This One Feminist Nancy Reagan Quote Proves It's All About Giving Women Choices


On Sunday, news broke that former first lady Nancy Reagan had died at age 94. The widow of Ronald Reagan had lived in California's posh Bel Air neighborhood with her husband after spending most of the1980s in the White House during her husband's two terms as president. While Reagan's first lady years are most famous for her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign, even the notoriously traditional Nancy Reagan had a feminist side — or at least, some feminist moments.

During her husband's presidency, Reagan was asked (or criticized) for giving up her career as an actress to aide her husband's political ambitions and raise their family. However, Reagan pushed back against these judgments with a rather enlightened and expanded vision of feminism. In a 1985 interview with McCall's magazine, Reagan responded to feminist critiques that her professional sacrifices as going against feminist, saying, "Feminism is the ability to choose what you want to do."

Reagan went on to explain that it was her decision to walk away from her career, but the important point was that she was doing what she wanted. "And actually when you look at my life, I've really enjoyed the best of two worlds," Reagan said. "I chose to have a career, and I enjoyed it while I had it. . . . But then I met my husband, and I chose to give it up. . . . I'm doing what I want to do."

Throughout her time in the public eye, Reagan was not exactly a favorite among some feminist leaders. One of the most prominent feminist activists and author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan called Reagan "an anachronism . . . denying the reality of American women today and what they want to be.'' Reagan epitomized the expression 'stand by your man" and worked to project an image of the traditional, loyal housewife throughout her first lady tenure.

However, this aspect of Reagan's personality can also be seen as its own expression of power. She was famous for being fiercely protective of her husband and, in many ways, shepherding him through his presidency. As Eleanor Clift wrote of Reagan in The Daily Beast, "more became known about how she looked after his well-being politically and substantively in the White House."

National First Ladies Library historian Carl Anthony said of Reagan to USA Today, "There is a unique duality to her legacy: She was simultaneously a traditionalist and a maverick." He added that Reagan, "believed that her primary function in life was vigilant devotion to her husband, and would readily defy convention in order to do so."