Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics

Elizabeth Dole


Senator Elizabeth Dole

Summary: Senator Elizabeth Dole has one of the most storied careers in American politics and public service. She served in five presidential administrations, including service in the Cabinet of President Ronald Reagan as Secretary of Transportation, the first woman in that position, and in the Cabinet of President George H.W. Bush as Secretary of Labor. She was president of the American Red Cross from 1991-1999 and in 2012 founded the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, a philanthropic organization benefitting military caregivers. Dole’s activities cover U.S. public service in the latter part of the 20th century through the first decade of the new millennium.

Presently, the Archives are a key resource for her tenure as Secretary of Transportation, with more career documents and artifacts to be made available in the years to come.

Date Range: 1973-2003

Online Materials: Photographs, Object, Booklets, Press Release, Articles, Programs, Speech outline; materials that detail Elizabeth Dole's varied career in public service.

Download: Senator Elizabeth Dole Primary Sources


(July 29, 1936 - )

Senator Elizabeth Dole served in five presidential administrations, including as President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation and President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor, which makes her the first woman to serve in two different cabinet positions of two different presidents. She was the president of the American Red Cross, U.S. Senator for North Carolina, and in 2012, founded the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which is dedicated to military caregivers. Dole’s public service spans the latter part of the 20th century, into the 21st century. Her archives will be a key resource across subjects and academic disciplines, including history, government, politics, consumer affairs, and safety.

Early Life and Education

Elizabeth Hanford Dole was born Mary Elizabeth Alexander Hanford on July 29, 1936, in Salisbury, North Carolina to parents Mary and John Hanford. She graduated from Duke University with distinction in 1958, as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Harvard in 1960, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1965. She was one of only 24 women in her law school class of 550.

Public Service

As a new attorney, Dole moved to Washington, D.C., and began to build an impressive resume. She started work in President Johnson’s administration at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and then for the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. She transitioned to the Nixon administration and was promoted to the Deputy Director of the Office of Consumer Affairs. In 1973, President Nixon appointed Dole to the Federal Trade Commission, where she served until 1979, when she left to campaign for her husband, Senator Bob Dole’s 1980 presidential bid.

Dole served as Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison for President Reagan 1981-1983, and then was nominated and confirmed as the United States Secretary of Transportation. She was the first woman to serve in this role, 1983-1987. At the time, the United States Coast Guard was located within the Department of Transportation, making her the first woman to head a branch of the United States military.

Appointed by President George H.W. Bush, she served as United States Secretary of Labor 1989-1990, making her the first woman to serve in two different cabinet positions for two different presidents. From 1991 to 1998, Dole was the president of the American Red Cross. She was the second woman to hold the position and first since founder Clara Barton in 1881.

Political Career

Elizabeth Dole got her first taste of national politics in the 1960s as a campaign volunteer for Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, on the Democratic ticket as vice-president and later president.

She campaigned on behalf of her husband, Senator Bob Dole, throughout the years. In 1976, on a leave of absence from the Federal Trade Commission, she worked extensively for the Ford-Dole ticket for president and vice president. She campaigned for Dole’s own presidential bids in 1980, 1988, and 1996.

Following her time at the Red Cross, Elizabeth Dole sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, becoming the first viable female candidate from a major political party. She withdrew from the race in late 1999 and endorsed fellow Republican George W. Bush in early 2000.

In 2002, she ran a successful campaign to become United States Senator from North Carolina – the state’s first woman to serve in that role. During her time in the Senate, she was the Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee 2005-2007, also the first woman to serve in the position.

Signature Accomplishments

Increased safety was Dole’s top priority at the Department of Transportation. She advocated for and saw the institution of state seat belt laws, increased installation of air bags in cars, and the passage of the nationwide drinking age of 21. These three safety measures, known as the “Trifecta,” have saved nearly 500,000 lives to date with a projected 20,000 per year going forward. Noting that women made up a small percentage of DOT workforce at the start of her tenure, she created a “10-Point Mobility Assignment Program” to develop and recruit women in the department and sought to expand these programs throughout the offices of the Reagan administration. Dole also oversaw the privatization of several government-owned assets: The March 1987 sale of the Consolidated Rail Corporation (CONRAIL) for $1.65 billion was, at the time, the largest Wall Street stock offering; and Washington National and Dulles International Airports were transferred, after much negotiation, to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s ownership and control.

During her time at the Department of Labor, Dole tackled challenges related to the growing complexity of jobs and spearheaded initiatives that would benefit both workers and employers. She put together the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, which developed national work readiness guidelines for high school students, held the first national conference on the school-to-work population, and encouraged the business community to get involved in mentoring. The resolution of the Pittston Coal Strike, which lasted nearly a year, was a key achievement for Dole. Rather than wages, health care and pension benefits were at stake, and she got leaders from the United Mine Workers of America and Pittston Coal Company to meet face-to-face at the bargaining table, which ultimately led to a settlement.

In remarks on her first day at the American Red Cross, Dole declared that she would become a volunteer herself – accept no salary – for her first year as president. Out of respect for ARC volunteers, she wanted to earn for herself the iconic Red Cross arm patch. She led a $287 million project that transformed how the Red Cross collects, tests, and distributes blood. This modernization created one centralized database, replaced 53 testing facilities with eight state-of-the art and standardized labs, and began a Quality Assurance Program that became a model for the blood banking industry. And as part of a multi-year project under her direction, the National Disaster Operations Center was established to be open 24 hours a day, every day of the year to monitor ongoing and potential disaster events. 

Family Life

On December 6, 1975, she married Senator Bob Dole, who represented Kansas in the U.S. Congress for over 35 years, and became stepmother to Robin Dole, from his first marriage. He served as Senate Republican Leader for 11 years, was the 1996 Republican Nominee for president, and President Ford’s vice-presidential running mate in 1976. Senator Bob Dole passed away on December 5, 2021.

In his retirement from political life, Senator Bob Dole worked as special counsel for the Alston & Bird Law Firm in Washington and volunteered with the Honor Flight Network. He served as National Chairman of the World War II Memorial Campaign, helping to raise over $197 million in cash and pledges. In 2018, Senator Bob Dole received the Congressional Gold Medal – Congress’ highest honor – for his public service to the nation.

Present Day Life

Senator Elizabeth Dole resides in Washington, D.C., and is active with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which she started in 2012, to empower, support, and honor America’s military caregivers. The mission of the Foundation is to, “strengthen and empower America’s military caregivers and their families by raising public awareness, driving research, championing policy, and leading collaborations that make a significant impact on their lives.”


Career Summary

Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
1967 - 1968

White House Office of Consumer Affairs
1968 – 1973

  • Deputy Director of the Office of Consumer Affairs, February 1971 – December 1973

Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission
December 4, 1973 – February 9, 1979

Assistant to the President, Office of Public Liaison
January 1981 – February 1983

U.S. Secretary of Transportation
February 7, 1983 – October 1, 1987

  • First woman appointed to this role

U.S. Secretary of Labor
January 30, 1989 – November 1990

  • First woman to serve in two different cabinet positions of two different presidents

President, American Red Cross
February 1991 – January 4, 1999

U.S. Senate – North Carolina
January 3, 2003 – January 3, 2009 (Elected: 2002)

  • First woman to represent the state in the Senate
  • Chair, National Republican Senatorial Committee, 2005 – 2007

Founder, The Elizabeth Dole Foundation
2012 – present 

Presidential Runs – Not Elected
2000 Republican Presidential Primary (withdrew and endorsed George W. Bush)


Major Career Accomplishments

U.S. Department of Transportation


  • Mandated high-mounted center third brake light on new cars.
  • Announced a 9-Point Plan to increase career opportunities for women within the DOT. Initiatives include a Professional Exchange Program and greater emphasis on training women air traffic controllers. Two years later a tenth point is added, an Upward Mobility Plan, to help with career planning for employees with limited advancement opportunities.


  • National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed, raising the drinking age to 21 nationwide.
  • Issued Rule 208, requiring airbags or automatic safety belts in new cars, with the caveat that the rule would be suspended if states covering two-thirds of the country issued seat belt laws.  Three years later, 29 states had seat belt laws, seat belt usage tripled, and air bags offered by ten manufacturers.


  • Instituted random drug testing of DOT employees, becoming first civilian department to have such a policy.
  • Sold Government-owned Consolidated Rail Corporation (CONRAIL) for $1.65 billion, the largest Wall Street stock offering at the time.
  • Metropolitan Washington Airports Act passed, transferring Washington Dulles International and Washington National Airports from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) control to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.


  • Union Station reopened after a three-year restoration.  In addition to being a transportation hub, the train station has retail shops and restaurants. 

U.S. Department of Labor


  • Pittston coal strike, which lasted almost a year, is resolved after Dole appointed former Secretary of Labor Bill Ursery as mediator.  Health benefits for retired workers – not wages – was the central issue.
  • Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills established to determine skills youths need to be successful in the workplace and develop national competency guidelines.
  • Announced Glass Ceiling Initiative that will identify barriers to women in the workplace and recommend changes.

American Red Cross


  • Announced the transformation of blood services – how the ARC collects, tests, and delivers half of America’s blood supply.  Over Dole’s tenure at the ARC, $287 million is spent to centralize computer systems, replace 53 aging and semi-independent labs with eight new national testing labs, and establish a new quality assurance program.


  • Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, leading to multi-year aid costing the ARC $81.5 million, the organization’s costliest disaster relief effort at the time.
  • Started Disaster Mental Health Services, licensed mental health professionals with Red Cross training to help victims of disasters, their families, and Red Cross workers.


  • Opened the Disaster Operations Center.  It is open 24 hours a day to monitor potential and ongoing disasters.


  • Established Chief Diversity Officer position to create a more inclusive work environment and better respond to culturally diverse communities.
  • Armed Forces Emergency Services Center opened, providing military and their families with improved, hi-tech emergency communications service.


  • Started using nucleic acid testing, the first blood banking organization to do so.  NAT looks for the genetic material of HIV and Hepatitis C, rather than the body's response to the disease like in traditional testing.

Political Career


  • Campaigned for the Ford-Dole Republican presidential ticket.


  • Campaigned for Bob Dole, as he sought the Republican presidential nomination.


  • Campaigned for Bob Dole, as he sought the Republican presidential nomination.


  • Campaigned for Bob Dole, as he sought and earned the Republican presidential nomination. Building on years of campaign experience, she delivered a moving speech – not from the podium, but from the floor among supporters – at the Republican National Convention in San Diego.


  • Ran for the Republican nomination for president.


  • Elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming North Carolina’s first woman Senator.


  • American Jobs Creation Act passed, containing tobacco industry reform items Dole had advocated for.


  • Helped prevent closures of North Carolina military bases in that year’s Base Realignment and Closure round.
  • Selected by the GOP to be the first woman Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.


  • Legislation to grant federal recognition of the Lumbee Tribe came the closest it ever has to becoming law: passed in the U.S. House and approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Elizabeth Dole Foundation


  • Learned about the military caregiving crisis while meeting military and veteran families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.


  • Created Caring for Military Families: the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
  • Commissioned RAND Corporation to conduct a needs assessment of caregivers. Two years later the study, “Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers,” is released.
  • Introduced the Innovation Grants Program, now the Hidden Heroes Fund.


  • Announced an expanded 50-state Dole Caregiver Fellows program.


  • Launched the Hidden Heroes Congressional Caucus, in partnership with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator John McCain, Senator Jack Reed and Congressman Jeff Miller.


  • Announced the Hidden Heroes Campaign, including PSAs with Tom Hanks,, and the Hidden Heros Cities Program.


  • Commissioned a follow-up RAND study, “Improving Support for America's Hidden Heroes,” to be a blueprint for the military caregiver support community to use in prioritizing and facilitating future research for America’s hidden heroes.


  • Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act passed, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a National Family Caregiving Strategy.
  • Omnibus Spending Bill passed, allocating $840 million to the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC).
  • VA MISSION Act passed, expanding the VA’s PCAFC to caregivers of veterans of all eras, renewing the Veterans Choice program for one year, and creating other reforms within the VA system.
  • Department of Veterans Affairs announced they will fund the Elizabeth Dole Center of Excellence, which will help the VA to deliver innovative, data-driven, and integrated approaches to improve services for veterans and caregivers.

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