In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) and Women’s History Month, we honor Senator Elizabeth Dole, an influential American leader who was an early champion for gender equality and a trailblazing role model for women across the nation. Her career contributions include foundational changes in workplace safety and the implementation of drug and alcohol testing programs within the Department of Transportation.
Many women have shaped American history, but few have made such significant contributions to the health and safety of the nation as Elizabeth Dole. Elizabeth Dole’s work not only influenced the daily lives of Americans, but in the process, her work has likely saved millions of lives. She was successful in her political career during a time when women in America, and women in the south particularly, had little hope of breaking into what was considered a man’s domain.
Elizabeth Dole is a North Carolina native and received her Political Science degree from Duke University. She then continued her education by receiving her law degree from Harvard School of Law, one of only two dozen women in a class of 550. Soon after, she began working for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Throughout her career in Washington, Elizabeth Dole worked under six different presidents and held several different high-level positions while in office.
Apart from her political career, Dole fiercely believed in enforcing women’s rights and equal protection. Her political beliefs branded her the title of both “conservative” and “feminist” in a time where believing women should be able to define their own contributions to society was often seen as contradictory to conservative values. She was respected for her ability to balance the importance of womanhood while maintaining the force to lead as a female southern conservative. As she transitioned out of her spousal role, she became a credible presidential candidate for the 2000 presidential election. Next to Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole contributed to paving the road for women through the campaign and was able to retain the lead over candidate John McCain. However, Dole fell second to George W. Bush and had to pull from the race due to financial restraints. Nevertheless, Dole secured her future in Washington by becoming the first female senator of North Carolina in 2003.
Elizabeth Dole worked in many positions throughout her career. Dole was appointed to the Federal Trade Commission by President Nixon; she maintained this position for 8 years until appointed the head of the White House Office of Public Liaison. After holding that position for a few years, a major role Elizabeth Dole filled was the head of the Department of Transportation in 1983. Dole was the first woman to hold this title and through it made a lasting impact on the department which is still enforced today.
As head of the Department of Transportation (DOT), Dole campaigned to raise the drinking age to 21 years old nationwide. She worked with groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in support of this change and became successful in this pursuit after President Reagan approved a bill passed by the legislature in 1984. The legislation mandated that 5-10% of federal highway funds be withheld if states refused to comply with raising the drinking age. This eventually led to the famous Supreme Court case of South Dakota v. Dole in 1987. In South Dakota v. Dole, the case was brought against Elizabeth Dole in her representative capacity of the Department of Transportation (DOT), which addressed the question of whether Congress had the power to set such conditions on these funds. The court concluded that it was within Congress’s discretion and power to create such laws. This led to the remaining states changing their legal drinking age limit to 21. This would be yet another successful battle in Elizabeth Dole’s career which has improved the safety and general welfare of the American public.
Another key change she made while head of the DOT was the implementation of regulations on automobile manufacturers requiring a third brake light. This was a key safety feature that became widely known as “Liddy Lights”, named after Elizabeth Dole’s nickname. Additional features added for safety were the application of safety airbags and seatbelt enforcement. Elizabeth’s pursuit for national safety saved thousands of lives every year through these regulations.
The enactment of random drug testing for Federal Department of Transportation employees was another safety mechanism enforced by Elizabeth Dole. After a fatal Conrail crash in 1987, a subsequent investigation revealed that key employees were under the influence of marijuana and that this was the probable cause of the accident. This led Dole to insist on the first implementation of random drug testing in a federal civilian department. Despite receiving strong pushback, Elizabeth nevertheless responded by stating “[i]f you’re involved in a safety or security job, like railroad inspector or air traffic controller, with thousands of people’s lives at stake, it’s critical that the public is assured you’re not under the influence of alcohol and that you’re not on drugs.” The success of this program would become a catalyst and inspiration for safety-driven laws, presidential orders, and regulations on drug and alcohol testing at both the state and federal level throughout the United States.
Elizabeth Dole continued her career in Washington as Secretary of the Department of Labor and was the only woman to hold two high level cabinet positions for two presidents and was the highest-ranking woman in the cabinet. Her focus remained on workplace health and safety throughout her tenure in the White House. In 1991, Elizabeth moved on to become the President of the American Red Cross, becoming the first woman to hold the position, aside from the founder.
There is a plethora of other contributions Elizabeth Dole has made throughout her career in the federal government and the private sector. Dole continues to receive recognition for her work including in the fall of 2012 when the National Safety Council presented her with their “Flame of Life Award” as one of the century’s foremost leaders on safety. She continues to make an impact through the Elizabeth Dole Foundation which assists military caregivers, spouses, parents, family members, and friends who care for America’s wounded, ill, or injured veterans.
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