Arvonne Fraser of Minnesota, who spent her career in and adjacent to government offices, running political campaigns, and as an activist working to elevate women’s influence on policy-making, died on Tuesday at age 92, the New York Times has reported.
She ran her husband Don Fraser’s successful Senate and Congressional campaigns throughout his decades-long career in Washington from the 50s to the 70s while raising five children. While he was in office, she headed his staff, unpaid. Writing for the Minn Post, Iric Nathanson–a former employee of her husband’s congressional office–remembers how she changed his thinking when she disposed of gendered job titles in Don’s office:
In those days, legislative assistants were primarily male, while the staff assistants were virtually all female. Now, I was being downgraded. My male pride was wounded.
But then, I started thinking about the significance of Arvonne’s action. Was my self-worth really determined by an artificial status distinction that was mainly gender-based? Was I really more important than my office mate, Claire, who was just as capable as me but who was called a staff assistant even though her duties were not all that different than mine? Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, Arvonne had raised my consciousness and set me on the path to becoming a male feminist.
Fraser bucked the traditional political wife role, which she had described to the New York Times in 1971 as typically “unhappy” and aimless; she held positions on commissions, co-founding and helming the Women’s Equity Action League. Her son recalled to the Star-Tribune that during their time in Washington, the house was “basically a hostel for the antiwar movement and women’s rights” with people sleeping on the floor.
In 1976, she worked for the Carter campaign in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin; under his presidency in 1977, People Magazine called her the White House’s “talent scout” for women. Under Carter, she also served as director of the Office of Women in Development at the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.
In an interview in 2011, reflecting on feminists who had died and the work which had been done by the Commission to the U.N., Fraser spoke about the importance of recording powerful women’s lives and work. “We just have to get more of this history down because I’m a firm believer that progress generates progress, and so history is the only way you know if progress has been made....I’m not the first to make this argument, it’s been made a long time ago– the lack of women’s history disempowers women. And so, we’ve got to change that.”
In 2007, Fraser published her memoire She’s No Lady: Politics, Family, and International Feminism.