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.
A voluminous body of 11,000-plus documents are archived as part of the commission's work, from minutes of their meetings to testimony heard by the 26 members on the panel, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt until her death in 1962. Peterson, the executive vice chairman, replaced her and introduced the recommendations to America.
Do this, not that
The panel suggested, among other things, expanded adult education, tax deductions for child care, equal opportunity in the workplace, protective labor laws like minimum wage and equal pay for comparable work. Commissioners wanted changes in family and property law so women were not disadvantaged, passage of the Equal Pay Act and protection for women under the Fourteenth Amendment, among other things. The Equal Pay Act applied to federal jobs; Congress reached into private employment with civil rights legislation a few years later.
Kennedy had already, at the committee's behest, ordered federal agencies to stop hiring discrimination based on gender. Later, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 passed. The commission's high-profile work was also a launching pad as members and supporters went on to form other groups, including the National Organization for Women.
Several experts said the report directly laid the groundwork for Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 1971 court argument in Reed v. Reed that arbitrary legal distinctions based on gender were forbidden under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Not all commission wishes came true. Two requests that in a half-century have not come to pass were publicly supported, high-quality child care and paid maternity leave, said Elizabeth Alice Clement, associate professor of history at the University of Utah.
"We've won enormous victories in terms of employment and athletics," said Reverby. "Where we haven't won, though we've tried, are work-family balance issues that can't be solved in one household — and not for want of trying. In a country willing to close its doors over health care as a right, how are we going to solve these difficulties?"
Many of those involved in crafting recommendations had come out of the women's and children's bureaus and they cared a lot about long hours and what women needed. There were concerns about what happened to women who had to stand too long on the job, for example, according to Reverby.
"I think we've opened up a lot of opportunities for women who are already well-placed to take advantage of them — particularly for white and middle-class women following traditional trajectories like college," said Clement.
Women have integrated "some" into leadership positions in work and government, though it's not equal, she said. "They've done less, less well dealing with many of the barriers" women need to succeed in society and family.
Particularly left behind is "anyone not of middle-class background." Clement said they struggle to move through college or into training. And "we're almost nowhere on day care. That makes the problem of women participating in the economy that much more grave for them and their families."
Some things have changed drastically in 50 years, experts say. Women outnumber men in earning college degrees and going to graduate school.
In the first half of the century, women often entered the labor force to fill in during wartime, when jobs had to be done and the men were away. In 1948, women were one-third of the labor market. Now, it's in excess of 60 percent. Today's women often work, Clement said, because of economic necessity.
The report did not take a position on whether women should stay home with the kids or enter the work force, for instance. It advocated fair treatment if they did work. At the time, most women stayed home; today, most women work. Ideological battles still rage around that issue.
In the workplace, women lag in earning power. For the most part, they make significantly less than male counterparts.
Were she on a commission tackling women's issues today, Reverby would start with preschool and child care. She's also look at racism, something the 1963 report did not address. And, she added, what to do to keep health care access for those who would not otherwise have it.
Clement said issues like day care are not women's issues. They are family issues. "I think now we need a commission on the status of families," she said. "We see things as women's issues that are not. It's family. Women do not have the social power — and we are divided against ourselves. We need to say, 'What are we going to do to help our children succeed?' Class is a huge issue — and it's not just an issue of women. We don't help people move out of poverty. How do we incentivize people to get an education, go back to school to retrain? I don't think you should have to take loans to do that. I think the education system needs to be redesigned.
"We start by not making them out to be women's issues. They're not, they're just characterized that way."
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