Faith Whittlesey, who was the highest-ranking woman on the Reagan White House staff during her time there and who helped lay the foundation for the religious right’s enduring allegiance to the Republican Party, died on May 21 at her home in Washington. She was 79.
The cause was liver cancer, her son William Whittleseysaid.
As a guardian of the conservative flame, Mrs. Whittlesey sometimes vexed her more pragmatic and less ideological administration colleagues as she aggressively helped cobble together what became known as the Reagan coalition.
Between two separate terms as ambassador to Switzerland, she was director of the president’s Office of Public Liaison from 1983 to 1985 and the only woman among the most senior White House staff members.
Mrs. Whittlesey enlisted the support of evangelicals and other religious conservatives, disaffected blue-collar Democrats, the National Rifle Association and an array of other groups she believed had been insufficiently integrated into Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. Within the administration she echoed their concerns about a cultural and moral decline in the nation.
She won no fans among feminists.
Mrs. Whittlesey scheduled a screening of the anti-abortion film “The Silent Scream” at the White House, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and warned that feminism was a “straitjacket” for women, having the effect, she said, of curtailing their legal rights in child custody and alimony cases.
“Ronald Reagan,” she once said, “honored the role of full-time homemaker and her rights in Social Security and income tax in the face of elite feminists’ demeaning of full-time mothers.”
Mrs. Whittlesey acknowledged that she had faced discrimination as a woman. In her last year at law school in the early 1960s, she said, she was advised not even to bother sitting for interviews when firms came to recruit. Later on, though, she said, her ideological leanings isolated her more than her gender.
“I find myself in many closed rooms filled with men,” she was quoted as saying by the Washington Post columnist David S. Broder in his book “Changing of the Guard: Power and Leadership in America” (1980), “but I’m rarely invited to women’s movement functions, because I am pro-life and do not endorse feminist ideology of victimhood.” (In 1986 she became the first woman to be accepted as a member of the venerable Union League Club in Manhattan.)
Mrs. Whittlesey often invoked John Quincy Adams’s admonition that “we do not go abroad for monsters to destroy” and later expressed skepticism about invading Iraq. But she was gung-ho against Communism during the Cold War.
In the liaison office, she organized the White House Central American Outreach Group to document the Marxist orientation of the Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua.
Later, while acknowledging that she had worked closely with Lt. Col. Oliver L. North on the White House staff, she denied any connection with the Iran-contra scandal, in which the administration secretly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to finance rebels seeking to oust the revolutionary Sandinista government. Colonel North was a central figure in the affair.
Discerning that she was on the losing side of White House infighting, she left in 1985, rejecting a federal judgeship. But she returned to the administration as ambassador to Switzerland.
During her first term as envoy there, she began negotiations on an agreement regarding insider trading that pierced the secrecy of Swiss banks. She also became embroiled in a minor scandal over the mishandling of private contributions to an entertainment fund for the embassy, but the Justice Department cleared her of wrongdoing.
Mrs. Whittlesey resigned as ambassador in 1988 to become president of the American Swiss Foundation, which this week described her in an online remembrance as “the Grande Dame of American-Swiss relations for almost four decades.”
She was born Faith Amy Ryan on Feb. 21, 1939, in Jersey City to Martin Roy Ryan, a railroad billing clerk, and Amy Jerusha (Covell) Ryan, a teacher and nurse’s aide who worked in a factory during World War II. She grew up in Teaneck, N.J., and Williamsville, N.Y., near Buffalo.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., in 1960 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
A former Kennedy Democrat, Mrs. Whittlesey was elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature as a Republican from Delaware County in 1972. Four years later, at the national convention, she bolted party regulars who were behind President Gerald R. Ford to support Reagan in his ultimately unsuccessful bid for the nomination. (More recently, she was an early supporter of Donald J. Trump.)
“I remember someone once told me how I was described during this period,” she said in a 1989 interview for an oral history project. “They said, ‘She looks like a woman, she thinks like a man, and she fights like a dog.’ ”
Mrs. Whittlesey emerged from a largely blue-collar upbringing to win full scholarships to college and law school and become an accomplished classical pianist and gardening enthusiast. The American Rose Society named a tea rose variety after her.
She also endured her share of personal tragedy. Both her husband, Roger Weaver Whittlesey, and their elder son, Henry, struggled with depression. Both committed suicide, Mr. Whittlesey in 1974 and Henry in 2012. Mrs. Whittlesey lost her right eye to cancer in 1994 and part of a lung in 2001.
In addition to their son William, Mrs. Whittlesey is survived by a daughter, Amy Whittlesey O’Neill; 10 grandchildren; and a brother, Thomas Martin Ryan.
“While some might criticize her persistence as toughness, Faith portrayed this strength of purpose as an essential ingredient of her political survival,” Thomas J. Carty wrote in “Backwards, in High Heels: Faith Whittlesey, Ronald Reagan’s Madam Ambassador in Switzerland and the West Wing” (2012).
“A woman is supposed to be submissive,” she once said. “I won’t play that role. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I did.”
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