There’s another 50th anniversary in the life of President John F. Kennedy that’s important to remember today.
Just a few weeks before his death, on October 11, 1963, President Kennedy received the final report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. A direct line runs between the work of this commission and the establishment of the National Organization for Women.
In 1961, President Kennedy issued an executive order charging the commission “with the responsibility for developing recommendations for overcoming discrimination in government and private employment on the basis of sex…”
The preamble to the executive order begins with the following statement:
Prejudices and outmoded customs act as barriers to the full realization of women’s basic rights, which should be respected and fostered as part of our Nation’s commitment to human dignity, freedom, and democracy.
President Kennedy appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to chair the Commission, which she did until her death in 1962.
(You can listen to a conversation between Eleanor Roosevelt and President Kennedy about the Commission here).
As Dr. Ellen Fitzpatrick, Professor of History at University of New Hampshire, said in a video produced for a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Commission that was held by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University,
In appointing a presidential commission on the status of women, Kennedy was calling attention at the very most senior level of our government to the problem that there was structurally within our society enormous inequality and discrimination against women that needed to be redressed, and that was a very significant thing to have done.
The Commission’s final report, entitled American Women: Report of the President’s Commission, was presented to President Kennedy on October 11, 1963, which would have been Eleanor Roosevelt’s 79th birthday. Its central recommendation was that women should have equal political, civil and economic rights and responsibilities. That was a radical notion in 1963 — fifty years later it is one of the central principles of our efforts for equality.
Another important outgrowth of President Kennedy’s commission was that it sparked the creation of commissions on the status of women in all fifty states. By 1967, every state had one.
At a meeting in 1966 of state commissions in Washington, D.C., delegates discussed a resolution demanding that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) carry out its legal mandate to end sex discrimination in employment.
These advocates for women were told — not for the first time, nor the last — that they wouldn’t be allowed to take action. But they were determined.
Writer Betty Friedan and Dr. Pauli Murray, a Yale law professor and member of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, were delegates to the conference and along with other attendees met in Friedan’s hotel room to discuss strategies for taking meaningful action. As this history of the National Organization for Women describes, the groundwork was set in motion then and there for a new civil rights organization that would become NOW.
The work of the commission and other progressive women’s groups helped to draw attention to gender-based discrimination in the United States, which eventually led to a renewed push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, first proposed by Alice Paul after women won the vote in 1920.
Today — with growing income and wealth disparities that particularly affect women in communities of color; with more and more states blocking women’s access to abortion, birth control and other reproductive health services; and with radical Tea Party extremists doing all they can to turn back the clock on women’s economic security and even our ability to be safe from domestic violence and sexual assault — a constitutional guarantee of full equality for all women is more important than ever.
While President Kennedy did not support the ERA as it was discussed in the early 1960s, (nor did the commission, in fact), I believe he might have changed his views and come to agree with his brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, who was a champion of women’s rights and the ERA for over thirty years, and was instrumental in getting the measure passed by the Senate in 1972.
The cause of equality for women is an important part of John F. Kennedy’s legacy, and I hope that women everywhere join me today in thinking about how President Kennedy would want us to continue the work he began fifty years ago.