Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon--Women of the 1950s
In the 1950s, women were voting in equal numbers with men
for the very first time. In order to appeal to female voters, candidates' wives
became visible in political campaigns. Female voters could identify with women
such as Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon, who projected the traditional image of
the supportive spouse.
First Ladies were used to appeal to the feminine vote in the 1950s. This strategy was enormously successful, particularly in the Republican Party, which pitched family values to counter the communist threat as well as return the country to post-war "normalcy."
As campaigners, Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon played their parts perfectly. They were active in their husband's campaigns but were perceived as family women, not as political women--or seeking power in their own right. During the two 1950s presidential campaigns against Adali Stevenson, who was divorced, Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon allowed the Republicans to position their candidates as family men, and the wives as quintessentially adoring women who kept the family together. The strength of the family was a familiar theme of the 1950s with "The family that prays together stays together" an oft-quoted saying.
While previous First Ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt, had campaigned for their husbands, Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon, two non-political women of the 1950s, institutionalized the role of the First Lady campaigner.
For more on Pat Nixon, see Other Characters.
Women and Politics in the 1950s
The 1950s marked a turning point in the relationship
between women and political parties. By the postwar election of 1952, women had
become accustomed to their role as voters and now constituted half of the voting
electorate. Of the 61.2 million people casting ballots in 1952, 30.9 million
were men and 30.3 million were women.
The major political parties had to determine how to capture their ballots. The Republican Party made a particularly concerted effort. Led by Ivy Baker Priest, the assistant chair of the Republican National Committee and head of the party's women's division, the Republicans aimed a strong awareness campaign at women voters. Focusing on the fifties themes of women's return to the home and the solidarity of the family as a bulwark against communism, Republicans successfully translated their campaign issues into concepts that appealed to American women.
Domestic images were potent because the American public craved stability after the economic chaos of the Depression and the devastation of World War II. The return to normal living was symbolized by an emphasis on the home, the traditional family, and traditional, feminine, supportive roles for women. In a political climate increasingly shaped by the emergence of the Cold War and anticommunist rhetoric, the American family became a symbol of the goodness of democracy and capitalism.
The Democratic Party was less adept at using those themes to appeal to women. Despite the decision to sponsor a ladies' day at the convention in 1952, the party's women's division seems not to have undertaken a voting appeal to women comparable to the Republicans'. Indeed, the Democrats produced surprisingly little campaign material of any kind for the 1952 election when compared with the Republicans' tremendous output. Instead, the party stressed the integration of women into the political mainstream and, unlike the 1948 campaign, chose not to highlight women's issues as separate from those of interest to men.
In addition to their determination to capture women's votes, the Republicans had other advantages. In Eisenhower and Nixon they had the perfect candidates for the times. Ike and Dick, as they were often called, could be presented as the warrior hero, defender of the free world against its military foes, and the man who had built a reputation for defending the country against the subversion of communism. They also had the perfect presidential and vice presidential spouses, presented as the quintessentially supportive helpmates that the era extolled. Both families were active and highly visible during the campaign, making the opposition appear weak on issues central to the fight, while highlighting the family of strength and solidarity of their own candidates. The Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, was divorced, which in itself was a political liability in the fifties. Perhaps more significant, however, his marital status deprived the Democrats of the opportunity to capitalize on issues surrounding the family, a major social theme of the era.
True to their capitalist ideology and affiliations, the Republican advisors and analysts drew heavily from their market-research and advertising backgrounds to formulate the approach to the campaign. They were able to translate the issues that the Women's Division wanted to emphasize into mass-produced and mass-marketed commodities for consumption. What better way to appeal to the housewife, who was being urged back into her role as consumer? In such a climate the issues of the fifties could be sold to the electorate in female terms.
Republican pamphlets and leaflets, created by the Women's Division for women party workers, were widely circulated. One leaflet urged women to be a "Party Girl," a double entendre that encouraged them to work for the party while capturing the mindless, unthreatening, "fun-time girl" ideal of the fifties. Fit for kitchen and bedroom, and probably smart enough to stuff envelopes and dial phones, the Party Girl was certainly incapable of an independent thought. Properly reticent and unassertive, she had to be taught and urged to do everything. Republican literature always pictured women in supportive roles, in submissive postures, receiving explicitly detailed instructions from men or from the party on every subject. Pamphlets urged women party workers to conduct highly organized telephoning, radio, and television parties. And they responded. The strength of women's political organizations at the grass-roots level was startling.
The Republicans made effective use of these ardent amateurs--the local precinct workers, who were the largest group of women in political activity at the time. These women, who then outnumbered men in political volunteer work, staged political get-togethers, phone-calling parties, and television sessions. The Republicans knew their constituency. Campaign issues were presented as appeals to the little woman, picturing the American family as typically middle or upper-middle class, white, suburban, with a husband working outside the home for wages and a wife who remained at home with plenty of time for the PTA and volunteer work. Women's so-called "flexible domestic schedule" meant they had time for phoning, canvassing, meetings, tea parties, driving voters to the polls, and staffing the polls themselves.
The familiar buttons with the picture of the candidate's wife, Mamie, were again circulated, though to a degree previously undreamed of. The wife of the vice presidential candidate, Pat Nixon, appeared on campaign buttons for the first time in 1952 and was highly popularized. Mamie Eisenhower thoroughly enjoyed the role of political campaigner that she was thrust into in 1952 and left her personal stamp on her husband's campaign. Relatively unknown at the start of the campaign, she was an important image.
A public that craved stability after World War II could not have asked for better symbols than Mamie and Pat to emphasize the traditional home and family. The candidates' devotion to their families was reflected in their wives' adoring regard, Mamie's admiring and supportive looks at Ike during televised interviews and Pat Nixon's appearances with her daughters and pet dog, Checkers. Photos of Ike and Mamie (with her in pajamas) on the back of the whistle-stop train became a campaign classic. Nixon wrapped himself in family sanctity and sympathy in a dramatic television speech by invoking Checkers as a ploy to refute charges that he had misused campaign funds.
The more visible presence of the candidates' wives in this campaign did not, however, signal a departure from traditional ideas about women's roles. In both presidential elections in the fifties, campaign devices and images of women conveyed time-honored ideals of home and family. Objects with a feminine appeal were circulated in enormous quantities by Republicans in 1952. Many household items such as plates, cup and saucer sets, salt and pepper shakers, bud vases, pitchers, cream and sugar sets, and cast-iron trivets survive today, as does campaign jewelry in the form of necklaces, bracelets, earring, and pins, all bearing the likeness of the candidate of "I Like Ike" in dangling rhinestones. There were Republican emery boards, napkins, mirrors, combs, thimbles, and fans.
Though the silk scarves of 1888 foreshadowed an appeal to women through wearing apparel, they pale in comparison with the apparel appeal of the 1952 campaign. The well-dressed Party Girl would not leave home without wearing her "I Like Ike" blouse or dress (with full circle skirt, of course), her Republican umbrella, "Ike and Dick" sunglasses, complemented with the "I Like Ike" corsage and nylon stockings proclaiming to the world on both calves, "I Like Ike!" And what fashionable Republican woman would dare venture forth without her "I Like Ike" compact, in the configuration of a telephone dial, and her G.O.P. perfume, "For the Scent of Victory"?
The Republicans took political campaigning with a woman's slant a step beyond domestic objects and wearing apparel. Three major Republican themes were the Korean War, corruption (or "the mess in Washington," as it was called), and a balanced budget. The Republicans cleverly managed to find a particularly feminine angle for each of them. The Korean War was pictured as involving a son or husband. A campaign comic book published by the Republican National Committee graphically portrayed a woman whose son was being shot at in Korea and a sweetheart whose boyfriend would be unable to make it to their wedding because the war had intervened. Ike had promised to end the war and bring the boys home. Women were told that since Ike was a brilliant military hero and knew firsthand the horrors of war, he had not only the know-how but the incentive to make that a reality. Women obviously believed it. According to pollster Louis Harris, "Women ... were more disturbed about the Korean War than men in 1952. In fact, there is evidence to indicate that women were among the real prime movers in making the Korean War a major and decisive influence in the final outcome of the election."
The problem of the balanced budget was also translated into the language of the average housewife--it was equated with her balancing of the family budget. The implication was clear: if she could do it, so could the government. A brochure displaying a housewife on the cover asked women, "How much did your groceries cost you today?" It explained the rise in prices and the high cost of living by declaring the "waste, corruption, extravagance, blunders, bungling, bureaucrats, and taxes are hidden in your grocery bag." Following the theme to its logical conclusion, Republicans circulated extra-large "Ike and Dick" shopping bags--no doubt to show the housewife just how much she could buy if Ike were elected.
The mess in Washington was translated from an unintelligible bureaucratic problem into a simple matter that housewives could readily understand. Cleaning up the mess in Washington was portrayed in terms of a housewife cleaning up her home. Red, white, and blue scrub pails with the slogan "Let's clean up with Eisenhower and Nixon" and large "Ike and Dick" brooms, as well as broom pins, were widely distributed. Women were urged to help Ike, "a thrifty housekeeper," to "sweep out the mess."
Pollster Louis Harris pointed out that this appeal was not by any means lost on women voters. Pressures on the family budget to buy more than there was money for fell largely on women. "This was a crucial fact in the 1952 elections. Women lost faith in the Democratic Party to help them financially. Polls show ...women thought there was more likelihood of the Republicans keeping prices in line than the Democrats...Women more significantly than men felt the Republican Party would bring them economic security."
The Republican effort to capture the women's vote in 1952 was not without results at the polls. Earl Kruschke, after conducting polls in Michigan and studying polls of others in the 1952 election, concluded that women voted for Eisenhower in greater percentages than men (52 percent of men and 58 percent of women) and contributed significantly to this victory. Harris substantially agrees. In Kruschke's samplings, all the women interviewed who voted for Eisenhower mentioned one of the three "women's appeals" as their reason for voting Republican.
In many respects, the election of 1956 was a replay of the campaign of 1952. The Republicans again ran Eisenhower and Nixon, and the Democrats once more fielded Adlai Stevenson. The Democrats shifted their vice presidential candidate to Estes Kefauver, who had gained fame and popularity by conducting anticrime and racketeering hearings. As the menace of "godless communism" and the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union alarmed the public (recall the chilling "duck and cover" drills practiced in schools to "save" children from atomic attack), the social themes of family and religion were combined and emphasized. Religion--not a denominational variety--was the bland amorphous "church of your choice." But family and religion continued as bulwarks against the communist threat. "The family that prays together, stays together" was a much-touted aphorism of the fifties.
The Republicans continued to capitalize on both themes: Ike and Dick were presented as religious, God-fearing men, while Adlai Stevenson was a Unitarian. (Wasn't that something like an atheist?) The Republicans circulated many of the items produced in 1952 but added campaign fliers entitled, "Ike and Dick, All American Partners," with prominent photos of Mamie and Pat; "This is the man, this is his family," a photo of Ike and Mamie looking at him adoringly; and a campaign advertisement urging, "For you, your family, your future--vote Republican." The Republican candidates and their wives seemed wholesome and traditional, appealing to the need for personal and national security.
The Democrats directed few items at women in 1956, but they did schedule Women's Day at the party's nominating convention. It featured Eleanor Roosevelt, Katie Loucheim (vice chair and director of the Women's Division), and seven Democratic congresswomen as speakers. The congresswomen, scheduled in the afternoon to attract housewives who watched television, were cut off by the networks.
From Keith Melder, "Hail to the Candidate: Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcasts," (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) 152-157.
See also, for history of National Federation of Republican Women:
Mamie Eisenhower never earned a paycheck for working outside the home, but she had a full-time job for most of her life. “Ike was my career,” she declared. She embraced her role as military wife and devoted much of her energy to helping her husband by making their many residences feel like home. In 1953, she took on a new responsibility for which she was fully prepared -- First Lady of the United States. She defined that role in a way that reflected her own preferences and priorities as well as a good deal of contemporary thinking about gender roles in the 1950s.
White House Partners
“Ike runs the country, I turn the lamb chops,” Mamie often said about their division of labor in the White House. Mamie actually did little of the cooking -- the White House had many servants who handled those chores -- but she quickly took charge of that staff, making clear how she wanted things to work in the living quarters of the White House. She was an effective manager who made sure that there was a clear separation between home and office in the White House and that the President had ample time for relaxation. She saw that there was a room set aside for her husband, an amateur artist, to escape to his easel and paintbrush. In their family quarters, the Eisenhowers spent many evenings like other couples in the 1950s, eating dinner on snack trays while watching popular television programs such as I Love Lucy.
Mamie said that she had no interest in politics and was not involved in governing the country. She pointed out that she visited the Oval Office only four times during the eight years of her husband’s presidency, and each time she was invited. She often kept reporters at arm’s length. She held her first -- and only -- press conference just a few weeks after becoming First Lady. She declined an invitation to write a regular column about her activities for the New York Herald Tribune. She insisted that she and the President talked about many things but not the decisions he made in the Oval Office.
Yet there was more to the Eisenhowers’ relationship than what the public knew. The President called Mamie “my invaluable, my indispensable, but publicly inarticulate lifelong partner.” Those words are revealing, as they suggest that conversations in the family rooms of the White House went beyond news about the grandchildren or plans for vacation. Eisenhower learned to trust his wife’s judgment, to value her assessment of character, and to appreciate that he could confide in her as he could no one else.
Although Mamie avoided public comment on political matters, she did have her own opinions on many issues. She disliked Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and his methods of bullying witnesses who appeared before his committee. She made sure that McCarthy’s name did not appear on invitation lists for White House social events. Although she never considered herself a feminist, she did campaign for Ellen Harris, a Republican who sought a seat in Congress from a district in Mamie’s home city of Denver. “I hope you’ll all vote for her,” Mrs. Eisenhower told female gatherings. “We women have to have a voice in things.” She also accepted an honorary membership in the National Council of Negro Women. And when she revived the White House Easter Egg Roll, which had not taken place since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, she made sure that for the first time African American children could also join in the fun. Mrs. Eisenhower considered these actions nonpolitical, but in a country divided by racial segregation, they carried symbolic significance.
Pretty in Pink
Mamie Eisenhower loved being the nation’s hostess. She enjoyed social occasions, and she devoted much care and effort to planning menus, choosing entertainment, and making everybody feel welcome. She was always an elegant hostess and frequently made lists of the best-dressed women in the world. Sometimes she wore designer fashions, but she also delighted in finding a bargain in a department store. Her bangs and off-the-shoulder dresses helped define a personal style. But what truly set her apart was her favorite color, and she even had a shade of it named for her. During the 1950s, many women, like the First Lady, wore fashions and accessories in “Mamie Pink.”
Many Americans who never made a White House guest list experienced Mamie Eisenhower’s graciousness. She insisted that everybody who wrote to her should get some sort of personal reply. Mamie usually got 700 letters each month, so providing an answer to all those correspondents was an enormous task. She relied on fifteen staff members to help her, but her letters had her own touch. People around the country thrilled at getting a reply from the First Lady with her signature.
Mamie Eisenhower often turned her bedroom into her office. She avoided exertion and often slept late because of a heart condition that had its origins in a childhood case of rheumatic fever. She also suffered from asthma and Ménière’s disease, which upset her balance. But after she awoke in her pink and green bedroom, she did much of her work in nightgown and housecoat, while giving orders, according to one staff member, “as if it were she who had been a five-star general.”
From the Heart
When the President suffered a heart attack in September 1955, Mamie played an important role in his recovery. She stayed in the hospital for nineteen days, providing comfort and reassurance at a time when the public wondered whether the President would get well. She made clear that she had not taken over any of the President’s responsibilities, as had Edith Wilson when President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919. She was only helping her husband get better so he could resume a full schedule. She worked hard during his convalescence and signed replies to the 11,000 people who wrote to wish her and the President well.
She continued to care for her husband when he suffered from additional health problems. Eisenhower underwent abdominal surgery because of an attack of ileitis less than a year after his heart attack. In November 1957, he had a stroke. Although he recovered fully from both the stroke and the surgery, Mamie continued to monitor her husband’s schedule, making sure that the President got sufficient rest and enough exercise. At times, even Eisenhower did not know all that his wife had done: During the campaign of 1960, Mamie told Pat Nixon that she was afraid that a last-minute campaign swing might strain the President’s health. Eisenhower never understood why Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, did not ask him to campaign during the final days before the election.
Mamie Eisenhower lived an extraordinary life, yet she was like millions of American women who gave first priority to home and family. Prevailing expectations in the 1950s were that married women would concentrate on their roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers. Mrs. Eisenhower did just that. She was the nation’s most prominent hostess, she made sure that the White House was a comfortable home, and her “career” was Ike. She was very much a First Lady of the 1950s.