Juanita M. Kreps, 89

Juanita M. Kreps dies at 89; economist was first female commerce secretary

Juanita M. Kreps said her priority as secretary was to turn Commerce into a major voice in economic policy.
Juanita M. Kreps said her priority as secretary was to turn Commerce into a major voice in economic policy. (James K.w. Atherton/the Washington Post)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Juanita M. Kreps, 89, a prominent economist who grew up in a poor Kentucky coal-mining community and rose to become, under President Jimmy Carter, the nation's first female commerce secretary, died July 5 in Durham, N.C. She had Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Kreps, a Duke University professor who specialized in labor demographics of older people and women, said that she did not consider herself a women's liberationist. But throughout her career in business, academia and government, all spheres traditionally dominated by men, she repeatedly broke gender barriers and campaigned to improve women's opportunities for meaningful employment outside the home.

A soft-spoken and genteel Southerner, she was nevertheless known for her strength and willingness to speak her mind. At a televised news conference with Carter after he named her commerce secretary in 1976, she was asked to respond to the President-elect's claim that it had been difficult to find qualified women to fill Cabinet posts.

"I think it would be hard to defend the proposition that there are not a great many qualified women," she said. "We have to do a better job of looking."

Carter smiled, then said, "I think she said she disagrees with me."

As secretary, Dr. Kreps led trade missions to Japan, India, North Africa and elsewhere. In 1979, she guided negotiations for a landmark pact with China that helped open trade with that Communist country. For decades, China had been closed to American business.

She held her ground against other top administration officials and successfully fought efforts to dismantle Commerce, a sprawling melting-pot of a department whose diverse activities include compiling trade statistics, forecasting the weather, managing the oceans, taking the census and promoting American exports overseas.

Dr. Kreps was determined to elevate the Commerce Department beyond its reputation as a powerless amalgam of disparate agencies. She succeeded, at least in part, leading an ambitious reorganization during which she expanded the department's role in urban economic development and the administration of foreign trade.

With her background as a director at Eastman Kodak, J.C. Penney and the New York Stock Exchange -- where she was the first woman in that role -- Dr. Kreps was well regarded by the business community, which cheered her efforts to keep national security concerns from interfering with many international trade deals.

She, in turn, challenged businesses to think beyond the bottom line and to consider the interests of women, minorities, the poor and the environment. She proposed the development of an audit of social responsibility to measure companies' contributions to the common good.

That proposal was not adopted before Dr. Kreps resigned in 1979, several months after her husband suffered what police called a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, which he survived.

Blair Juanita Morris was born Jan. 11, 1921, in Lynch, Ky., in the heart of Appalachia, where her father was a coal-mine operator. Her parents divorced when she was 4, and she grew up with her mother. At age 12, she went to a Presbyterian boarding school and then to Berea College in Kentucky, where she was a 1942 honors graduate in economics.

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