Former Secretary of Commerce, Dr. Juanita Kreps, died Monday July 5 at 89 years old. The first female in our nation to hold the distinguished position, Dr. Kreps was appointed under the Carter administration in 1976.
The journey to the White House was a long and challenging one for Dr. Kreps, who was born January 11, 1921 and grew up in a poor Kentucky coal -mining town. The daughter of a coal-miner, Dr. Kreps worked hard to financially support herself through Berea College in KY, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1942 with an economics degree. The following year, Kreps earned a scholarship to Duke University where she would eventually earn her Ph.D.
Between 1963 and 1967 Dr. Kreps instructed economic classes focusing on labor demographics at Duke University, eventually rising to the rank of full professor. In 1967 she became dean of the Women’s College and associate provost.
Dr. Kreps’ economic study centered on the labor demographics of older people and women and in 1971 she published Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work,the first book to examine the correlation of women’s participation in the labor force to women’s expected responsibility for household work. In her work, Kreps noted society’s expectation that women “meet this obligation regardless of the demands of their market jobs – a career constraint not imposed upon men.”
After being appointed to Secretary of Commerce in 1976,Dr. Kreps was asked to respond to a claim by Jimmy Carter stating that it had been hard to find qualified women to fill cabinet posts. Kreps replied:
“I think it would be hard to defend the proposition that there are not a great many qualified women,” she said. “We have to do a better job of looking.”
As Secretary of Commerce, Dr. Kreps oversaw trade missions in Japan, India, North Africa and other countries. She also spearheaded negotiations that opened trade to Communist China in 1979.
Dr. Kreps broke countless gender barriers during her lifetime. Her career in academia, business and government challenged the pervading social and cultural attitudes towards women’s abilities and aptitude. Kreps is survived by her two children and four grandchildren.