Abbie Rowe, public domain
Susan Reverby remembers the day John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women released its report — not because of what it contained, but because she was a college student and didn't think the report made much difference to her.
"It does now," said Reverby, professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Wellesley College in the Massachusetts town that shares its name.
At that time in her life, "'Gender' was something that happened to nouns in a different language." She had not yet started to consider how many decisions and policies and aspects of life hinged on whether one was male or female. But that was at the heart of the commission's charge.
The commission was formed in late 1961, its members charged by executive order to "develop plans for advancing the full partnership of men and women in our national life" and "developing recommendations for overcoming discriminations in government and private employment on the basis of sex."
The panel took testimony, poured over data and filed the report, "American Women," 50 years ago, on Oct. 11, 1963. It included recommendations on everything from equal pay to homemaking to expanded education. It was presented on TV, in a four-part Associated Press series and as a book, with reaction mixed as it highlighted some of the same debates over the roles of women that persist today.
Women in the early 1960s felt everything that happened to them "was personal and not political," Reverby said. The commission's work was part of "gaining a political language to explain what has happened."
Elizabeth S. More, a lecturer in the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature at Harvard, outlined the context and significance of the decision to form the commission — and of the group's findings. In a paper, posted as a supplemental resource to Harvard material marking the anniversary, More said the "American Women" report was "characterized by internal tension between treating women primarily as homemakers and presenting them as equal participants in the public and economic realms. (It) nevertheless advocated major reforms. It called for an end to sex discrimination in hiring, for paid maternity leave and universal child care and for judicial recognition of women's equality under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution."
Women activists agreed that women needed better opportunities, but were divided on how to go about it. The National Woman's Party, founded in 1913 as a nonpartisan political action group that was never a political party, wanted an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in order to ban discrimination and inequality. Others opposed the ERA, fearful it would weaken protections against bad working conditions. Those women, many of them in the labor movement, including Esther Peterson, assistant secretary of Labor and director of the U.S. Women's Bureau, instead threw their efforts into gaining passage of specific bills to address individual issues like pay equity or limits on how many hours someone should be required to work.
"American Women" heralded women as "primarily" mothers and homemakers, More noted, but wanted them to have full participation in the economy and in the workplace. The recommendations showed the conflict. She wrote: They said girls should be counseled to "life aspirations beyond stubbornly persistent expectations about 'women's roles' and 'women's interests.'" In the next section, they said girls needed to learn "home management from an early age." Boys were not mentioned there.
The right to serve on juries in a way equal to men's service mattered, too. Some states barred women from juries, while others treated jury service differently based on gender.
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