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

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; B07

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.

After growing up during the Depression, it had been easy to decide what to study in school, Dr. Kreps told The Washington Post in 1977.

"If you read the newspapers and had a sense of where the world was, you couldn't help being concerned," she said. "I thought economics would give me more insight into what was going on."

She went on to receive a master's degree and doctorate in economics, both from Duke.

She married Clifton H. Kreps Jr., an economics professor, in 1944, and they moved together to teach at Denison University in Ohio and Hofstra College and Queens College, both in New York. She returned to Duke in the mid-1950s and worked her way up to full professor. She also served as dean of the women's college and vice president before she was invited to brief President-elect Carter on economic issues and to join his Cabinet.

In 1962, before Betty Friedan launched the women's liberation movement with the publication of "The Feminine Mystique," Dr. Kreps recognized in a speech that most women want both "further education" and "meaningful work."

She wrote widely about the employment of women and older workers, including in her 1971 book, "Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work," and a 1975 study co-written with Robert Clark, "Sex, Age, and Work: The Changing Composition of the Labor Force." She attempted to explain why women got fewer advanced degrees and more low-paying jobs than men, and she pushed for public preschools and flexible employment schedules.

Her husband died in 2000. Their daughter, Sarah B. Kreps, died in 2001.

Survivors include two children, Laura Anne Kreps of Durham and Clifton H. Kreps III of Kirksville, Mo.; and four grandchildren.

When Dr. Kreps was named commerce secretary, she said her first priority was to turn the oft-maligned Commerce Department into a major voice in setting economic policy.

"It would be degrading to me to be here as an economist and not have something to say about economic policy," she said at the time.

For the first year of the Carter presidency, she attended Thursday morning meetings of the president's inner economic-policy circle -- what she called "the boys at the breakfast table."

Later, she was excluded after it was decided that there were too many people at the meetings, and too little was getting done. The rejection was stunning, painful and more than a little ironic, given Dr. Kreps's research on barriers to women in the workplace.

If she had it all to do over again, "I would be more flamboyant," she told The Post in 1979. "I am plagued by this constant reference to the fact that I'm soft-spoken and gentle and don't make waves."

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