How a Coal Miner’s Daughter Became the First Female Secretary of Commerce

October 08, 2014

Sometimes a story plays out just as we envision it might in a Hollywood film: “From trying beginnings, young girl pushes out of poor circumstances on wits alone to become key member of cabinet in U.S. government.” Sound like just a script? For Juanita Kreps, 1981 AAUW Achievement Awardee, this plotline was all true.

A portrait of Juanita Kreps

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Kreps was born in the heart of Appalachia in Lynch, Kentucky, to a struggling coal mine operator. Her parents divorced when she was young, and after living with her mother for several years, she went away to a boarding school. Despite these unsteady beginnings, Kreps met with immediate success academically, going on to Duke University for her master’s degree and doctorate in economics. Her studies focused on labor demographics, especially highlighting women and older workers. After taking up a few posts at universities where her husband landed professorships, Kreps returned to Duke, becoming a full professor in 1968. She served as dean of the women’s college soon after, and in 1973 became vice president of the university.

Kreps continued breaking barriers in academia. Her role as director of several big-name companies like Eastman Kodak, J.C. Penny, and AT&T would help her later on when she needed backing from big business the most: as U.S. secretary of commerce. Kreps was the first woman to fill that position (and the fourth woman cabinet member), which she held during the Carter administration. During her 1977–79 term, she spearheaded what would become a historic trade agreement with China, helping Carter patch his relations with big business when he was not in favorable standing. Kreps also advocated for business to take social responsibility both within the ranks of their employees and in the broader community and public landscape. She pushed the issues she had researched all her life — the status and well-being of women workers, older workers, the unemployed, and minority-owned businesses.

In Kreps’ obituary, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown quotes a reflective Kreps responding to what she would change if she had to do it all over again: “I would be more flamboyant. … I am plagued by this constant reference to the fact that I’m soft-spoken and gentle and don’t make waves.” To us, her lifelong achievements would speak otherwise, and we continue to think of this Achievement Awardee as a strong, brilliant trailblazer in her field — soft-spoken or not.


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