The “Dragon Lady” of the Passport Office – Frances Knight Parrish

by Spencer Howard

Frances Knight Parrish was the head of the U. S. Passport office from 1955 to her retirement in 1977.  Working under her maiden name, Miss Knight was known for her no-nonsense style, constant feuds with her superiors at the State Department, and her conservative politics.  Her tenure was noted for marked efficiency in the Passport Office, but also surprising, high-profile controversies.

Frances Gladys Knight was born on July 22, 1905 in Newport, Rhode Island and grew up in New York City.  Knight started her government career in 1935 as a clerk for the Works Progress Administration.  She met and married Wayne W. Parrish, the editor of American Aviation Publications;  they moved to Washington DC and for a few years she helped her husband with bookkeeping and circulation.  In 1949 Knight was hired by the State Department as a radio information specialist, then moved to the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs.  She became familiar with the operations of the Passport Office, and director Ruth Shipley hand-picked Knight as her replacement when she retired in 1955.

Knight reorganized the Office from top to bottom by consolidating its various divisions and setting up new systems to better coordinate its field offices. “I was determined to prove that a government agency could be made efficient,” she told the Washington Post in 1960, “that business management and standards could be instituted and maintained[, and] that government employees could provide the public with interested, friendly and personalized public service.”  She complained constantly that the Office was chronically understaffed, and with good reason;  with the advent of jet travel, demand for passports skyrocketed.  About 500,000 Americans applied for passports in 1955, climbing to 1.9 million in 1968 and 3 million at the time of her retirement in 1977.   Concerns about document fraud led Knight to suggest the creation of a national identification card for each citizen, which was vociferously opposed by civil-liberties groups.  

Knight also acted on her conviction that the government had the moral responsibility and legal right to protect the public from dangerous individuals. She denied passports and visas to suspected Communists and criminals, and would appeal directly to Congress if she was overruled by her superiors.  She collaborated eagerly with the FBI in the surveillance of Americans abroad, most notably in the case of H. Stuart Hughes, an antiwar Harvard University professor on sabbatical in Europe.  She regularly went public with complaints about those in the State Department who criticized her actions or her conservative political views.  Her convictions and fearlessness earned her both powerful friends and critics, as well as unusual visibility for what might have been a rather quiet, bureaucratic post.

More than a few times, her enemies sought unsuccessfully to force her resignation, and for a while it seemed even the Civil Service Commission’s mandatory retirement age of 70 would bend to her strong will and political connections.  As her retirement age approached she received two one-year extensions;  a third extension was denied, and she retired reluctantly in 1977 at the age of 72.  She continued her political activities in retirement, promoting causes such as immigration reform and consulting with the Presidential transition teams of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.  She died in Bethesda, Maryland at the age of 94 on September 11, 1999.

Shortly before her death, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library acquired both Knight’s personal papers and those of her husband.  She had no significant relationship with Mr. Hoover, other than their shared anti-Communist convictions, but we solicited her papers to complement our other collections related to foreign policy and the State Department, and her husband’s papers related to aviation.

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