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Posted 07/08/2010

Juanita Kreps, a woman of firsts. Photo from James K. Atherton/The Washington Post.

Juanita Kreps, who was born a Kentucky coal miner’s daughter in 1921 and who became the nation’s first female commerce secretary under Jimmy Carter, died yesterday (the Washington Post obituary is here) Kreps did not consider herself a feminist, but she lived the life of one, leaving the shambles of gender barriers in her professional wake. Growing up in Depression-era coal country, Kreps was familiar with poverty, and her decision to study economics at Berea College was easy, she remembered. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in economics from Duke University, eventually returning there to teach. After rising to full professor (the first woman appointed James B. Duke Professor) and becoming dean of the women’s college (the last before coeducation) and vice president (the first female one at Duke), she was invited by Jimmy Carter to join his cabinet. She was liked by the business community for ensuring that national security dealings did not interfere with international commerce, but she also pushed businesses to consider their treatment of women, the poor, and minorities and their impact on the environment.

Well before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, Kreps was arguing that women required jobs that gave them personal satisfaction and a sense of professional accomplishment. In this 1986 SOHP interview, she encourages women to find professional satisfaction and not limit themselves to their roles as wives and mothers.