As the feminist movement grew radicalized in the climate of the late 1960s, many women became increasingly critical of their peers who maintained traditional roles as supportive wives, and the tensions over women’s roles in society became increasingly polarized and debated. As if Pat Nixon did not have enough strikes against her as First Lady, she also had to deal with the changes women faced as a result of this growing feminism. Her years as Richard Nixon’s wife earned her the nickname “Plastic Pat,” a spineless automaton who smiled on cue with never a hair out of place. Moreover, she followed First Ladies who had established distinctive reputations: Jacqueline Kennedy epitomized elegance and style and worked to restore the White House and Lady Bird Johnson was actively engaged in the beautification of America’s highways. Pat seemed unable to live up to her predecessor’s standards or to bridge the gap between the new feminism and the wives of her generation.
Pat, no stranger to difficult challenges, navigated the situation the best way she knew how—by working hard and living up to her own beliefs. Pat’s early life was hard. She grew up on a hard scrabble farm. Her mother and father both died before she was out of her teens. For all of the tragedy, she also found joy in friendships, in school activities, and in her family.
Although the Republican party, and her husband, created the image of Pat as the perfect housewife and mother, the reality of her life had never quite matched that reputation. She was an excellent seamstress and decorator who put her personal touch on all of her homes. She was only a fair cook, but she could be a maniac about cleaning. She was also a doting mother who participated actively in her daughters’ educations and lives, volunteering at school, overseeing homework, and closely monitoring the girls’ activities. She could relate to the millions of women whose lives revolved around home and family.
On the other hand, in spite of her public image, like many women of her generation, Pat had worked her entire life. She lived in New York City for a few years, working at a hospital to support herself. When she returned to California, she held down several jobs to put herself through college. After graduation, she took a job as a teacher. After marriage, she continued working while Dick was away during World War II. When he returned from overseas and ran for Congress, she jumped on the band wagon. She was office manager, secretary, and jack-of-all-trades for his campaign despite being pregnant. Just hours after the birth of her daughter she was sitting up in bed typing press releases and doing research. She left her newborn with her mother-in-law so that she could continue to work. This campaign was more than just something she did for her husband, this was her new career, even if not the one she would have chosen.
Pat continued this pattern throughout the ups and downs of her husband’s career. While he was vice president, she frequently traveled with him. Although Pat regretted leaving her daughters, she believed she and Dick were doing important work. She did not have to do this. Other political wives cut back their travel when they had small children. Pat was proud of being a mother and wife, but she was also proud of being part of a political team.
When her husband lost his presidential bid in 1960, things changed. Even as Dick worked on rebuilding his career, she struggled to figure out what to do with herself. With her daughters growing up, she had lost both her careers as mother and as part of a political team.
She found her new job as First Lady. Although it took her a while to adjust to her new role, eventually she saw the potential in her new office. She used her position to open the White House to the traditionally excluded: the blind, the deaf, the working class. Her “project” was grassroots volunteerism and she traveled the country celebrating unsung heroes.
Even as Pat explored her role as First Lady, a revived feminist movement gained prominence and strength. Professional women from the National Organization for Women joined with women of color and younger white women who had worked in the civil rights, student, and anti-war movements to push for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. In addition, they encouraged women to see the discrimination that existed in their own lives. Some of the new feminists mocked marriage and motherhood as traps that stifled women. They focused on the importance of paid labor.
For many women of Pat’s generation, feminism seemed confusing, threatening and insulting. Many had worked their whole lives, not just as wives and mothers, but outside the home. They had not seen themselves as oppressed. They were proud of their accomplishments as wives and mothers. These women related to Pat’s loyalty to her husband and daughters, and her appreciation of their unpaid labor for good causes.
Pat was not unsympathetic to the feminist camp, however. She lobbied her husband to appoint a woman Supreme Court justice and gave him the silent treatment when he failed to listen to her advice. She quietly voiced her support for the ERA. Pat pushed even the limits of fashion: she was the first First Lady to appear in public in pants. Importantly, her career as her husband’s representative to foreign countries such as Venezuela and Ghana established a precedent for future First Ladies.
Pat’s low-key actions were not enough to please the feminists, who characterized her as the epitome of the suppressed wife who did her husband’s bidding. What they overlooked was her choice to adopt the job of political wife and her efforts to expand that position. Housewives around the country who supported her and feminists who disparaged her efforts did not realize the part she was playing in transforming women’s place in American political life.