Elizabeth Dole

Elizabeth Hanford was voted “most likely to succeed” by her high school class, an astute prediction.  The first woman to serve in two different Cabinet positions under two presidents, she ran for the Republican nomination in the presidential election of 2000.

Born in 1936, Mary Elizabeth Hanford was raised in North Carolina by parents who encouraged community service.  She attended Duke University, where her brother had gone, but at the time the campus was divided by gender:  even the classrooms were divided, with a screen separating men and women.  Majoring in political science, she was elected president of the Women’s Student Government Association and became the 1958 “Leader of the Year” with votes from both male and female students.  She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

Her graduate-school choice was more conventional, as she earned an MA at the Harvard School of Education.  She never taught, however, but instead moved to Washington and worked for a North Carolina senator.  Senator Margaret Chase Smith encouraged her to get a law degree, so she returned to Boston and Harvard Law School.  Like Congresswoman Pat Scott Schroeder, who was there at the same time, she encountered a great deal of sexism; she was one of 24 women in a class of 550 students.     

Back in Washington, Elizabeth Hanford joined Richard Nixon’s administration as an assistant on consumer affairs, and he appointed her to the Federal Trade Commission shortly before he left office in 1973.  She wed Kansas Senator Robert Dole in 1975; he was divorced, and they never had children.  When Democrats won the White House in 1976, Elizabeth Dole was out of office until 1983, when Ronald Reagan appointed her to head the Department of Transportation.  The department was less than twenty years old at the time, and she was the first woman to hold the top position.  She was in that office when a bitter strike of air-traffic controllers shut down the nation’s airports. 

When Vice President George H.W. Bush became president in 1989, he swore in Dole as the nation’s 20th Secretary of Labor  -- much to the chagrin of organized labor, who did not view her as a friend.  She left the Bush Cabinet in 1991, the year before he lost to Bill Clinton, to head the American Red Cross.  Dole was the first woman in that role since founder Clara Barton retired in 1904.  Dole managed to hold on to the Red Cross position while campaigning for her husband, the unsuccessful 1996 Republican nominee for president, and took another leave of absence in 1999, when she sought the Republican presidential nomination in her own right. 

Although she had never held elective office (or even run for office, her previous positions and especially her effective campaigning for her husband gave Dole high name recognition.  Early polls showed her second only to George W. Bush.  Controversy arose, however, when the New York Times quoted Robert Dole as saying he wanted to donate to John McCain because McCain had supported him during his campaign.  Many felt that the comment indicated a lack of faith in his wife and damaged her campaign.  Elizabeth Dole raised more money than any previous female presidential candidate, but discovered the same phenomena that hurt well-qualified women who preceded her:  donors do not give as freely to women as to men. 

She withdrew after a seven-month effort, when she had raised $4.7 million compared to Bush’s $57 million.  Some pointed out that her lack of support was the result of the fact that Dole rarely reached out to feminists during her career; her poll numbers showed a particular lack of appeal with younger women.  Statistical analysis of media coverage confirmed that she, too, was a victim of the old habit of focusing on personal qualities with female candidates, not on their issues.  Indeed, her campaign may have reinforced this habit with a vague platform and an attention-getting speaking style.  Dole often left the stage to interact with audiences, a method that audiences loved – but which also encouraged reporters to emphasize her style over substance.

Although she had not been a North Carolina resident for three decades, Dole resigned from the Red Cross early in 2002 to run for North Carolina’s vacant US Senate seat.  She easily won the Republican primary and went on to defeat the Democratic nominee, a former chief of staff to President Clinton.  The first woman elected to the Senate from North Carolina, she served on prestigious committees, and in 2004, became the first woman to Republican Senatorial Committee, which raises campaign funds.  Senator Dole’s term ended in 2009.

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Works Cited:

  • Reprinted from NWHM Cyber Exhibit "Women Who Ran for President"