One of the most admired women in Cold War America, Thelma Catherine ‘Pat’ Nixon was the wife of US President Richard Nixon, and First Lady of the United States between 1969 and 1974. Although her time in the White House has been overshadowed by her husband’s tumultuous administration, Pat Nixon was a First Lady of several historic ‘firsts’ and did much to shape the role for her successors.
She championed charitable causes, revitalised the White House, became the first First Lady to be an official diplomatic representative of the US, the most travelled First Lady, and the first to visit communist China and the Soviet Union.
She died on 22 June 1993, aged 81. Here are 10 facts about the life of First Lady, Pat Nixon.
1. Her father nicknamed her ‘Pat’
Thelma Catherine Ryan was born in a small mining village in Nevada on 16 March 1912. Her father William was a miner with Irish ancestry and when his daughter arrived the day before St Patrick’s Day, gave her the nickname ‘Pat’.
The name stuck. Thelma went by ‘Pat’ for the rest of her life (although she never legally changed her name).
2. She worked as an extra in films
After graduating from school, Pat enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC) to major in merchandising. However, she did not have the financial support from her family: her mother died when Pat was just 12 years old, and her father also passed away just 5 years later.
Therefore Pat funded her education by working odd jobs, such as a driver, telephone operator, pharmacy manager, typist and sweep at a local bank. She even made appearances in films such as Becky Sharp (1935) and Small Town Girl (1936). Pat later described to a Hollywood reporter that she never had time to consider an ideal career, “I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work.”
4. Pat met her future husband at an amateur theatre group
In 1937, she moved to Whittier in California to take up a teaching position. At a Little Theater group putting on a production of The Dark Tower, she met ‘Dick’, a recent graduate from Duke law school. Richard ‘Dick’ Nixon asked Pat to marry him the first night they met. “I thought he was nuts or something!” she recalled.
Nonetheless, after two years of courting the pair were married in June 1940.
5. She worked as an economic analyst during World War Two
When the United States joined the world war in 1941, the newlywed Nixons moved to Washington DC. Richard was a lawyer for the government’s Office of Price Administration (OPA), and after a short period in the American Red Cross, Pat became an economic analyst for the OPA, helping to regulate the value of money and rent during the conflict.
After the war ended, Pat campaigned alongside her husband when he entered politics and successfully ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives.
6. She was a “paragon of wifely virtues”
In 1952, Richard Nixon ran for vice president. Pat hated campaigning yet continued to support her husband. As Second Lady, the wife of the Vice President, she accompanied him to 53 nations, often visiting hospitals or orphanages – once even a leper colony – instead of formal teas or lunches.
She was described by Time magazine as “the perfect wife and mother – pressing her husband’s pants, making dresses for daughters Tricia and Julie, doing her own housework even as the Vice President’s wife”. Just over a year later, as Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency, the New York Times claimed Pat was “a paragon of wifely virtues”.
7. Pat championed volunteerism and personal diplomacy as First Lady
Pat Nixon believed the First Lady should always provide an example of virtue. In her new role, she continued her campaign of ‘personal diplomacy’, traveling to visit people in other states or nations. She also promoted volunteerism, encouraging Americans to tackle social problems locally by volunteering at hospitals or community centres.
8. She made the White House more accessible
Pat Nixon was determined to improve the authenticity of the White House as a historic site in its own right and museum. Beyond the well-publicised efforts of former First Lady, Jaqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon added some 600 paintings and antiques to the Executive Mansion and its collections – the largest acquisition by any administration.
She was also frustrated that the White House and President were felt to be distant or untouchable to ordinary people. Under Pat Nixon’s instruction, pamphlets describing the rooms were made; ramps were installed for better physical access; the police who served as tour guides attended tour-guide training and wore less menacing uniforms; those with visual impairments were allowed to touch the antiques.
Finally, Pat made herself accessible to the public. She routinely came down from the family quarters to greet visitors, shake hands, sign autographs and pose for photographs.
9. She supported women’s right to equality
Pat Nixon repeatedly spoke out in support of women running for political office and encouraged the President to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court, saying “woman power is unbeatable; I’ve seen it all across this country”. She was the first First Lady to publicly support the Equal Rights Amendment, and expressed her support for the pro-choice movement following the 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling.
10. Pat Nixon was deeply affected by the Watergate Scandal
As news of Watergate broke across American newspapers, the First Lady did not comment. When pressed by reporters she said she only knew what she read in the papers. When the President’s secret tapes were made known to her, she argued for keeping them private, and could not understand why Nixon had to resign from the presidency.
Leaving the White House in front of cameras, she later described how the family’s “hearts were breaking and there we are smiling”. Yet despite the enduring controversy around Nixon and the scandal, Pat has continued to be honoured for her time in public service.