Barbara Hackman Franklin has served in five presidential administrations and, under President Richard Nixon, led the first White House effort to recruit women for high-level government jobs. She later served as the 29th U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush. Currently, Franklin is President and CEO of Barbara Franklin Enterprises, a private international consulting firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. She is an advocate for and advisor to U.S. companies doing business in international markets, notably China, and is an expert on corporate governance, auditing and financial reporting practices.
Born in Lancaster County, Penn., to two educator parents, Franklin learned the importance of hard work and education from an early age. She graduated from high school in 1958 and went on to the Pennsylvania State University where she graduated with distinction in 1962. Toward the end of her undergraduate work, the school’s Dean of Women nominated her for a scholarship to attend Harvard Business School (HBS), which had only just opened its doors to women. Franklin was admitted as one of only 14 women in her class, an experience she described as “interesting” and “character building.”
In 1964, Franklin graduated from Harvard with an MBA degree and moved to New York City where she took a job with the Singer Company—the first woman they had ever hired. At Singer, Franklin served on the corporate planning staff and created a new environmental analysis function to watch trends and analyze competition worldwide. She went on to serve as an Assistant Vice President at CitiBank, again as one of only a few women in the company. Throughout the early part of her trailblazing career, Franklin encountered much resistance from male colleagues, many of whom were skeptical that women could succeed in the business world. Because there were so few professional networking opportunities for women at the time, Franklin and her friend Charlotte Browne-Mayers of Standard Oil Company, organized their own networking group, hosting meetings once per month for former classmates and working women to talk about their careers, their struggles and their successes.
In 1971, she received a phone call from one of her HBS classmates who was working in the new Nixon White House. He was looking for a special assistant to the President who would be responsible for recruiting women for high-level government jobs. This was the first time any administration had undertaken such a specific initiative to advance women, and Franklin reported for her first day of work at the White House on April 12, 1971. Her directive from President Nixon was to double the number of women in top jobs. She saw firsthand how underrepresented women were in government and found she had a knack for dealing with government agencies to ensure that talented women were hired for high-level positions. Within two years, she had tripled the number of women in these positions from 36 to 130. She also helped more than 1000 women advance in mid-level jobs, many in departments previously dominated entirely by men.
Franklin left the White House in 1973 to become one of the first commissioners and the first Vice President of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. In this role, she focused primarily on children, whom she saw as one of the most vulnerable consumer groups in our society. Under her leadership, the commission introduced the first child-resistant medication bottle caps and oversaw industry safety improvements to children’s furniture and toys. She served six years on the commission before joining the faculty of the Wharton School of Business in 1979, but her public service continued. Franklin served four terms as a member of the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, as an advisor to the Comptroller General of the U.S. and as an alternative representative to the United Nations General Assembly. She also held a number of presidential appointments during this time.
In addition to her public service work, Franklin was approached by several public companies seeking to diversify their boards of directors. She joined the boards of Aetna, Dow Chemicals and Westinghouse Electric—again, as the only woman on the boards at the time. It was during her early years on the board of Hartford-based Aetna that she met and married her husband, Wallace Barnes, and ultimately came to call Connecticut home.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush appointed Franklin the 29th U.S. Secretary of Commerce. This made her the highest ranking woman in the Bush administration and only the 13th woman to serve in the cabinet. During her time in this cabinet post, she greatly increased American exports and opened markets in China, Russia, Japan and Mexico. Her historic mission to China in 1992 normalized commercial relations with that country and removed one of the major sanctions that the U.S. had imposed following the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989: a ban on ministerial contact. She returned from China with a billion dollars in signed contracts for American companies.
Barbara Hackman Franklin has served on the board of directors for 14 public companies and is currently on the boards of Aetna, a cluster of American Funds, the JP Morgan Value Opportunities Fund and the Lafarge International Advisory Board. She has received numerous honors for her work in corporate governance including the John J. McCloy Award for her outstanding contributions to audit excellence, Director of the Year from the National Association of Corporate Directors and the Outstanding Director Award from the Outstanding Director Exchange. She has also been named by Directorship as one of the 100 most influential people in corporate governance and is a regular commentator on international economic matters and corporate governance. She continues to serve on the boards of numerous economic groups including the US-China Business Council, the National Committee on US-China Relations, the Committee for Economic Development and the US. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Women in Business. Franklin has also received many honorary degrees.
In 2011, Franklin’s family established the Barbara Hackman Franklin Fund for Women through the Main Street Community Foundation in Bristol, Conn. The fund will benefit local women and girls in honor of Franklin’s commitment to the advancement and empowerment of women. In 2012, she was the subject of a book by Dr. Leon Stout, A Matter of Simple Justice: The Untold Story of Barbara Hackman Franklin and a Few Good Women, which chronicles her work to advance women in government.
Barbara Hackman Franklin divides her time between Washington, D.C., and Bristol, Conn.
During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice
Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”
A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.
Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.
Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.
A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.
Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent. Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.
The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.