With all the celebration and reflection on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy, marking five decades since Johnson began enacting a raft of measures and social programs under the rubric of “the great society,” She The People wanted to get a sense of Johnson’s approach to women’s rights. His womanizing ways are well-known, as is his gruff, hyper-masculine approach to leadership. Yet those traits were coupled with a strong desire to break down barriers to equality. One historian called him a “macho egalitarian.”
Though the Congress that Johnson worked with was among the most liberal, it had few women, about a dozen in the House and no more than two female senators serving at the same time–about 2.5 percent of Congress overall. And in terms of the Civil Rights Bill, signed into law in July of 1964, there is a bit of a dispute about how and why the word “sex” actually made it into the bill.
“It was almost an accident of history as an effort to hurt the bill by adding something that was troublesome for some of the people who supported civil rights. The women’s movement, while simmering during his presidency was really more of a ’70s movement.” said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University.
“For every minute he thought about women’s issues, Johnson thought a day or a week about race issues. That was central to his presidency and his time and to his legacy. But also, as you are making African Americans progress and allowing the civil rights movement to progress, half the people you are helping are women.”
Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, said, “sometimes the history gets told without thinking about the role that women played in this.”
“It may have been that the original person intended it to be a poison pill, but it stayed in on purpose,” Graves said. “The women in Congress saw that it was building off the Equal Pay Act and the major report that Kennedy released around the status of women in 1963, which intended to address disparities among women in the work place and education.”
In Congress, Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-Michigan) led the way in adding the ban on sex discrimination in Title VII of the sweeping legislation.
Among Johnson’s counselors outside the White House was civil rights leader Dorothy Height, who encouraged him to hire women of color in his administration, and indeed, in 1964 Johnson was under such pressure from women’s groups to hire more women that he laid out a goal of hiring 50 women.
She The People reached out to the Lyndon B. Johnson library in Texas, which has a cache of fascinating taped conversations of Johnson working the phones and trying to get women in positions in his administration.
In January 1964, he talked with Mac Kilduff, a press secretary, and told him that agencies and cabinet officials should try to fill at least one of any upcoming vacancies with a woman. One of the first calls he made in February was to Luther Hodges, the commerce secretary. Johnson says that he is “catching hell” about not having enough women.
The recordings, many of them too big to post here, are worth checking out.
Here’s one of him talking to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, about appointing the actress Janet Leigh as ambassador to Finland in March of 1964. Hoover says the actress is “absolutely clean.”
That same month, Johnson reached out to Glenn Seaborg, of the Atomic Energy Commission, about a list of women for the Atomic Energy Commission. Johnson was clearly worried about the bad press he might get if he didn’t act quickly.