The first Christmas the Reagans were in the White House, Nancy Reagan's "East Wing" staff received some grim news: They would not be invited to the senior staff Christmas gathering, the exclusive party where a select number of White House aides get to sip eggnog with the president.
The incident underscored the tensions between the predominantly female East Wing and power-oriented West Wing -- and the fact that only a male on the first lady's staff was considered part of the power elite. Questions of title are of great concern in the White House, and this was one occasion when they were particularly significant. The most prestigious gradation is what is known as a "commissioned" appointment. The commission connotes proximity to the throne, and it also provides a crisp white document that most aides hang high above their desks.
Of Mrs. Reagan's senior staff, only the chief of staff has a commission, and this job has always been given to a man. So when it came time for the annual Christmas event, someone in the West Wing decided that only the chief was to be invited -- excluding some valued, as well as vocal, women.
"We couldn't believe it," says one former aide to Mrs. Reagan. "There was quite a fight over this, and we lost it the first year."
"I'd like to think it was an oversight," says Elaine Crispen, the first lady's press secretary who was then her personal secretary. "I don't think it was a sexist decision, because there were some women at the party."
On another occasion, members of the first lady's staff were taking a trip to Little Rock, Ark., and due to normal end-of-the-year budgetary constraints, they were informed that they had to double-up at the hotel. Just before the trip, former press secretary Sheila Tate was forwarded a list of those going, which showed all the women doubled up, but the men with their own rooms. She went nuts. "(James) Rosebush (the first lady's former chief of staff), advancemen, I mean the man who handles the luggage -- they all had their own rooms," says one person who was there.
Tate threatened not to go on the trip until the arrangements were changed, and they were.
"There's a real second-class citizenship about the East Wing," complains another former Nancy Reagan aide. "The fact of the matter is that she'd call (former deputy chief of staff) Mike Deaver for whatever she wanted, and that diminished our value within the entire operation. It's like you're standing outside a field of electricity. You get the shock waves and you're not really a part of it."
"I think there is no question that architecture plays a significant role in how women are treated," says yet another former assistant to the first lady. "Nobody in the East Wing could use the tennis courts unless invited by the West Wing. And (former personnel chief) Helene Von Damm once tried to get us gym privileges . . . It lasted about five minutes."