Juanita Morris Kreps

Juanita Morris Kreps (born 1921) was an economist, university professor, U.S. secretary of commerce (1977-79), and author of several books about women, the aged, and economics. She was the fourth woman to serve in an American presidential cabinet and the first to become Secretary of Commerce.

Juanita Morris Kreps was born in Lynch, Kentucky, on January 11, 1921, the daughter of a coal mine operator. Her parents were divorced, and she remembered a childhood of poverty and unhappiness. She worked her way through Berea College and graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa economics major in 1942. During the next six years she won a scholarship to Duke University, received her Ph.D., and married Clifton H. Kreps, Jr., an economist. She followed her husband to various academic positions, teaching part-time at Denison and Hofstra universities and at Queens College. In 1955 she returned to Duke as a part-time instructor. She co-authored an economics textbook, Principles of Economics, and through her research and publications in the field of gerontology became America's leading authority on the economics of aging.

Between 1963 and 1967 Kreps rose through the academic ranks at Duke to become a full professor, and in 1967 she was appointed dean of the Women's College and associate provost. In these administrative roles she dealt with a wide variety of campus problems and developed a polished political persona. In 1971 she published Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work, the first book inspired by the nascent women's movement to analyze women's labor force participation and to correlate that rate to women's persistent responsibility for household work. Kreps pointed out that society expects that women "meet this obligation regardless of the demands of their market jobs—a career constraint not imposed upon men." Kreps did, however, criticize women themselves for continuing to enter lower status, lower paid "feminine" occupations such as clerical work and elementary school teaching.

The years from 1972 to 1977 were important developmental years for Kreps's career. She became a James B. Duke professor, the first woman to receive such an honor, which provoked her response, "It's what I'd rather be than anything else in the world." Duke University appointed her university vice-president, and she began to serve on a variety of corporate boards, including the board of directors of Eastman Kodak Company, J.C. Penney Company, Inc., R. J. Reynolds Company, and later AT&T. By 1972 Kreps had become the first woman director of the New York Stock exchange.

In 1977 President Carter appointed Kreps to his cabinet as secretary of commerce. Her initial goals at the department were to make "… a contribution to economic policy formulation, and may be one that made a difference in the image of professional women." She also called attention to cities, since "the city is where commerce is." The department's Economic development Administration tried to keep industries in cities through incentives such as grants and low-interest loans to cities. Under Kreps's leadership, the Commerce Department also tried to stimulate minority businesses through percentage "set-asides" for minority business in federal contracts. She was the impetus for the Commerce Department to take a more active role in promoting international trade, and in May of 1979 initiated an historic trade agreement between the United States and China.

Although Kreps was sometimes labeled a "token" woman she made significant contributions to the study of women and economics and, while secretary of commerce, to the advancement of women within the department. She was distressed that women owned only 4.6 percent of the 8.5 million businesses in the United States and encouraged them to become entrepreneurs through the establishment of the President's Interagency Task Force on Women Business Owners. In interviews Kreps supported flextime, maternity and paternity leave, permanent reduced work loads, and other creative labor arrangements.

Like many professional women, Kreps herself faced conflict between her personal and public lives. Her move to Washington was made only after long and serious deliberations with her husband and family. All three of her children were grown, and her husband could not leave his position as Wachovia Professor of Banking at the University of North Carolina to accompany her to Washington. Ultimately, it was for "personal" reasons that Kreps left her cabinet post in October of 1979, upon which she returned to her previous job working at Duke University.

Kreps holds honorary degrees from many universities, including the University of Kentucky, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Berea College, and the University of Rochester. Her many awards and honors include Ladies Home Journal Woman of the Year; the first recipient of Duke University's Alumni Award in 1983; the Charles Waldo Haskins Award from New York University; the North Carolina Public Service Award, the Industry Achievement Award by the National Association of Bank Women, the Duke University Medal for Distinguished Service, and the first recipient of the Corporate Governors Award from the National Association of Corporate Directors. In 1992 the J.C. Penney Company named an annual award after her, the Juanita Kreps Award for women who have been outstanding role models, making her the first recipient.

In addition, Kreps became a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served on the Commission on the Operation of the State Senate in North Carolina, the National Commission on Manpower Policy, and the Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, the latter advising the Secretaries of Commerce and Labor in 1995-96. She retired from teaching and corporate boards but continued as the vice-president emeritus of Duke University.


Further Reading on Juanita Morris Kreps

Kreps published almost 100 articles in both popular and scholarly journals. In addition to the books mentioned in the text she co-authored with Robert Clark, Sex, Age, and Work: The Changing Composition of the Labor Force (1975) and edited and contributed to Women and the American Economy: A Look to the 1980's (1976). Biographical profiles of Juanita Kreps can be found in: Esther Stineman, American Political Women: Contemporary and Historical Profiles (1980) and Peggy Lamson, In the Vanguard (1979). Interviews with Kreps can be found in Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1977. Some of her accomplishments while Secretary of Commerce can be found in the October 15th edition of Time magazine, "Exit Kreps." The information concerning the awards received by Kreps was given personally by Wilma Pickett, secretary to Kreps, on July 15th, 1997.