Historian Judith Nies challenges Jimmy Carter's record on women's appointments

Historians in the News
tags: Jimmy Carter

Letter to the Editor:

I am a great admirer of Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency, but Molly Worthen’s review of “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter” and Carter’s “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power” (June 8) failed to confront the reality of his record in the White House.

It is misleading to say that he “appointed an unprecedented number of women to his administration.” What he did was put hundreds of women on unpaid commissions and boards. Women in paid positions were 12 percent of his administration. Although he can claim to have put more women in cabinet posts than any previous administration, it was because previous administrations had only one female cabinet member. Independent-minded women — Midge Costanza comes to mind, as well as the (unpaid) chairwoman of his National Advisory Committee for Women, whom he publicly fired in 1979 — did not fare well.

He may have supported the Equal Rights Amendment in principle, but he put little political muscle behind it and helped to assure its ultimate failure by bringing conservative religious groups to the policy-making table.

The rise of the religious right in American politics was encouraged by the ill-advised White House Conference on Families in 1980. Religious leaders got to discuss child care, pay equity and abortion rights under the guise of family values. They went on to support Ronald Reagan and organize anti-E.R.A. campaigns in states where ratification was still pending. Carter’s own memoir of his presidency (“Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President”) does not focus on the activities of women except for his wife, Rosalynn.

I admire Carter’s interest in the status of women globally, but as the saying goes, if you don’t walk the walk at home it is hard to accomplish change internationally.


The writer’s books include “Nine Women: Portraits From the American Radical Tradition” and “The Girl I Left Behind: A Narrative History of the Sixties.”

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