This article is an adaption of a response to a public inquiry asking for the origins of First Lady Pat Nixon’s public declaration of support for both the Equal Rights Amendment and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
Although it is her successor and friend Betty Ford who is the First Lady most closely associated with several women’s issues that dominated the national dialogue in the 1970s, Pat Nixon was the first to express her views. She did so not out of a motivation to weigh in on the issues, but in response to questions posed to her at a 1972 press conference, whereas Betty Ford became an outspoken activist on behalf of gender equality issues.
Mrs. Nixon’s support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was part of the platform of the 1968 National Republican Convention, as well as her support of what would be the Supreme Court’s final decision on Roe v. Wade emerged from a press conference in the summer of 1972, as she was campaigning on her own on behalf of the President’s re-election campaign.
In mid-September of 1972, the First Lady made a one-week campaign tour on her own, starting in Chicago.
On the afternoon of September 19, 1972, following a stop at a ceremony where immigrants were undergoing their naturalization ceremony, and accompanied by Illinois Governor Richard Ogilivie, she held an informal press conference.
In her meeting with reporters, they asked her a series of politically sensitive questions, including amnesty for those who had left the U.S. to avoid being drafted to the war in Vietnam, the pending Supreme Court case on abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, the growing Watergate scandal, and the claims that the Attorney General’s wife, Martha Mitchell, had been held against her will by FBI agents.
During that conference, she affirmed her support of the ERA and belief that abortion should be a legally considered a “personal matter” (although a final decision on Roe v. Wade was not delivered by the Supreme Court until January 22, 1973, arguments had begun on December 13, 1971, and the issue was one of widespread public discourse all through 1972).
Apart from Mrs. Nixon’s responses to reporters that September day in 1972, she apparently gave the matter no further consideration in public.
There is a subtle but important distinction, however, that Mrs. Nixon made on the issue of abortion. While she supported an individual’s right to make this choice, she did not support what she called “wholesale abortion on demand,” thus suggesting she anticipated a moderated pro-choice Republican view that emerged in the early 1990s.
On the ERA, Mrs. Nixon seems to have had a rather vigorous perspective, having been a working woman for a full sixteen years of her life, ending only with the birth of her first child Tricia.
As Julie Nixon Eisenhower wrote of her mother “In 1972 she urged that the [equal rights] amendment be endorsed again at the convention” as it had been by the 1968 Republican National Convention platform which nominated her husband for his first term.
Julie states further that “my father raised objections,” a lukewarm response. The National Republican Party did again endorse the ERA in 1976, especially since then First Lady at the time, Betty Ford, was an outspoken activist on behalf of its potential passage.
There was only one other political issue on which the President and Mrs. Nixon were known to have had conflicting views, and that was the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. Contrary to her usual policy of refraining from weighing in on contentious issues.
The First Lady publicly declared her intention to lobby the President hard on appointing a woman while exiting a performance with him at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
In private, she vigorously implored him to do so and when he instead appointed a man, there were some frosty moments, according to her biographer and daughter.
Despite her telling ABC television reporter Virginia Sherwood that the bi-partisan Women’s National Political Caucus, formed in February 1971 that it sounded “out there,” she strongly supported its agenda of involving more women in politics, including elective office.
It’s original co-chairman of national policy council was, in fact, Republican Virginia Allen, former chair of President Nixon’s Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities.
While learning, during a tour of Rumania’s legislature, that it had a large percentage of women representatives, the First Lady made a startling observation that American women were under-represented in the U.S. Congress.
Although it was initiated as a political payback for the loyalty of Michigan Governor George Romney to her husband, Pat Nixon made a highly publicized campaign tour on behalf of his wife, Lenore Romney, in her failed campaign for the U.S. Senate seat from Michigan.