Juanita Kreps — who transitioned from heading UNC’s University Woman’s Club in the early 1960s to become the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of Commerce — has died in Durham. She was 89.
Kreps, who died on July 5, served as vice president of Duke University prior to her cabinet post. UNC awarded her an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1973. She was the wife of the late Clifton H. Kreps Jr. ’42 (MA), economics professor emeritus at UNC.
Kreps was appointed secretary of commerce by President Jimmy Carter and served from 1977 to 1979. She was credited with taking a sprawling department with many responsibilities – promoting economic growth, taking the census, forecasting the weather and charting the seas – and shaping it into a manageable unit. She traveled around the globe on trade missions, negotiating a pact with China that helped open trade with the Communist country.
In addition to being the first woman to head the Commerce Department, she was only the fourth woman to hold any cabinet position.
Born in a poor mining community in Kentucky, she graduated from Berea College on a work-study program and went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in economics from Duke. A few years later, she became an economics professor at Duke, was named the James B. Duke Professor of Economics — the first woman to receive that honor — was dean of the Woman’s College at Duke and became vice president of Duke. She also was named to a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1972, the first woman to be selected.
She was an advocate for women’s employment rights and the rights of older workers. In her book Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work, as well as in other writings, she advocated those beliefs.
After her retirement from government service, she served on numerous boards and returned to Duke, where she retired as vice president emerita. She received 15 honorary degrees and many awards, including the N.C. Public Service Award and an achievement award from American Association of University Women.
She served as president of UNC’s University Woman’s Club from 1963 to ’64.
— Sally Walters