Mary Gardiner Jones, 89; first female commissioner of Federal Trade Commission

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mary Gardiner Jones, 89, the first female commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission and a lively consumer advocate who didn't hesitate to upset the staid federal bureaucracy of the 1960s, died of congestive heart failure Dec. 23 at her home in the District.

Ms. Jones, an antitrust lawyer, was appointed to the FTC by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. She turned the FTC's attention toward addressing deceptive and misleading advertising and away from its then-primary focus on business-to-business matters. Her tenure coincided with the passage of a spate of federal legislation, including the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Truth in Lending Act.

"I suddenly realized that what we needed was to have consumer supporters and to have them know what their rights were," Ms. Jones said in a 2003 oral history interview. "We began to issue guidelines that talked to consumers about what their rights were and how they could exercise them. I remember suggesting to the commission that we ought to invite consumers to our hearings. . . . Then we started to invite them as witnesses."

She unsuccessfully attempted in 1967 to banish all cigarette advertising from radio and television. She organized a study of what grocery stores charged in impoverished neighborhoods. She also urged big businesses to set up customer outreach and research offices. She was "a faithful and ardent friend of the American consumer," a Washington Post editorial said in 1973 when she left the FTC.

In 1982, Ms. Jones founded the Consumer Interest Research Institute, a think tank that worked on using the personal computer revolution for consumer information services and telemedicine, which is remote diagnosis and treatment by computer networks. She also served on the board of the D.C. Mental Health Association, where she created a directory of children's mental health services, established programs for mental health education for senior citizens in African American churches and promoted school-based mental health services.

Mary Gardiner Jones was born Dec. 10, 1920, in New York to a family whose American roots reached back to the early 1600s. Uncomfortable with her establishment background, she strove to follow the example of her aunt Rosalie Jones, a lawyer and suffragist who was known as "General" for her leadership in marches advocating women's right to vote.

Ms. Jones graduated from Wellesley College in 1943 and moved to Washington to work as an analyst at the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor of the CIA. After the war, she enrolled in Yale Law School, one of two women in the 1948 class of 100. After graduation, she found that a female lawyer, even one who was managing editor and a board member of the Yale Law Journal, couldn't get a job at the top law firms.

"I saw 50 law firms and I trudged my way from one to the other," she said in the oral history. "Some of them were very open and honest and said they didn't hire women. Others put you through all this stuff, but they had no intention of hiring you." She eventually accepted a job in New York at the old-line Donovan Leisure law firm, founded by OSS leader William Donovan, and worked there until 1953 when she joined the Justice Department's antitrust division. In 1961, she returned to private practice. In 1964, when President Johnson sought to fill the Republican seat on the FTC with a woman, Ms. Jones came to his attention. She joined a commission that was so sleepy that, as another commissioner noted, "it took 16 years to get the 'liver' out of Carter's Little Liver Pills."

Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson described her as "peppery" and "irrepressible" even as he criticized her for blocking an anti-monopoly lawsuit in an attempt to become chair of the commission. She denied she was playing politics because she said "I pretty much knew all along they're not going to name an independent -- which is what I really am -- as chairman. I always puzzle people on these mergers. I'm on both sides of the lot."

After she left the FTC in 1973, she taught for two years at the University of Illinois, then returned to Washington to work as a senior executive and consumer advocate for Western Union. She also joined a number of corporate boards and became president of the National Consumers League, the nation's oldest consumer organization. At the age of 70, she began studying for a doctorate at Georgetown University.

No immediate family members survive her.

Ms. Jones had already left the FTC in 1987 but was still working as a consumer advocate when she fell asleep one night while driving home from Virginia. Her 1986 Mercedes-Benz 300 E, which she bought because air bags came as standard equipment, left the road and crashed into some trees.

"I would have gone through the windshield," she told The Washington Post. "But I didn't. I was solid as a rock. The car was totaled."

She replaced the wrecked vehicle with "exactly the same car," she said. "With an air bag."