President John F. Kennedy and women is a complicated topic. While his womanizing is well-documented, the women who worked for him — and the president’s policies on women — are not as well-known.
But WBUR tracked down some of the women who worked in the Kennedy White House. Their stories portray a president who deeply relied on them, and a politician who keenly recognized the growing importance of women in the workplace.
No women held top-level positions in the Kennedy administration, but at a time when few women had careers, an estimated two-thirds of Kennedy’s White House staff was female.
November 1963: Remembering JFK
- 11/15: The Women In Kennedy’s White House
- 11/14: The Camelot Mystique Of The Kennedy White House
- 11/12: Kennedy’s Public Service Legacy Still Moves Some Millennials
- 11/8: Violence Transformed Kennedy’s Civil Rights Push
- 11/1: A Son Of Massachusetts
- 10/18: Kennedy’s Final Footsteps At Home
“If you were a woman, you belonged in bed, in the parlor, in the kitchen or behind the typewriter,” said Nancy Hogan Dutton. She started out as an administrative assistant in the White House in 1961. She remembered one night when Kennedy adviser Mike Feldman noticed she was working late.
“He came in 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?’”
These White House women did a lot. They wrote letters for the president, coordinated media coverage and campaign logistics and some were recruited to help create new government agencies. Based on Mary Ann Orlando’s work for Kennedy’s father, she was asked to help create the Peace Corps.
“We had no public affairs office,” Orlando said. “When the phone rang and it was a newspaper, I was public affairs. And if congressmen called or senators or something or other, I was congressional affairs. It was really hilarious because all these senators were thinking they were talking to someone with great power there.”
Then there was the woman referred to as the “godmother of the White House women.” Jean Lewis, now 95, was a secretarial assistant in the White House.
At her home in Arlington, Va., where the walls are lined with photos from her time at the White House, Lewis proudly went through a detailed scrapbook. She was a woman ahead of her time: A divorced mother of two from Montgomery, Ala. pursuing a career. She came across a personal letter from Kennedy after she turned down an offer to work as a secretary in his office.
“The next thing, I got a letter from Kennedy urging me to reconsider,” Lewis recalled. “And I was so flattered that I agreed to work for the summer, and then I was hooked.”
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 National Convention in Los Angeles. Her scrapbook also contained never-before-seen photos from election night in 1960.
“We were all up at Bobby’s house up in Hyannisport listening to the returns,” Lewis said. “I was the only person there that night with a camera, with my little Brownie.”
Despite her access and responsibilities, women like Lewis were often excluded, even from the White House dining hall.
“It was mundane in many ways,” Lewis said. “For example, eating your lunch out of a machine in the basement because you weren’t allowed in the White House mess. But I thought it was always worth it.”
“I was so happy being where I was, it was the most exciting job in the world,” said Sue Mortensen Vogelsinger, who went to Washington right after getting her degree from Penn State. She didn’t care about prestige or her job title because her work was meaningful.
“Getting on a helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House. What more could you ask for in this world? If they wanted to call me secretary, fine.”
Vogelsinger was one of the eight staffers in the press office. Five were women — the three high-ranking staffers were men. According to Vogelsinger, the women quietly did their jobs. In fact, she has rarely been asked about her experience with Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.
“I was on Air Force One. Normally we would have been on the motorcade but it was a short stop so we thought we’d just stay on the plane and get it done,” Vogelsinger recalled. “And one of the stewards came running through and said, ‘Somebody’s been shot.’”
Nancy Larson, also a secretary. was back in Washington on Nov. 22, 1963. She got her job after meeting Kennedy’s 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 the recent gathering of Kennedy era staffers, she described what happened when a reporter called shortly after 12:30 p.m. that day.
“I said, ‘Nothing is happening here.’ He said, ‘The president’s been shot.’ The phones just started ringing off the hook.”
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 Malcolm “Mac” Kilduff was in Dallas. He called Larson and told her to tell Salinger where his plane should go.
“He said, ‘Nancy, when Pierre calls you, tell him the plane should go to Washington.’ And 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.’”
So, despite their job descriptions, Vogelsinger said, they — and everybody else — knew that these women were important.
“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 understand that pretty well, too. I don’t know that any of them particularly admitted it out loud,” Vogelsinger said.
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 Kennedy 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?
“All this stuff about womanizing just bores me,” Lewis said.
“I was working with the press and 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,” Orlando said.
“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,’” Dutton said.
As that joke suggests, the early 1960s 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 a 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.
“This is a great matter of great national concern, and in this great society of ours we want to be sure 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,” Kennedy said.
Despite that view of women’s responsibilities, 50 years later Kennedy’s commission is considered to have been extremely progressive, and 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 Kennedy White House hope that their roles ultimately helped the women of the future.
“It was a long time ago,” said Orlando. “It’s just, those men were brought up to believe that women had certain functions in the world, and they believed it. It was the beginning of women saying, ‘Hey, I did that, not him.’ In a way, it was showing the way for the next generation.”