I got calls from people who needed a good woman,” says Arvonne Fraser. “And you know she really had to be twice as good as a man.”
The 51-year-old wife of Congressman Donald Fraser, 53 (D-Minn.), has just completed a 90-day temporary job as a White House talent scout. The Carter administration hired her to deal with mounting criticism from women’s groups about tokenism in government hiring policies.
Fraser says that in the Ford administration only 3 percent of the top supergrade jobs (salaries above $30,000) were filled by women. By now women occupy 17 percent of those posts, Fraser says, and “we expect to go as high as 20 percent.” Among others, Fraser’s office has placed a woman on the staff of congressional liaison chief Frank Moore, another woman at an important post in Treasury and several more in high-level jobs at Agriculture.
“In the past,” says Arvonne, “many qualified women were invisible. They were not known in the old boy network. Young men used to be groomed by other men. That’s beginning to happen with women, and it’s really exciting.”
Arvonne captured the attention of Jimmy Carter last year as co-ordinator of his presidential campaign in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. Ironically, her husband was a supporter, before the convention, of Minnesota’s Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. “My husband and I have had dual political tracks all our marriage,” observes Arvonne, who supported Eugene McCarthy in 1968. “I once got a political job because somebody who didn’t like my husband voted for my confirmation.”
Arvonne, whose first marriage to a fellow student at the University of Minnesota ended after three years, met Don Fraser while they were working in Humphrey’s 1948 senatorial campaign. Don had just graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School. “I remember the first time I saw him,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh-oh, a fraternity boy!’ ”
They were married in 1950. Four years later Arvonne helped run Fraser’s winning state senate campaign. In 1956 she became a state Democratic party officer. “We have always had strong women in Minnesota politics,” declares the 4’11” Arvonne. “We’re not just envelope stuffers.”
Her love of politics goes back to childhood. She grew up on a cattle-and-grain farm in Lamberton, Minn., where her father was active in the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. In 1961, she ran the successful Minneapolis mayoralty campaign of Arthur Naftalin. As a reward, she was named to the Board of Public Welfare. “That’s when I knew you had to be aggressive,” she recalls. “You don’t get anything unless you ask for it.”
Two years later, when her husband won a congressional seat, Arvonne went to Washington with their six children. In 1966 tragedy struck when their 9-year-old, Anne, was killed by an auto while crossing a Chevy Chase street. (Only Lois, 22, and Jean, 14, still live at home, a four-story townhouse.)
Active and gregarious, Arvonne found the role of a congressman’s wife depressing. “I’d never lived in a suburb before,” she says. “I didn’t see any people, and I didn’t have any activities I liked. I drove in seven car pools. I ended up working in my husband’s office.”
She served as his unpaid assistant for 14 years. She also became president of the Women’s Equality Action League, helped organize the National Women’s Political Caucus and wrote a junior high school government textbook. In recent years there has been talk that her husband might run for the Senate and that Arvonne would try to take over his vacated House seat. “It’s a tough decision,” she says. “Politics is circumstance and timing.”
Meanwhile she has been astute enough to land a plum job. Last week she reported to the Agency for International Development, where she took over the Women in Development office at $35,000 a year. Despite her own success, she says she would leave Washington if her husband no longer held office. “We would go home to Minneapolis,” she says. “People who stay in Washington are all looking backwards.”