Amazon Prime’s television series, “Hunters,” features Berea College alumna Juanita Kreps, who graduated in 1942 and went on to become the first female director of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the first woman to serve as Secretary of Commerce in the Jimmy Carter Administration.
The show is a fantasy, not history, and the character the writers invented for Kreps plays foil to a Nazi who secretly worked his way up to the highest levels of the U.S. government. On the show, she exists in a male-dominated space, speaking her truth to power and not backing down when challenged.
This last part, speaking truth and not backing down, is very much faithful to Juanita’s character, if not the part about dealing with secret Nazis. The actual obstacles in her path, when she graduated in the middle of World War II were in some ways just as challenging, if a little less dramatic.
Juanita’s is an extraordinary story about a woman from the small, coal-mining town of Lynch, Kentucky. On campus she studied economics and served as a teaching assistant for Berea College alumnus and economics professor Rector Hardin ’29. At Hardin’s urging, she went on to Duke University, where Kreps earned a master’s and doctorate in economics, specializing in labor and wages and gender equity in the workplace. Later she was to bring that expertise with her as the first economist to serve as Secretary of the Department of Commerce.
Kreps made a career of being the first woman to achieve various honors. In addition to being the first woman on the board of directors of the NYSE and to serve as Commerce Secretary, Kreps was also the first woman to be appointed a James B. Duke Professor, Duke University’s highest academic honor. The next year, she was named Duke’s first female vice president, and in 1987, she was the first woman to win the Director of the Year award for the National Association of Corporate Directors. A Berea College trustee, Kreps also served on the corporate boards of AT&T, Armco, Chrysler, Citicorp, Eastman Kodak, J.C. Penney, and RJR Nabisco.
Making stories like Juanita’s possible is what Berea College has always been about. In the mid 19th century, Berea College was the only southern college dedicated to providing educational opportunity to people regardless of race or gender. We’re still devoted to this cause today, educating ambitious students of all genders every day, so that they can also become “a first” like Juanita.
Do you know the next Juanita Kreps? If so, please tell her that Berea College has a place for her, and that she will have inspiring models to emulate. Please tell the next Juanita Kreps that we have worked very hard for more than 150 years to create a space for her. Our motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” (from Acts 17:26) means we welcome all races and genders. That she might lack the financial resources other young people enjoy is not obstacle—in fact it is a requirement (!), and whether from a little Kentucky town or an inner city, or anywhere else, again, she will be welcome. Tell her we only care about her character, her mind, her determination and what she has to offer the world.
The life experiences of the real Juanita Kreps are even more compelling than fictional accounts of Nazi hunters. During Women’s History Month, we are very proud to be part of many of those exciting stories.