and the public), the structures (White House organization, legislative devices, and presidential style), and the issues (Title IX, civil rights, pensions, child care, women in the military, education, jobs, and training) in a manner that opens up a new way of looking at the presidency and also women and politics. The narrative is one that has not been told by those scholars who have focused on one administration such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, or one issue such as the ERA, or more generally on historical evolution of the women’s movement. The research here suggests a broader role of the federal government in affecting the course of the women’s movement, and at a much earlier point in history than is generally noted, and the important role of the women’s movement in broadening the presidential agenda.

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