The Women In Kennedy's White House | KUOW News and Information

The Women In Kennedy's White House

Nov 20, 2013

This month in Washington, D.C., a group of Kennedy-era staffers met for a reunion, including some women who worked for Kennedy the White House.

While Kennedy’s womanizing is well documented, not much is known about his policies on women’s issues or the women who worked for him.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Deborah Becker of WBUR has the story of some of these trailblazers.

Their stories reveal a president who relied on them and a politician who recognized the growing importance of women in the workplace.


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JFK's womanizing is well documented, but what was his relationship with the women who worked for him? Some of them recently gathered in Washington. From the HERE AND NOW Contributor's Network, WBUR's Deborah Becker has this story.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: No women held top-level positions in the Kennedy administration, but an estimated two-thirds of JFK's White House staff were women. This at a time when few women had careers.

NANCY HOGAN DUTTON: If you were a woman, you belonged in bed, in the parlor, in the kitchen or behind the typewriter.

BECKER: Nancy Hogan Dutton started out as an administrative assistant in the White House in 1961. She recalls one night when Kennedy adviser Mike Feldman noticed she was working late.

DUTTON: He came into my office with a sheaf of papers and said: Oh, I'm so glad I found you. The president needs this typed by 8:30 tomorrow morning. I said: Mike, I don't type. And he said: Well, what do you do?

BECKER: These White House women did a lot. They wrote letters for the president, they coordinated media coverage and campaign logistics, and some were recruited to help create new government agencies. Take Mary Ann Orlando. Based on her work for JFK's father, she was asked to help create the Peace Corps.

MARY ANN ORLANDO: We had no public affairs office. So if the phone rang and it was someone from a newspaper, I was public affairs. And if congressmen called or a senator something or other, I was congressional affairs. And, you know, it was really hilarious because all these senators were thinking they were talking to somebody with great power there, you know?

BECKER: Then there's the woman referred to as the godmother of the White House women.

JEAN LEWIS: My name is Jean Lewis. I'm 95 years old, and I was a secretarial assistant in the White House.

BECKER: At her home in Arlington, Virginia, where the walls are lined with photos from her time at the White House, Lewis proudly goes through a detailed scrapbook.

LEWIS: Yeah. Oh, yeah, look at the mail. There we go. This is the campaign headquarters.

BECKER: She was a woman ahead of her time - a divorced mother of two from Montgomery, Alabama, pursuing a career. She finds a personal letter from then-Senator Kennedy after she turned down a job as a secretary in his office.

LEWIS: The next thing, I got a letter from Kennedy urging me to reconsider. And I was so flattered that I agreed to work for the summer. And then I was hooked.

BECKER: As a result of her enthusiasm and hard work, she was put in charge of all logistics for key political events such as the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. Her scrapbook also contains never-before-seen photos from election night in 1960.

LEWIS: There's the president and Bobby - we were all at Bobby's house up in Hyannis Port listening to the returns.

BECKER: There's Ted Kennedy.

LEWIS: Yeah, that's Ted. I was the only person there that night with a camera, with my little Brownie.

BECKER: Does the Kennedy Library know you have these?

LEWIS: No, they don't know that.


BECKER: Despite her access and responsibilities, women like Lewis were often excluded, even from the White House dining hall.

LEWIS: It was very mundane in many ways. For example, eating your lunch out of a machine in the basement...

BECKER: Because...

LEWIS: Well, because you weren't allowed in the White House mess. But I thought it was always worth it.

SUE MORTENSEN VOGELSINGER: I was so happy being where I was. It was the most exciting job in the world.

BECKER: Right after getting her degree from Penn State, Sue Mortensen Vogelsinger went to Washington. She didn't care about prestige or her job title because her work was meaningful.

VOGELSINGER: Getting on a helicopter on the South Grand(ph) of the White House, I mean what more could you ask for in this world? If they wanted to call me a secretary, fine.

BECKER: Vogelsinger was one of the eight staffers in the press office. Five were women. The three high-ranking staffers were men. The women, Vogelsinger says, quietly did their jobs. In fact, she's rarely been asked about her experience being with Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.

VOGELSINGER: I was on Air Force One. Normally we would have been on the motorcade, but it was a short stop so we thought, well, we'll just stay on the plane and get it done. And one of the stewards came running through and said somebody's been shot.

BECKER: Back in Washington on November 22, 1963 was another secretary, Nancy Larson. She got her job after meeting Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger, on a plane. She was a flight attendant with a political science degree who won him over with extra martinis and beating him at gin rummy. Larson was the first person in the White House to learn of the president's assassination. At a recent gathering of JFK-era staffers, she described what happened when a reporter called shortly after 12:30 p.m. that day.

NANCY LARSON: So I said nothing is happening here. And he said the president's been shot. The phones just started ringing off the hook.

BECKER: Larson's bosses were away. Salinger, en route to a trade mission, had his plane turned around but did not have a destination yet. Assistant Press Secretary Mac Kilduff was in Dallas. He called Larson and told her to tell Salinger where his plane should go.

LARSON: He said, Nancy, when Pierre calls you, tell him the plane should go to Washington. And at that moment I understood why the plane was going to Washington and I just said, oh no, Mac. And he said, you can't say anything. It hasn't been announced it yet.

BECKER: So despite their job descriptions, Sue Vogelsinger says, they and everybody else knew that these women were important.

VOGELSINGER: Jobs couldn't have been done without us. There's no question. I think we all felt that way. Even I think many of our so-called bosses understood that pretty well too. I don't know that any of them particularly admitted it out loud.

BECKER: That dichotomy between what was said out loud and what was whispered was, of course, a big part of Kennedy's life as well. These women described JFK as fiercely intelligent, charming and interested in their lives. They all agreed that working with Kennedy was the best experience of their careers and they thought they were helping usher in a new era of social enlightenment. Privately, as we now know, Kennedy was a compulsive womanizer. So did these other women of the White House know that was going on?

LEWIS: All this stuff about womanizing just bores me.


LEWIS: It does.

ORLANDO: I was working with the press. I got asked every question you can imagine. And I'm sure somebody at some point would have asked me at least one question about one woman somewhere, but I never got a question like that.

DUTTON: I remember asking a wise old Democrat, there are all these rumors, why isn't it in the press? And he said there are more votes in virility than there is in fidelity.

BECKER: As that joke suggests, the early '60s were a very different time for the sexes. It was President Kennedy who took the first steps to change things. He created the first and only Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. In this 1962 interview with Commission Chair Eleanor Roosevelt, Kennedy explained that the panel would consider how to deal with the increasing number of women in the workforce.


PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: This is a great matter of great national concern, and I think that in this great society of ours we want to be sure that we - that women are used as effectively as they can to provide a better life for our people. In addition to meeting their primary responsibility, which is in the home.

BECKER: Despite that view of women's responsibilities, 50 years later Kennedy's commission is considered to have been extremely progressive. The report it issued is credited with helping pave the way for the women's movement. The commission's recommendations included things such as guaranteed paid maternity leave and subsidized daycare - things women still don't have today. But these women, from the JFK White House, hope that their roles ultimately helped the women of the future.

ORLANDO: That was a long time ago. It's just, those men were brought up to believe that women had certain functions in the world, and they believed it. And it was just the beginning of women saying, hey, I did that, not him. In a way it was showing the way for the next generation.

YOUNG: Mary Ann Orlando, what she did was help set up the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration. She ends her report from WBUR's Deborah Becker. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.