Virginia Wright Knauer, 96, U.S. consumer official

Virginia W. Knauer
Virginia W. Knauer
Posted: October 19, 2011

Virginia Wright Knauer, 96, a groundbreaking member of Philadelphia City Council in the 1960s who became a groundbreaking federal consumer-affairs chief under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, died Sunday, Oct. 16, at her home in Washington.

In biographical material supplied for her obituary, her family wrote about her approach to consumer protection:

"Believing that confrontation between consumers and business was counterproductive, Mrs. Knauer initiated working partnerships among government, business, and consumers to resolve consumer problems through voluntary approaches and marketplace competition, rather than through legislation or regulation."

The family material said that "Mrs. Knauer's views on consumerism were often at odds with those at the forefront of that [consumer] revolution.

"Ralph Nader, in particular, was a vocal critic of both Mrs. Knauer and the administrations in which she served. He once asserted that the easiest way for the federal government to help the consumer and cut costs would be to dismantle the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs," which she headed.

Mrs. Knauer grew up in Philadelphia, where her father, H. Winfield Wright, was a Temple University professor of accounting.

After graduating in 1933 from Philadelphia High School for Girls, she earned two degrees in 1937 - a bachelor's in art history from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor of fine arts from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Her studies at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence, Italy, were cut short by the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when she returned to Philadelphia.

In 1940, she married Wilhelm F. Knauer, a Philadelphia lawyer and former deputy state attorney general in Pennsylvania.

A granddaughter, Temple University law professor Nancy Knauer, provided biographical material that the family had given, along with Mrs. Knauer's papers, to the Pennsylvania State University archives during the last decade.

"In 1960," the material states, "she was the first Republican woman elected to an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council. She was reelected . . . in 1964."

Mrs. Knauer "insisted on being referred to as Councilman given that was how her position was described on the ballot."

She spent a short time in state government.

"In 1968, Mrs. Knauer was appointed director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection and, at the time, was the only woman in the U.S. in charge of such a bureau."

In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon named her special assistant to the president for consumer affairs and director of the President's Council on Consumer Affairs.

The council became the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, and, the biographical material states, she held both offices through the administration of President Gerald R. Ford.

When she was sworn in, at a White House Rose Garden ceremony in 1969, the material states, "She became the highest-ranking woman in the executive branch."

"Mrs. Knauer rankled the Washington establishment within months of her appointment when she exposed what was actually in a hot dog and called for lower fat percentage in the all-American staple."

In 1970, Nixon appointed Mrs. Knauer "to head the U.S. delegation to the newly created Committee on Consumer Policy of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development."

In 1977, following the election of President Jimmy Carter, she resigned to run her own consulting firm.

From 1981 to 1989, she served as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan as well as director of the Office of Consumer Affairs and chairman of the Consumer Affairs Council.

In 1961, during her first term on City Council, Mrs. Knauer and her husband had founded the Knauer Foundation for Historic Preservation and bought two 18th-century buildings at 127-129 Spruce St. that were scheduled for demolition.

In the 1750s, one of them had housed the Man Full of Trouble Tavern and, the biographical material states, the Knauers restored and maintained the tavern "as a museum of 18th-century decorative arts" until it was closed in 1992.

"Mrs. Knauer lectured on historic preservation, antique furniture, and 18th-century ceramics at Colonial Williamsburg, the Alexandria [Va.] Antique Forum, and the Ceramic Circle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

The holder of nine honorary doctorates, Mrs. Knauer received the Gimbel Philadelphia Award, the Joseph Wharton Award, and the Women Making History Award, and was a president of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America.

Besides her granddaughter Nancy Knauer, she is survived by a daughter, Valerie Burden; two other granddaughters; and a great-grandson. Her husband, Wilhelm F. Sr., died in 1976 and their son, Common Pleas Court Judge Wilhelm F. Jr., died in 1986.

A December memorial service is being planned for Washington.

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or


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