Commission on the Status of Women

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Commission on the Status of Women

Excerpt from "American Women: The Report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women," which was presented to President John F. Kennedy on October 11, 1963
Reprinted from American Women: The Report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women and Other Publications of the Commission.
Published in 1965.

"Greater development of women's potential and fuller use of their present abilities can greatly enhance the quality of American life. We have made recommendations to this end."

President John F. Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women on December 14, 1961. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), one of the most influential woman in America at the time, chaired the twenty-member commission until her death in 1962. The president requested the commission to analyze employment policies affecting women, such as labor laws pertaining to hours and wages, the availability and quality of legal representation for women, and the availability and quality of education and counseling for working women.

The commission's findings were published in the "American Women" report, presented to President John F. Kennedy on October 11, 1963. "American Women" came to be commonly known as the Peterson Report after the commission's executive vice chairman Esther Peterson (1906–1997). The commission reported extensive discrimination against women. The commission recommended several changes in bureaucratic organization and laws to remedy the discrimination they documented. Some of the broadest recommendations were for paid maternity leave, affordable childcare, and hiring practices that did not distinguish between men and women.

The President's Commission on the Status of Women, which was dissolved in October 1963 after it submitted its report, triggered significant legal and social support for women. Even before the commission's final report was presented to President Kennedy, he issued an executive order to establish an Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and a Citizens' Advisory Council to continue the work outlined by the commission. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) following Kennedy's lead, had by 1964 appointed fifty-six women to federal positions. States also established commissions to advise on the status of women on local, regional, and state levels. Perhaps most tellingly the Equal Pay Act passed through the legislature in 1963, prohibiting wage discrimination between men and women performing under similar working conditions at the same establishment.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "American Women: The Report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women":

  • Women had been marrying at younger and younger ages since the first two world wars. In 1890 the median age of marriage was 22 years for women, but by 1962 the median had dropped to 20.3 years. In the 1960s, 750,000 women between the ages of 14 and 19 had married and begun families.
  • In 1900 two out of every five families lived on a farm or in small, rural towns without electricity or plumbing. By1962 fewer than one in ten families lived in similar places, and the vast majority of homes had electricity and plumbing.
  • In 1900 women were expected to know how to cook, to regulate the temperature in a wood or coal cooking stove, to preserve the farm harvest in order to feed their families throughout the year, to sew clothing, nurse common ailments, and teach their children, if no school was nearby.
  • By the 1960s, women managed households very differently. They could purchase canned or frozen food and such modern conveniences as instant coffee and minute rice from grocery stores and prepare food on gas or electric stoves. They visited doctors and dentists to care for their health and bought ready-to-wear clothing at department stores. More children attended schools than were taught at home.
  • In 1962, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare reported that 58 percent of male high school graduates and 42 percent of female graduates continued their education at colleges and universities.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt served mainly as a figurehead of the commission. Her failing health limited her contributions to advising committees, signing letters, and publicizing the commission. She died on November 7, 1962.
  • Esther Peterson, assistant secretary of labor and director of the Women's Bureau, the highest-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, emerged as a leader in the commission, serving as its executive vice chairman.
  • The commission established seven committees to study education and counseling available to women; home and community services; employed women; labor standards; levels of women's income; laws affecting women; and women's position as U.S. citizens. Two special examinations of African American women and the portrayal of women in the media were also conducted.

Excerpt from American Women: The Report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women

Invitation to Action

This report is an invitation to action. When President John F. Kennedy appointed our Commission, he said: "we have by no means done enough to strengthen family life and at the same time encourage women to make their full contribution as citizens.…It is appropriate at this time…to review recent accomplishments, and to acknowledge frankly the further steps that must be taken. This is a task for the entire nation."

The 96 million American women and girls include a range from infant tooctogenarian , frommigrant farm mother to suburban homemaker, from file clerk to research scientist, from Olympic athlete to college president. Greater development of women's potential and fuller use of their present abilities can greatly enhance the quality of American life. We have made recommendations to this end.

We invite response to our recommendations bycitizen initiative exercised in many ways—through individualinventiveness , voluntary agencies, community cooperation, commercial enterprise, corporate policy, foundation support, governmental action at various levels. In making our proposals, we have had in mind the well-being of the entire society; their adoption would in many cases be of direct benefit to men as well as women.

Certaintenets have guided our thinking. Respect for the worth and dignity of every individual and conviction that every American should have a chance to achieve the best of which he—or she—is capable are basic to the meaning of both freedom and equality in thisdemocracy . They have been, and now are greatlevers for constructive social change, here and around the world. We have not hesitated to measure the present shape of things against our convictions regarding a good society and to notediscrepancies between American life as it is in 1963 and as it might become through informed and intelligent action.

The human and national costs ofsocial lag are heavy; for the most part, they are also avoidable. That is why we urge changes, many of them long overdue, in the conditions of women's opportunity in the United States.

Responsible Choice

We believe that one of the greatest freedoms of the individual in a democratic society is the freedom to choose among different life patterns. Innumerable private solutions found by different individuals in search of the good life provide society with basic strength far beyond the possibilities of a dictated plan.

Illumined by values transmitted through home and school and church, society and heritage, and informed by present and past experience, each woman must arrive at her contemporary expression of purpose, whether as a center of home and family, a participant in the community, a contributor to the economy, a creative artist or thinker or scientist, a citizen engaged in politics and public service.Part and parcel of this freedom is the obligation to assume corresponding responsibility.

Yet there are social as well as individual determinants of freedom of choice; for example, the city slum and the poorrural crossroad frustrate natural gifts and innate human powers. It is a bitter fact that for millions of men and womeneconomic stringency all but eliminates choice among alternatives.

In a progress report to the President in August 1962, the Commission's Chairman, Eleanor Roosevelt, said: "A rapidly rising national output is the strongest weapon against substandard jobs, poverty-stricken homes, and barren lives."

In the same vein, Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz has warned: "There is not going to be much in the way of expanding opportunities for women unless we are ready and able to assure the jobs which the economy as a whole requires."

Growth and Opportunity

Unless the economy grows at a substantially faster rate than at present, oncoming generations will not find workcommensurate with their skills. The number of newentrants of all ages into the labor force was about 2 million a year in 1960. By 1970, it will be 3 million.

Much of the work offered by a modern economy demands types of skill requiring levels of education that only a nation with abundant resources can supply; if such skills, when acquired, are not used because the economy is lagging, the resultinghuman frustrations …are very costly indeed.

Economic expansion is of particular significance to women. One of theironies of history is that war has brought American women their greatest economic opportunities. In establishing this Commission, the President noted: "In every period of national emergency, women have served with distinction in widely varied capacities but thereafter have been subject to treatment as amarginal group whose skills have been inadequately utilized."

Comparable opportunity —and far more varied choice—could be provided by full employment in a period without war.

The Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that between 1958 and 1962 the country's productive capacity exceeded its actual output by some $170 billion, or almost $1,000 per person in the United States. Had this potential been realized, lower rates of unemployment and an impressive supply of additional goods and services would have contributed to national well-being. The currently unused resources of the American economy include much work that could be done by women.

Higher Expectations

But while freedom of choice for many American women, as for men, is limited by economic considerations, one of the mostpervasive limitations is the social climate in which women choose what they prepare themselves to do. Too many plans recommended to young women reaching maturity are only partially suited to the second half of the twentieth century. Such advice is correspondingly confusing to them.

Even the role most generally approved by counselors, parents, and friends—the making of a home, the rearing of children, and the transmission to them in their earliest years of the values of theAmerican heritage—is frequently presented as it is thought to have been in an earlier and simpler society. Women's ancient function of providing love and nurture stands. But for entry into modern life, today's children need a preparation far morediversified than that of theirpredecessors .

Similarly, women's participation in such traditional occupations as teaching, nursing, and social work is generally approved, with current shortages underscoring the nation's need for suchpersonnel . But means for keeping up to date the skills of women who continue in such professions are few. So, too, are those for bringing up to date the skills of women who withdraw in order to raise families but return after their families are grown.

Commendation of women's entry into certain other occupations is less general, even though some of them are equally in need of trained people. Girls hearing that most women find mathematics and science difficult, or that engineering and architecture are unusual occupations for a woman, are not led to test their interest by activity in these fields.

Because too little is expected of them, many girls who graduate from high school intellectually able to do good college work do not go to college. Both they as individuals and the nation as a society are thereby made losers.

The subtle limitations imposed by custom are, upon occasion, reinforced by specific barriers. In the course of the twentieth century manybars against women that were firmly in place in 1900 have been lowered or dropped. But certain restrictions remain.

Discriminations and Disadvantages

Some of these discriminatory provisions are contained in the common law. Some are written into statute. Some are upheld by court decisions. Others take the form of practices of industrial, labor, professional, or governmental organizations thatdiscriminate against women inapprenticeship , training, hiring, wages, and promotion. We have identified a number of outmoded andprejudicial attitudes and practices .

Throughout itsdeliberations , the Commission has kept in mind certain women who have special disadvantages. Among heads of families in the United States, 1 in 10 is a woman. At least half of them are carrying responsibility for both earning the family's living and making the family's home. Their problems are correspondingly greater; their resources are usually less.

Seven million nonwhite women and girls belong to minority racial groups. Discrimination based on color is morally wrong and a source of national weakness. Such discrimination currently places an oppressive dual burden on millions of Negro women. The consultation held by the Commission on the situation of Negro women emphasized that in too many families lack of opportunity for men as well as women, linked to racial discrimination, has forced the women to assume too large a share of the family responsibility. Such women are twice as likely as other women to have to seek employment while they have preschool children at home; they are just beginning to gain entrance to the expanding fields of clerical and commercial employment; except for the few who can qualify as teachers or other professionals, they are forced into low-paid service occupations.

Hundreds of thousands of other women face somewhat similar situations: American Indians, for instance, and Spanish-Americans, many of whom live in urban centers but are new to urban life and burdened with language problems.

While there are highly skilled members of all these groups, in many of the families of these women the unbroken cycle ofdeprivation and retardation repeats itself from generation to generation, compounding its individual cost in humanindignity and unhappiness and its social cost in capacity anddelinquency. This cycle must be broken, swiftly and at as many points as possible. The Commission strongly urges that in the carrying out of its recommendations, special attention be given to difficulties that are wholly or largely the products of this kind of discrimination.

Lengthening Life Spans

The Commission has also been impressed with the extent to which lengthening life spans are causing changes in women's occupations and preoccupations from decade to decade of their adult experience. Thelife expectancy of a girl baby is now 73 years; it was 48 years in 1900. In comparison with her own grandmother, today's young woman has a quarter century of additional life with abundant new choices to plan for. It is essential that the counseling of girls enable them to foresee the later as well as the earlier phases of their adulthood.

Eight out of 10 women are in paid employment outside the home at some time during their lives, and many of these, and others as well, engage in unpaid work as volunteers.

The population contains 13 million single girls and women 14 and over. A 20-year-old girl, if she remains single, will spend some 40 years in the labor force. If after working for a few years, she marries and has a family, and then goes back into the labor force at 30, she is likely to work for some 23 years. Particularly during the years when her children are in school but have not yet left home permanently, the work she seeks is apt to be part-time.Inflexibility with regard to part-time employment in most current hiring systems, alike in government and in private enterprise, excludes the use of much able and available trained woman power; practices should be altered to permit it.

Women's greaterlongevity as compared with men makes them the predominant group in the final age brackets. There are almost 800,000 more women than men 75 and over. The number of such women grew from slightly over 2 million in 1950 to more than 3 million in 1960. To most, this is a period ofeconomic dependency which often ends in a need for terminal care.

What happened next…

The President's Commission on the Status of Women presented an analysis of women's lives that assumed that any person who did not have full access to the opportunities available to white, adult males was in some way handicapped and should be helped. The commission was careful to outline the differences between the lives of women and men, suggesting programs to equalize their opportunities over time. For example, women caring for young children early in life might need more access to part-time employment and adult education programs after their children had grown.

As the commission puzzled over the opportunities needed for women to balance work and homemaking, it discussed the difference between a job and a career, noting the first is merely a task done for money while the second is a labor pursued for intellectual as well as monetary fulfillment. The idea that women should have access to intellectual stimulation and the freedom to pursue any occupation of their choosing became the theme of the feminist movement, which broke U.S. cultural reliance on motherhood and wife-hood as the only measures of feminine achievement. But the struggles involved for women who tried to be both good wives and mothers and to be dedicated business women, scholars, artists, or other professionals caused heated debates that continued into the early 2000s.

Did you know…

  • The space race that started between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1957 helped the women's liberation movement by increasing the need for a skilled, educated workforce. Suddenly the U.S. government became concerned with finding the best and the brightest minds, no matter their gender.
  • The commission opposed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution (which had been discussed by politicians since 1923) in favor of a number of legislative bills targeting specific grievances affecting women.
  • Working independently during the time of the commission, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, which described many of the limitations in women's lives that the commission reported and which became a best-selling book with more than three million copies sold.
  • By 1967 every state had established a commission on the status of women.
  • By 1965 thirty-five states had enacted equal pay laws.
  • By 1965 four states had rewritten jury service provisions to stop discrimination against women jurors.

Consider the following…

  • How did the commission's report describe American women's lives?
  • In what ways have women's lives changed since the commission's report in 1963?
  • How could women have brought the difficulties in their lives to the attention of the U.S. government without the study of the Commission of the Status of Women?

For More Information


Hurley, Jennifer A., ed. Women's Rights. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 2002.

Mead, Margaret, and Frances Balgley Kaplan, eds. American Women: The Report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women and Other Publications of the Commission. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965.

Treanor, Nick, ed. The Feminist Movement. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 2002.

Octogenarian: An 80-year-old person.

Migrant: A person who moves to different places in order to find work harvesting seasonal crops.

Citizen initiative: Action taken by citizens in order to improve their lives.

Inventiveness: Creativeness or ingenuity.

Tenets: Beliefs or principles.

Democracy: A political system that places the power of the government in the hands of citizens.

Levers: Compelling forces.

Discrepancies: Differences or variances.

Social lag: The slow implementation of social equalities to all citizens.

Illumined: Enlightened or informed.

Part and parcel: A basic or fundamental element.

Rural crossroad: Small community.

Economic stringency: Scarcity of money.

Commensurate: Equal with; proportionate.

Entrants: Workers.

Human frustrations: In this case, meaning the disappointment felt by not being able to find work proportionate to one's skills.

Ironies: Unexpected results, or incongruous from expected results, from an event.

Marginal group: An unimportant social group.

Comparable opportunity: In this case, meaning similar employment opportunities for men and women.

Pervasive limitations: Widespread barriers.

Diversified: Varied.

Predecessors: Ancestors, or those who have lived before oneself.

Personnel: Workers.

Commendation: Recommendation as worthy or desired.

Bars: Limits.

Discriminate: In this case, meaning bar or deny.

Apprenticeship: A type of job training in which an inexperienced person learns by working for a period of time with an experienced worker.

Prejudicial attitudes and practices: Detrimental beliefs and actions.

Deliberations: Research into and consideration of a topic.

Deprivation and retardation: The withholding of education and opportunity and the preventing or hindering of social advancement.

Indignity: Humiliating treatment.

Delinquency: A social debt to these mistreated individuals on which payment is overdue.

Life expectancy: The average life span of an individual.

Inflexibility: Unwillingness to change.

Longevity: Length of life.

Economic dependency: A person's need to be financially supported, either by the government or by family.

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