previous part
3 THE PRESIDENT'S COMMISSION ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN
next part

3
THE PRESIDENT'S COMMISSION ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN


109

7
The PCSW Versus the ERA

If the Equal Pay Act represented a "specific bill for a specific ill," the President's Commission on the Status of Women served as the Kennedy Administration's omnibus approach to matters affecting women's lives. Since 1946 the Women's Bureau coalition had sought such a commission, but before 1961 every attempt in Congress to create a commission to examine the status of women had been derailed by the debate over the ERA. Esther Peterson, secretary of labor Arthur Goldberg, and their associates in the Department of Labor determined that such a fate would not befall the commission they proposed. Confident of the resources at their command, they contemplated instead a commission that, by taking a fresh approach to the problems confronting women, would do in the ERA.

One of the resources they possessed was the support of the president. All the previous efforts to establish a commission had looked to Congress to enact legislation, but that strategy had allowed ERA supporters to marshal their partisans to oppose the commission. When Peterson came to Goldberg with her idea for a commission, the secretary of labor offered a different idea: that the president establish the commission by executive order. With the Labor Department running this particular show, ERA supporters would not even know about the commission until it was a fait accompli.[1]

The idea of an executive commission was not entirely new either. Several times since World War II, organizations had proposed presidential commissions to study ways to advance opportunities for women, though without success. In 1948 the American Association of University Women had asked President Truman to name a commission of outstanding men and


110

women to recommend measures to integrate women into every phase of the preparedness program.[2] The National Security Resources Board rejected the proposal, saying: "It is recognized that there are no basic personnel techniques of unique applicability to women workers." The board insisted that the idea that women must be distinguished from other workers "represents one of the more potent obstacles to the general use of women workers."[3] After the Korean conflict began, the AAUW reiterated its request, telling the president that a commission was needed to establish policy concerning the use of women in such emergencies, and that women should be integrated in the planning for the long-range defense effort. Again administration advisers concluded that "there is no special problem of 'women power.' Problems in utilizing women are part and parcel of the total problem of utilizing human resources."[4]

The most important recommendation had come from the National Manpower Council (NMC) at Columbia University. In the 1957 study Womanpower , the council staff pointed out that, although the federal government had not taken a stand on the desirability of women's employment, many statutes concerning, for example, taxation and licensing, had an impact on women workers. The NMC therefore recommended that the secretary of labor establish a committee to review "the consequences and adequacy of existing federal and state laws which have a direct bearing on the employment of women."[5]

Eisenhower's Department of Labor, however, seemed loath to admit, by appointment of a commission, that it was not equal itself to the task the NMC proposed. Women's Bureau director Alice Leopold recommended that the secretary "utilize existing facilities, including both governmental agencies and interested non-governmental organizations" to look into the effect of legislation on women's employment.[6] Leopold may have doubted her ability to control a commission composed of leaders of women's organizations and notable educators with whom she had few ties; yet if the director of the Women's Bureau recommended against appointing a commission on women, no other administration official was likely to overrule her. The secretary followed her advice, and the commission was not appointed.[7]

Ideas for a commission under the Kennedy administration


111

came from many sources. The New York Business and Professional Women's Club had written to the president on inauguration day to request the creation of a panel to discuss the utilization of the skills of mature women. Kennedy turned the letter over to Esther Peterson, who replied that another, similar plan was being considered. With Peterson, Katherine Ellickson, formerly assistant director of the Social Security Department of the AFL-CIO, and Dollie Lowther Robinson, also a longtime union employee now at the Women's Bureau, the coalition favoring a commission had strong voices. Robinson, a black woman, urged that the president express the same concern for women's opportunities as he had about racial discrimination; the commission would be such a vehicle. Secretary Goldberg took the plan to Kennedy.[8]

Kennedy agreed to the idea, sympathetic to the general aims and recognizing that his administration needed a program for women. At the commission's first meeting, Kennedy explained his support: "Every two or three weeks," he said, "Mrs. May Craig [the Washington correspondent for the Portland, Maine, Press Herald ] asks me what I am doing for women."[9]

The president's commission had many other appealing aspects. For one, it had the potential to do some good—the problems it pointed to were legitimate matters of concern. kennedy was confident of the commission's leadership in the Labor Department, believing rightly that they would not allow the commission to embarrass him. The proposal also had virtually no costs to the administration. The commission's goals, so far as they were stated, were congruent with the goals of the administration, and the mere establishment of the commission committed the president only to examining the problems raised, not to a particular set of policy initiatives. Once proposals were made, he could pursue them with some insulation from criticism. They would, after all, represent the best judgment of a prestigious group of public leaders, including the most prominent exponent of the liberal Democratic position and the most highly respected woman in the country, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The former first lady's acceptance of the commission chair identified her—at long last—with Kennedy's administration, an


112

endorsement the president had long sought. Everyone backing the plan agreed that only Eleanor Roosevelt could chair a presidential commission on the status of women. Her acquiescence gave it the seal of approval and smoothed out the long and troubled relationship she had had with Kennedy. As early as 1950, Roosevelt had opposed the then representative over a bill he was sponsoring giving aid to Catholic schools. In 1956, when Kennedy made a bid for the vice-presidential nomination, she had made much of his failure to speak out against Joseph McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin who was wreaking havoc with unsubstantiated charges of communist infiltration in the government. Later, Roosevelt and Kennedy became embroiled in a tense exchange over an allegation Roosevelt had made on television—that Joseph Kennedy was spending lavishly to buy the nomination for his son. Intensely hostile to Kennedy's father, who had infuriated her husband when he was president, and dedicated to the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson, she had been a powerful opponent during the primary campaign. She was slow to rally to Kennedy even after he won the nomination, and Roosevelt's distance had been a constant irritant to the Kennedy team. But now she was officially on board. Apart from conducting meetings, Roosevelt did little of the actual work of the commission; she did, though, serve as an adviser, make herself available for publicity purposes, and sign letters. When she died in November 1962, the administration decided not to appoint another chair, stating simply that there could be "no adequate replacement."[10]

Under the leadership of the Women's Bureau, the plan to appoint a commission to investigate the status of women, after so many years of proposals for legislative and executive action, came finally to fruition. The Women's Bureau staff drew up a comprehensive program, and Peterson, Goldberg, and the White House staff selected the eleven men and fifteen women participants, making sure to acquire people who would ultimately develop a program the White House could endorse.[11]

Commission membership represented the mainstream opinion of the Women's Bureau coalition and included several key administration officials. Eleven members came from the govern-


113

ment, including Peterson, who held the position of executive vice-chairman, the attorney general, the chairman of the Civil Service Commission, the secretaries of the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Labor, and Health, Education, and Welfare, and four members of Congress, two Republican and two Democrat. Officers of the National Councils of Jewish, Catholic, and Negro Women and the National Council of the Churches of Christ spoke for middle-class women reformers. Two more members came from labor unions. Two college presidents, Mary Bunting of Radcliffe College and Henry David of the New School for Social Research, represented the world of higher education. (Under Bunting's direction, Radcliffe had instituted a new program to permit older women to return to college, and David had been executive director of the National Manpower Council when it published Womanpower .)

The commission also included Caroline Ware, a historian who had been fired in 1935 from a summer teaching job at the University of Wyoming because she was married (to Gardiner Means, a New Deal economist). The incident had engendered a great deal of publicity because Ware fought the dismissal, gaining the support of the National Association of Women Lawyers, the BPW, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Woman's party, and several other organizations but to no avail. Margaret Hickey, the public affairs editor of the Ladies' Home Journal , also served. As a past president of the pro-ERA National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Hickey appeared to favor the ERA, but only Marguerite Rawalt, an attorney and a member of many pro-ERA groups, endorsed the amendment openly. A representative of the progressive business firm Kaiser Industries and one political appointee placed on the commission at the request of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson made up the balance of the membership. Dr. richard A. Lester, a Princeton University economist who had worked on the Kennedy campaign, was appointed vice-chairman.[12]

President Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women on December 14, 1961. In his executive order, written at the Women's Bureau, the president contended that "prejudices and outmoded customs" prevented the


114

"full realization of women's basic rights" and hindered their ability to make their fullest contribution to the national welfare. He pointed out that women traditionally had "served with distinction" in times of national emergency, only to be treated as marginal in times of peace. The creation of the commission recognized, he said, that women were entitled to "develop their capabilities and fulfill their aspirations on a continuing basis irrespective of national exigencies." The twenty-six-member commission was charged with reviewing progress and making recommendations in six arenas: employment policies and practices of the federal government: employment policies and practices of federal contractors; social insurance and tax laws; labor legislation; political, civil, and property rights; and new and expanded services necessary for women as wives, mothers, and workers. The commission's report was due October 1, 1963.[13]

In his accompanying remarks, the president expressed his hope that the commission would indicate what needed to be done to demolish the barriers to women's full participation in the nation. Progress, he said, would require the "cooperation of the whole community," through legislation and the provision of needed services. He promised to make the federal government "a show case of the feasibility and value of combining genuine equality of opportunity on the basis of merit with efficient service to the public." The federal career service would henceforth be maintained, he declared, "in every respect without discrimination and with equal opportunity for employment and advancement."[14]

Because the commission met only eight times in the two years of its existence, the Women's Bureau and commission staff exerted a great deal of influence. They implemented all commission requests, planned meetings, answered mail, communicated with other government agencies between meetings, developed position papers, and reviewed recommendations. Commission staff and officials also conferred with the White House over questionable proposals.[15]

Confident that the commission would yield good results, the White House supported it enthusiastically. At the commission's first meeting, held at the Executive Mansion, the president assured the members of his backing: "I can't imagine any more


115

important assignment—not merely for women, but for members of Congress, organized labor, women's organizations themselves, religious groups, and all the rest," he said. "I promise you that we are strongly behind you in all your work."[16] In May 1962 he reiterated his interest in the commission's work on Eleanor Roosevelt's television program, "Prospects of Mankind." Kennedy, moreover, never refused a request made of him by the commission, a happenstance undoubtedly aided by the fact that Esther peterson cleared all such appeals with the White House before they were proffered.[17]

In order to broaden its support among women's organizations, the commission agreed at its first meeting to set up subcommittees composed of experts in various areas. The staff named seven committees after the subjects listed for investigation in the executive order: federal employment; private employment; civil and political rights; protective labor legislation; social insurance and taxes; home and community; and education. Each committee was chaired by a commission member, and most had at least one other member on its rolls. Like the commission, the eighty-nine committee members included educators, lawyers, and members of women's organizations, labor unions, business firms, and state governments. The committee system gave many individuals and organizations a feeling of involvement in the commission's outcome.[18]

Still, Esther Peterson, who guided the development of the commission within the Kennedy administration, realized that the dispute over the Equal Rights Amendment could easily wreck this commission, as it had all the other commission proposals. She knew that if the commission opposed the amendment at its outset, pro-ERA organizations would be unwilling to cooperate, and no consensus would emerge on an effective plan to help women. Although Peterson herself opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, she wanted to keep the conflict from destroying a serious effort at addressing the many conflicts, burdens, and obstacles confronting American women. Therefore, in contrast to the 1947 bill to establish a commission, the President's Commission on the Status of Women did not begin with an overt declaration against the constitutional amendment; Peterson promised, rather, that it would examine the issue "objectively."


116

The Equal Rights Amendment and the 1960 Campaign

John Kennedy agreed with the Women's Bureau coalition on the ERA. In 1957 the then senator had told the Massachusetts Committee for the Equal Rights Amendment that he could not declare in favor of the amendment although he believed in "nondiscriminatory treatment of women." He wrote: "There is still, I humbly acknowledge, some question in my mind as to the most appropriate method of insuring real equality for women."[19] In 1958 he explained to a constituent who requested his support for the resolution, "My experience in the field of protective labor legislation has made me somewhat wary about over-all solutions to problems which do not always lend themselves to easy or simple formulas."[20] He assured her, however, that he continued "emphatically" to favor equal opportunity for women. During the preconvention presidential race, the senator declined to comment directly on the ERA.[21]

Although attached to the Kennedy campaign, Esther Peterson was less circumspect. She was still working as a legislative representative for the Industrial Union Division of the AFLCIO, and from this position she headed the alliance to prevent the Democratic convention from endorsing the amendment in the 1960 party platform. Peterson testified before the platform committee on behalf of twenty-four national organizations, contending that real equality required measures that distinguished between men and women. "Specific bills for specific ills," she declared, was the better way to go. Peterson listed three principal objections to the ERA: it would nullify protective labor legislation at a time when increasing numbers of women in the labor force made the need for such laws more acute; it would create confusion in legislation concerned with marriage, property, and personal status; and it would fail to address the major forms of discrimination that were the result of custom. She asked the platform committee instead to endorse equal pay legislation and the pursuit of equal opportunity without disturbing protective labor laws.[22]

The organized opposition surprised the National Woman's party, which had not been confronted by its opponents at the


117

platform hearings since 1948. The NWP told the platform committee that renunciation of the ERA, in view of the Democratic party's past commitment to it, would be "unprecedented and incredible." With support from the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs and the General Federation of Women's Clubs, Emma Guffey Miller, chairman of the NWP, pointed out that past efforts showed that it would take more than a hundred years to repeal, law by law, the fourteen hundred statutes that discriminated against women. Moreover, she asserted, without the constitutional amendment subsequent state legislatures could reenact each one.[23]

To Miller's dismay, the Democratic drafting committee accepted enough of the opposing argument to endorse, not the Equal Rights Amendment, but "equal treatment" for women. Incensed, Miller labelled the language "impossible" and meaningless. Working with Representative William Green of Philadelphia, she managed to get the plank amended in the full platform committee, of which she was also a member. The plank read in its final form: "We support legislation which will guarantee to women equality of rights under the law, including equal pay for equal work." Despite the alteration, the platform represented success for opponents of the ERA. A statement in support of a constitutional amendment, which had appeared in every platform since 1944, had been eliminated.[24]

The National Woman's party simply refused to acknowledge the defeat. As a member of its national council explained, "The wording, . . . though not so specific as 'Amendment,' does we feel include an amendment as a means of bringing about 'equality under the law.'" The language of the plank, she insisted, did not represent a victory for ERA enemies. Ignoring the facts, the NWP maintained that the Democrats had endorsed the ERA in 1960.[25]

After the platform battle, the NWP sought Kennedy's personal endorsement of the ERA. Emma Guffey Miller, ultraloyal Democrat and chief advocate of the ERA within the Democratic party, wrote to John Kennedy that she was extremely concerned because Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee, had delivered a prompt statement asking for "widespread support" of the Amendment.[26] Miller advised Ken-


118

nedy to announce quickly in favor of the ERA and to point out publicly that the Democratic platform surpassed the Republicans' on women's rights. Labor opposition to the ERA, she counseled him, came not from chivalrous concern for the well-being of mothers but from male fears of lost jobs.[27]

Wringing an affirmation of the ERA from John Kennedy proved difficult, however. Not only had Kennedy himself declined to support the ERA theretofore, but campaign letters on women's rights had to meet Esther Peterson's approval. Kennedy's reply to Miller, which Peterson checked over, thanked her for the opportunity to make a statement "regarding equal rights for women." Expressing his belief in equal rights for all "regardless of race, creed, color, or sex," he quoted the platform plank and stated his full approval of it. The letter concluded: "You have my assurance that I will interpret the Democratic platform . . . to bring about, through concrete actions, the full equality for women which advocates of the equal rights amendment have always sought." The letter did not contain any statement of support for the Equal Rights Amendment.[28]

Annoyed, Miller took the matter into her own hands. Although she had few ties to the Kennedy campaign (she had supported Lyndon Johnson in the primary battle), as a Democratic Committee member from Pennsylvania she had many friends at DNC headquarters. Miller amended the letter in pen and had a colleague deliver it to the DNC. There, an assistant to the chairman of the publicity committee had it typed on the Kennedy campaign letterhead and signed, presumably by machine, without the knowledge of the Kennedy campaign staff or of Peterson. The new letter read: "Thank you for providing me with an opportunity to make a statement regarding the equal rights amendment. . . . You have my assurance that I will interpret the Democratic platform . . . to bring about, through concrete actions including the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment, the full equality for women which advocates of the equal rights amendment have always sought." In this manner, John Kennedy's "support" for the Equal Rights Amendment became a matter of official record. Peterson was outraged, but the Kennedy campaign let the matter drop, unwilling to expose internal conflict or inefficiency.[29]


119

Miller won the battle, but the announcement that Esther Peterson was to head the Women's Bureau suggested that she would lose the war. When press reports intimated that Kennedy intended to appoint Peterson as Women's Bureau director, the National Woman's party was aghast. Emma Guffey Miller tried to organize a movement against Peterson and wrote to the president that this appointment was inconsistent with his stated support of the ERA, a disingenuous argument at best. Miller, who had no influence at the White House, did not succeed in harming Peterson.[30]

The Pcsw: An Alternative to the ERA

Peterson, in the meantime, found herself in a good position to make Miller miserable. In April, with eighty-two House resolutions on the ERA in the hopper, she told a Washington Post reporter that rather than having the ERA she would like to see a committee of the "best brains in the country" assay the status of women and recommend ways to improve it. She expressed her confidence that if all the women's organizations, pro and con, would discuss the conflict over women's legal place, a solution would appear. "If we sit down and talk this over," she said, "I feel sure we can work out a way to achieve our goals."[31]

While the commission was being planned, Peterson cautioned presidential aide Myer Feldman to have his letter writers stick to the platform and omit any mention of the "nuisance" amendment in responding to letters from ERA supporters. She realized, she said, that the issue amounted to "peanuts," but the "pile of peanuts" was growing pretty big and the proponents were intensifying their efforts. Indeed, Miller, who scoffed at Peterson's offer of compromise, told her co-workers at the NWP to barrage Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg with letters in order to "counteract" Peterson's influence, a campaign doomed to fail. Miller regarded Goldberg as "very broadminded"—but Peterson authorized the secretary's answers to letters from ERA supporters, and she used the exact language of the original Kennedy campaign letter, endorsing the Democratic platform and full equality for women but not the Equal Rights Amendment.[32]


120

In the meantime, the ERA languished in Congress. Although 135 members of the House had introduced ERA resolutions by the fall of 1961, they did so with the knowledge that House Judiciary chair Emanuel Celler would not permit the bill to be reported. The seventeen Senate sponsors knew likewise that the upper chamber would agree to the amendment only with Carl Hayden's rider preserving "benefits" for women. Still, Miller viewed Peterson as the ERA's greatest threat.[33] "We must find some way to shut her up, at least from opposing what our platform and President have endorsed," she told a friend.[34]

Peterson did not shut up; instead, she and her colleagues used the presidential commission on women to stop the ERA dead in its legislative tracks. Peterson reasoned that Congress would not be likely to act on the amendment while the matter was under consideration by a presidential panel. In addition, she presumed that eventually the commission would offer substitute recommendations that would further stymie the amendment's progress.

But obstructing the ERA was not the commission's chief objective; the Hayden rider had already taken care of that. The creators of the commission intended it primarily to devise an alternative program to improve women's status. Unfortunately, as they saw it, the ERA dispute had always made such a goal impossible.

From the very first discussions about the commission early in 1961, its creators worried about protecting the commission from being "diverted" from its task by the argument over constitutional equality. Throughout the spring, the Women's Bureau staff, Peterson, and Katherine Ellickson of the Social Security Department of the AFL-CIO refined arguments in favor of a commission, hoping to devise a plan that women's organizations would deem acceptable, regardless of their position on the ERA.[35] One staffer observed that "there is a good bit of evidence to suggest that the objectives of most women's groups with respect to women's status are the same, despite differences expressed by those who favor or oppose the Equal Rights Amendment."[36]

When Peterson presented the plan to the White House, she began by arguing that "the appointment by the President of a


121

Commission on women in our American democracy would substitute constructive recommendations for the present troublesome and futile agitation about the 'equal rights' Amendment." But more than that, she asserted, the commission would "help the nation to set forth before the world the story of women's progress in a free, democratic society, and to move further towards full partnership, creative use of skills and genuine equality of opportunity." Peterson told White House aide Myer Feldman that trade union women, professional women, and congressional staff had all greeted the idea with enthusiasm. But the commission could succeed only if the ERA dispute did not undermine it.[37]

Therefore, Peterson decided, the PCSW would, in contrast to past commission proposals, begin without taking an overt stand on the issue. In her remarks at the announcement ceremony, Peterson paid tribute to Emanuel Celler, who had first introduced a bill proposing a national commission on women in 1947—but the Celler bill had included a policy statement endorsing statutes that distinguished women from men if the laws were "reasonably based on differences in physical structure, biological, or social function." This statement established before the fact that such a national commission would necessarily oppose the ERA, which was designed to strike down laws based on just such characteristics. The executive order creating the President's Commission on the Status of Women contained no such phrase indicating a preconceived position.[38]

Peterson's plan paid off. The president's commission won enthusiastic support from the influential BPW, as well as from many pro-ERA organizations. Congress members and women's organizations joined the BPW in expressing widespread interest in the commission, and women in the federal government felt encouraged by the new policy the president had enunciated. Caroline Davis, director of the Women's Division of the United Automobile Workers, wrote to Peterson: "Congratulations[;] you did it. This is a victory that we have long waited for."[39] In an editorial, the Washington Post praised Kennedy for creating the "blue ribbon panel," declaring that the country could not afford to waste the trained talent of women.[40] The Christian Science Monitor , observing that Kennedy had been criti-


122

cized for failing to appoint women, crediting him with launching a "distaff 'fair deal.'"[41]

Not everyone shared the enthusiasm, however. Despite Peterson's expression of esteem and a letter from Arthur Goldberg telling him that the presidential commission represented the "fruition" of his efforts, Emanuel Celler took the commission to task. He noted its appearance with interest, he said, but he wanted to "sound a warning" that he would oppose "any effort on the part of this group to revive any campaign for the adoption of the so-called Equal Rights Amendment which is an 'Unequal Rights Amendment.'" Celler, perhaps because of the absence of the biological function clause, apparently did not recognize the commission's origins in his own proposal. He went on to vilify the amendment, declaring that "mores have set off women from men and no constitutional Amendment could alter them." He expressed his hope that the commission would not be "pressurized" to raise the "specter" of the ERA.[42]

The National Woman's party also viewed the commission with suspicion, but for reasons more realistic than Celler's. Emma Guffey Miller correctly judged that the commission arose partly from Peterson's distress over Kennedy's "endorsement" of the ERA during the campaign, and Miller saw to her own dismay that Peterson was now "riding high, wide and handsome" within the administration.[43] Alice Paul presciently explained to a questioner that the commission had been set up to prevent the adoption of the amendment and that ERA opponents would urge Congress members to delay action on the amendment until the commission had issued its report.[44]

Opponents of the amendment did just that. The White House reported that the president would not comment on the amendment until the commission had concluded its work, and Arthur Goldberg asked Emanuel Celler to defer House Judiciary Committee activity on the ERA until the commission report was submitted. Celler in turn recommended to the Senate Judiciary Committee that it wait for the report, and Carl Hayden made the same request to the full Senate. Although the Senate Judiciary Committee reported the ERA favorably in August 1962, the Eighty-seventh Congress took no further action on it.[45] An NWP member reported to Miller that both adversar-


123

ies and advocates of the ERA in Congress with whom she had spoken "say frankly that they are not going to 'jump the gun'" on the president's commission.[46]

Of course, there was never a chance that the commission would endorse the Equal Rights Amendment, despite its claim to be approaching the study of the ERA without prejudice. By design, too many commissioners came from labor or women's groups that opposed it. Because a body with no ERA supporters would lack credibility, Marguerite Rawalt, a past president of the BPW and a member of the National Woman's party, had been appointed, but she was the only certain ERA supporter of the membership of twenty-six. In addition, Peterson, Ellickson, and the Women's Bureau staff maintained a careful watch over the commission, monitoring proposals and making the administration position clear.[47]

Although she knew Peterson would not allow many ERA supporters on the commission, Emma Guffey Miller, Democratic National Committee member and NWP chairman, did not take her exclusion philosophically. She brought her displeasure to the attention of John Bailey, chairman of the DNC, and to Governor David L. Lawrence of Pennsylvania, a state in which the Guffeys and Millers had significant political clout. Lawrence confidently wrote to the White House asking that Miller be given a seat on the commission, but to his surprise he received a letter, drafted by Peterson, regretfully denying his request but offering Miller a seat on the commission's subordinate body, the Committee on Civil and Political Rights. Even this appointment did not come to pass, because Edith Green, the committee chairman, vetoed Miller's participation. Miller continued her efforts to win a place on the commission until its conclusion, but Peterson squelched her petitions without much difficulty, explaining to the White House staff that the commission contained no political members except members of Congress and the cabinet. Furthermore, Peterson said, Marguerite Rawalt represented Miller's point of view. Miller's extended campaign to become a member of the Commission came to nothing.[48]

Understandably, tension between Peterson and the National Woman's party remained high. Miller bitterly resented Peter-


124

son's station within the administration. An informant had told her, to her disgust, that "no woman has an entree at the White House unless Esther Peterson . . . introduces her";[49] although this was an overstatement, the White House did customarily check such matters with her. Indeed, Peterson's instructions caused a White House aide to deny an appointment to an NWP member the president himself had promised to meet.[50] For her part, Peterson viewed the National Woman's party with increasing disdain. She told Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Lee White, a White House aide, that the NWP was a "paper organization, with no standing with substantial women's organizations." The ERA was introduced each session, she said—"tongue-in-cheek"—because male legislators hesitated to declare themselves against women, and the NWP consistently met with defeat despite the fact that "the little ladies marched the corridors from the first day of the session to its end."[51] Nevertheless, because the Commission was ostensibly neutral, the warfare was covert. Peterson promised NWP correspondents that the subject of the ERA would be approached with an open mind. "As a member," she wrote, "I want to take this opportunity to assure you that the Commission has undertaken a completely objective study of this question."[52]

Sequestering the ERA

If the commission did not in fact approach the subject of the ERA with an open mind, neither did it consider the subject lightly or arrive easily at the stand it took. The Women's Bureau and the commission staff recognized that, improperly handled, the dispute over the ERA could still make the commission fruitless. Even the commission members, many of whom were not privy to Peterson's rationale for the Commission's establishment, realized the dangers. Hyman Bookbinder, representing the secretary of commerce, broached the issue at the first meeting, feeling, he said, like "the proverbial fool who likes to move in where angles fear to tread." Remarking that the amendment had "divided the country" for years, he asserted that "if this Commission does nothing else [but] get an accommodation of views on this difficult and delicate area, we will have made a


125

substantial contribution." Viola Hymes, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, agreed that the ERA had been "the most divisive . . . issue . . . among women's organizations," which had not reexamined their positions on it for twenty-five years. The commission would, she felt, "enable the women's organizations to take a new look in the light of developments and changes which will be very helpful." "Maybe," she suggested, "the women's groups will get together." To this Peterson declared: "It will be worth the Commission if we do it."[53]

But for the commission to unite women's groups on this issue, it first had to make sure it would not itself be torn apart by it. Indeed, the planners evolved a way to prevent such an outcome—by sequestering the highly loaded discussion so that it did not supplant the rest of the commission's work. The commission turned the issue over to one of seven subunits it had established, the Committee on Civil and Political Rights. Because no public statement on the ERA would be made until the commission concluded its work, the other six committees could address the many additional problems women faced without themselves becoming embroiled in the conflict over constitutional equality.[54]

As a result of this strategy, the Committee on Civil and Political Rights became the first commission body to confront the problem of the ERA directly. It did so in an exceedingly civilized fashion. Representative Edith Green, an ERA opponent, chaired the committee, although Marguerite Rawalt, the commission's one ERA advocate, took over when Green turned her attention to her reelection campaign. Peterson had appointed Rawalt to the commission because she considered her a sensible and thoughtful advocate of the ERA; Rawalt, in her turn, respected Peterson's directness and her commitment to improving women's employment laws. Committee membership, apart from the two commission members, included two representatives of labor unions, six members of the legal profession, most of them opposed to the ERA, and three presidents of pro-ERA women's organizations. ERA supporters were outnumbered, but at least they were represented.[55]

The committee met for the first time in May 1962 and quickly established pointedly even-handed procedures for deal-


126

ing with the ERA. Like the other commission subunits, the Committee on Civil and Political Rights began to accumulate data, in the form of returned questionnaires from women's organizations (on both sides of the ERA controversy), staff papers, and the findings of committee members' own research. The committee decided to invite four organizations—two groups favoring the amendment (the National Woman's party and the BPW) and two opposed (the American Association of University Women and the American Nurses Association)—to present their opinions on the ERA at the next meeting.[56]

A Compromise Proposal

Unexpectedly, however, a member of the Civil and Political Rights Committee offered yet another approach to the matter of constitutional equality. Pauli Murray, a black attorney long associated with the civil rights movement, volunteered to write a memorandum detailing a strategy to get a court ruling that discriminatory state laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment. One of the few explicit connections between the civil rights movement and the federal quest for equity for women in the early 1960s, Murray's proposal offered, she said, an alternative to choosing one side or the other of the controversy. Murray thought the commission could thus avoid both conflict with the "very influential" National Woman's party and the waste of effort in attempting to win ratification of the ERA from three-fourths of the state legislatures, which she viewed as impossible. Murray suggested instead that the commission recommend a concerted effort to pursue litigation of a case involving a discriminatory state law, with the goal of having the Supreme Court decide that arbitrary discrimination against women violated the Fourteenth Amendment in the same way racial bias did. The problem, as Murray saw it, was not that some laws distinguished between men and women, but that those that did failed to take into account differences among groups of women, such as those with children and those without. A ruling under the Fourteenth Amendment would provide the flexibility to maintain appropriate laws relating to women, while abolishing those that simply hampered women's right to function in the


127

public sphere. In reviewing previous court cases, Murray argued that past decisions had not revealed a consistent pattern and that the Court might be willing to make a ruling distinguishing among groups of women if persuaded by a "Brandeis-type brief" discussing the changing roles of women. She proposed that either the American Civil Liberties Union or the Justice Department compile such a brief with the assistance of a commission-sponsored Legal Advisory Committee.[57]

At the request of Esther Peterson, Pauli Murray presented her plan to the full commission at its October meeting. Impressed with her suggestions, the members decided to distribute an expanded version of her memorandum to attorneys in the Justice Department. Concern arose over the plan's implications for protective labor legislation, but Murray herself asserted that these laws should remain undisturbed.[58]

In the expanded version of her paper, Murray explained that a new differentiation needed to be drawn between laws "genuinely protective of the family and maternal functions" and those that discriminated "unjustly" against women as individuals. The courts, she counseled, had not theretofore made distinctions among women, assuming that all would consider their maternal and family functions primary. True freedom of choice would permit women to develop different abilities if they so chose. Murray argued that the principle developed in the 1908 case Muller v. Oregon , which permitted states to enact laws aimed exclusively at women, had inappropriately been extended to institutionalize a virtual "separate but equal doctrine" for women. Laws could appropriately classify citizens by sex, she maintained, when the law protected "maternal and family functions" and applied only to women who performed those functions, when it protected the health of women or compensated for women's traditionally disadvantaged position, or when the differential treatment did not "imply inferiority." Murray suggested that a statute to protect future mothers could legitimately single out "women of child-bearing age"; she therefore did not envision the total equality sought by advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment. Nevertheless, she still affirmed the need to proscribe arbitrary classification by sex in state codes.[59] Peterson regarded Murray's proposal with great hope.


128

"You must know how grateful I am to you for this work," she wrote her. "I feel in my bones that you are making history."[60]

Aware of the controversial nature of the proposal, and therefore of the necessity of frequent consultation with interested women's organizations, the Committee on Civil and Political Rights invited fifteen women's organizations, including the National woman's party, to appear before it in March to address the Fourteenth Amendment strategy, the ERA, and the state-by-state approach to women's legal status.[61] Murray was hopeful of reaching an accord. She observed that in the past the advocates of both the national commission and the ERA had assumed that the Fourteenth Amendment could not reach discrimination based on sex. "The controversy over the Equal Rights Amendment seemed to force people who espoused the same goals into rigid positions and dissipated energies which might have gone toward a development of standards for the concept of equal status," she said. "[This controversy] can be avoided if we can get a consensus of sound alternatives."[62]

But agreement was hard to come by. The American Association of University Women asserted that it still preferred the state-by-state approach. The American Nurses Association reasserted its stand against the ERA but said it did not feel qualified to comment on the Murray proposal. The National Council of Jewish Women both reiterated is objection to the ERA and took exception to the Murray recommendation.[63] The NCJW spokeswoman, Mrs. Samuel Brown, predicted that the procedure would be "time-consuming, costly and laborious without any assurance that the results will be entirely satisfactory." Brown found the plan fundamentally lacking in two ways: it equated racial discrimination, which was always bad, with differential treatment based on sex, which was sometimes desirable; and it assumed that women's organizations, which had never before been able to agree on what constituted "discrimination," would now unite on a definition.[64]

ERA proponents were no more enthusiastic. Although the National Woman's party agreed to appear at the committee hearing, the members evinced a deep distrust of the proceeding. Margery Leonard declined Emma Guffey Miller's request to represent the NWP, saying, "I wouldn't mind the time, effort


129

and money involved in such an undertaking if I could feel it would do any real good. [But the Commission] is controlled by our arch enemy. The Commission was handpicked." Leonard asserted that even Marguerite Rawalt—an NWP member—was not their advocate: "The fact that she is on the Commission shows she is no friend of ours."[65] Other NWP members contended that Pauli Murray, a black woman, was primarily concerned with the movement for racial equality and that she apparently intended "to hitch that wagon to our Equal Rights Amendment star," which would "spell disaster for our hopes." One party officer believed, in a staggering misperception of reality, that black civil rights groups wanted to use the ERA struggle "as a springboard for their own propaganda."[66] Finally, however, the NWP did send two representatives to the committee meeting, at which the NWP, the BPW, the American Medical Women's Association, and the National Association of Women Lawyers backed the ERA, arguing that the Supreme Court had not in the past been amenable to making the sort of ruling that Murray advocated.[67]

Of the groups asked, only the National Council of Catholic Women endorsed the Murray approach, but at the same time it emphasized the necessity of recognizing differences between men and women. It approved of wider access for women to the world of politics and paid labor, especially in the fields of education and social work, but it cautioned, "It must be remembered that the most important function of woman will always be associated with home and family." Although man and woman were equal in dignity before God, the council asserted, their natures differed and women did not have the same ability to "wage that struggle for survival which still prevails in all walks of life." Women's organizations thus seemed to feel no impulse to abandon their prior positions to unite behind Murray's plan.[68]

Nevertheless, as the discussion continued, the committee appeared convinced that, with the Fourteenth Amendment approach, women could have the protection of both the Constitution and state labor statutes. Its members felt sure that the Court would uphold statutes such as support laws requiring husbands to provide for their families—which would not be permissible under the ERA—and still strike down "unreasonable" legal dis-


130

tinctions. Respectful of differing viewpoints, and without an established position to defend or a history of personal antagonism, the committee could reach for a compromise.[69]

The ERA—"Need Not Now Be Sought"

But even as the committee sought a new route toward constitutionally based equality, it still felt obliged to make a statement about the Equal Rights Amendment. At the March 1963 meeting committee member Frank Sanders, a Harvard University Law School professor, insisted that, with the amendment now under consideration by Congress, they had a duty to take a stand on the controversial item. "This has been an eternal political question," he told them. "There has been no Congress when this hasn't been pending before it. . . . Here is an expert body that spent two years and a hell of a lot of the government's money." Congress, he claimed, would want to know the committee's views.[70] Esther Peterson said with Sanders that Congress expected guidance from the commission, and other committee members agreed that the situation demanded a declaration. Pauli Murray, however, demurred, still suggesting some way of dealing with the issue short of polarization, which had stymied any action in the past. She explained, moreover, that if the Court refused to rule as she hoped under the Fourteenth Amendment, she herself would advocate the ERA.[71]

Although Peterson said she was reluctant to influence the committee's position, she nevertheless made the Department of Labor's views known. Pauli Murray asked whether the Labor Department would object to mention of the ERA as one of many alternatives. Peterson initially replied: "I think you should express yourselves on this. I have tried to stay out"; but she continued, "The Department of Labor does feel that protective labor legislation is seriously threatened if an equal rights amendment were passed."[72] Peterson endorsed the suggestion that the committee approve the principle expressed in the ERA while indicating "dissatisfaction" with "any formulation presently in effect" coupled with an affirmative approach under the Fourteenth Amendment. At the end of the March meeting, the committee asked a subcommittee composed of Pauli Murray,


131

Marguerite Rawalt, and three others to draft a recommendation on the subject of constitutional equality, which it could propose to the full commission.[73]

The subcommittee resolution affirmed the need for constitutional recognition of women's equality before the law and ducked the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment. The recommendation read: "Equality of rights under the law for all persons, male or female, is so basic to democracy and its commitment to the ultimate value of the individual that it must be reflected in the fundamental law of the land." Pauli Murray proposed an additional statement that declared: "The Commission also believes that legal distinctions between the sexes not reasonably justified by differences in physical structure or by maternal function are violative of this constitutional principle," but the subcommittee rejected it. The subcommittee expressed its sentiment that the principle of equality was implicit in the Constitution and that the courts would ultimately affirm it. It requested interested groups to take steps that would lead to a ruling to that effect. As for the ERA, the subcommittee recommended a statement for the commission: "In view of the promise of this constitutional approach, the Commission at this time takes no position on the proposed equal rights amendment." The recommendation carefully refrained from criticizing the efforts of any group with regard to improving the status of women, remarking that the progress women had made in the recent past was due to the work of civic and women's groups; the statement urged that such activities continue. The subcommittee proposal went on: "[The Commission] therefore commends and encourages the continued efforts of such interested groups in educating the public to the problems and in urging action within the . . . government to the end that full partnership of women may become a reality whether effected by federal or state legislation . . . or through appropriate federal or state constitutional Amendment, or by test litigation within the existing constitutional framework." Marguerite Rawalt was deeply relieved at the recommendation.[74]

At the meeting of April 5, the committee changed the recommendation from "at this time takes no position on the proposed equal rights amendment" to "does not take a position in favor


132

of the equal rights amendment at this time." The majority of the committee opposed the ERA and felt obliged to say so. But those who objected to the constitutional amendment believed they were leaving options open, both by including the phrase at this time and by encouraging other groups to work toward the end they considered most suitable, even including a constitutional amendment. In making this statement, the committee hoped to placate ERA supporters.[75]

The commission was not at first so cautious or so diplomatic. Far more than the committee, it seemed willing to turn the amendment down flat. Marguerite Rawalt chaired the discussion at the commission meeting of April 23–24; the lone ERA supporter, she had more at stake than any other commission member. Carefully she explained to the commission the reasoning behind the committee's delicately worded recommendation and its desire not to bar any course of action. John Macy, chairman of the Civil Service Commission, was not persuaded. Unwilling to admit even the possibility of supporting the ERA, he contended: "You weaken the basic position . . . if you also continue to ride the equal rights amendment horse."[76] Rawalt tried to persuade the commission against complete rejection of the ERA, saying it was a national commission's duty to encourage rather than to foreclose action, and she cited the support of the BPW and the General Federation of Women's Clubs and of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and, ironically, Kennedy for the ERA. On the other side, both Henry David, president of the New School for Social Research, and Viola Hymes, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, argued against hedging, including phrases like at the present time . They insisted that because the president's commission was to go out of existence in October, it could either endorse the amendment or reject it, but it could not suggest that the position might change in the future. Caroline Ware, herself a victim of sex discrimination, dissented. She suggested that if the Court refused to rule favorably in a test case, some constitutional amendment might be appropriate. Although David and Hymes repeatedly asked for a clear commission vote on the subject, vice-chairman Richard Lester, Caroline Ware, and Mary Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, seemed eager to avoid one. Ware suggested that a


133

"pro or con" approach was "wrong" in view of Murray's new suggestion. Rawalt, who recognized the certainty of a rejection if a poll were taken, predicted that a "yea or nay" vote would result in a newspaper headline the commission might wish to avoid. The majority of the commission appeared sensitive to the prospective enmity a flat denunciation of the ERA would bring from the BPW and other pro-ERA women's groups: only three voted in favor of a substitute statement offered by Henry David and Norman Nicholson of Kaiser Industries clearly condemning the amendment.[77]

A substitute drafted by the Department of Justice that did not change the substance of the committee draft won greater favor. It read: "In view of the fact that a constitutional Amendment does not appear to be necessary to establish the principle of equality, the Commission believes that constitutional changes should not be sought unless, at some future time, it appears from court decisions that a need for such action exists." Rawalt objected to the contention of "fact" in the first part of the recommendation, and the commission eliminated that part and substituted the word since : "Since a constitutional Amendment does not appear to be necessary. . . ." ERA opponents then maintained that the word since indicated that they were not foreclosing the possibility that the amendment might become desirable under unforeseen future circumstances; they therefore moved to strike the words after sought . Despite Rawalt's objection, the motion carried ten to five. Rawalt, who felt sorely defeated, asked to be recorded in opposition. The other four votes opposed are unknown.[78]

On the day following the vote, Rawalt made a final attempt to modify the commission statement. She observed that deleting the words from the Justice Department recommendation—"unless at some future time it appears from court decisions that a need for such action exists"—appeared to close off the consideration of amendments in the future. Rawalt argued that many had said that the word since indicated a recognition that a constitutional amendment might be appropriate if the Murray approach failed, and that this position could be stated more clearly by inserting the word now —"the Commission believes that constitutional changes should not now be sought." Henry


134

David, although an enemy of the ERA, seemed eager for some sort of compromise and suggested "need not now be sought," a change Rawalt quickly accepted. Margaret Mealey of the National Council of Catholic Women, another strong ERA opponent, seconded the motion. The motion carried, but the vote was not recorded, except that Henry David asked to be noted as "not voting." Rawalt had succeeded in averting a flat denunciation of the ERA.[79]

But more important, despite lingering concern that even the Fourteenth Amendment approach might imperil some legislation commission members thought valuable, the commission had followed the committee recommendation and asserted that women had to have some affirmation of their rights to equal treatment under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Coming from a citadel of the Women's Bureau coalition, it was the first genuine move toward compromise since the NWP had proposed exempting protective laws from the ERA forty years before.[80]

Equality of Rights: "Basic to Democracy"

In its report the President's Commission on the Status of Women emphasized its stand that women needed the protection of the Constitution against arbitrary sex discrimination; it did not stress its position on the ERA. The section of the report entitled "Women Under the Law" began with the statement that "equality of rights under the law for all persons, male or female, is so basic to democracy . . . that it must be reflected in the fundamental law of the land." It went on to say that whereas the commission believed that this principle was already incorporated in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, but that some state laws made distinctions between men and women that "do not appear to be reasonable in the light of the multiple activities of women in present-day society." The commission had considered three approaches to dealing with such laws, it said: test litigation looking toward Supreme Court review, the Equal Rights Amendment, and state legislative action. The report continued: "Since the Commission is convinced that the U.S. Consti-


135

tution now embodies equality of rights for men and women, we conclude that a constitutional amendment need not now be sought in order to establish this principle. But judicial clarification is imperative in order that remaining ambiguities with respect to the constitutional protection of women's rights be eliminated." Interested groups should, the commission said, seek appropriate test cases. In addition, the commission asked all branches of government to "scrutinize" their laws and to remove "archaic" discriminatory standards. With respect to the activity of other groups, the commission "commended" and "encouraged" education and action "to the end that full equality of rights may become a reality." No specific proposals were mentioned.[81]

On the day the commission report came out, Peterson wrote to Senator Carl Hayden to thank him for his efforts in staving off the Equal Rights Amendment. His rider, she said, had constituted "an indispensable safeguard." She expressed her hope that "active work on the E.R.A. could be deferred to allow a reasonable opportunity for testing the effectiveness of the new approach recommended by the Commission"; she was sure, she told him, that the Supreme Court would uphold protective laws for women under the commission plan. She asked him, however, to be sure to continue appending his rider if the ERA were introduced.[82]

Predictably, the National Woman's party opposed the commission's conclusion with respect to the ERA. "In our opinion," explained an NWP statement, "the fate of American women should not be left to a possible future change in the attitude of the Supreme Court." The NWP did not object philosophically to the proposed reinterpretation of the Constitution; it avowed only that the possibility was unlikely. "Such a change," the party declared, "might not come for years, or it might never come." In any case, the party expressed the hope that the president's commission would signal the end of the study of women's status, which had been investigated ever since the presentation of the first colonial petition for women's suffrage 315 years before. Adoption of the "simple, clear and comprehensive" Equal Rights Amendment constituted the next logical step, the party maintained.[83] Privately, Emma Guffey Miller called the out-


136

come "a contradictory report from a packed committee."[84] Alice Paul proposed that the NWP simply ignore the commission report and go forward with the ERA, which again awaited action in both the Senate and the House.[85]

Congressional opponents, however, believed that the proposal of the president's commission eliminated whatever chance the ERA had in Congress. Carl Hayden sent copies of the commission report to correspondents, telling them: "In view of the recommendations . . . , I doubt that it would be possible to obtain two-thirds majority in each branch of the Congress in favor of submitting the Equal Rights Amendment of ratification by three-fourths of the State Legislatures." He suggested that persons who complained of discrimination file federal suits.[86]

Peterson herself viewed the commission suggestion on constitutional equality as a constructive plan of action, and she called a meeting ten days after the commission presented its report to discuss its implementation. She invited the National Woman's party to attend, and three representatives, including Alice Paul, participated, along with delegates from several other women's groups. Although Paul publicly expressed her hope and support for legal appeals through the courts, she continued to believe that such a strategy would "cripple the movement for the Equal Rights Amendment," which she did not intend to allow.[87] An expanded meeting of organizations willing to work on the Fourteenth Amendment approach took place two weeks later, with some seventeen groups present, including, again, the National Woman's party, which wanted to monitor the proceedings. The group elected the BPW president to chair a clearinghouse for the dissemination of information, creating much the same structure as the National Committee on Equal Pay. Plans were made for future meetings. Despite the uncertainty of the outcome, and the ambivalence of the NWP, for the first time since the introduction of the ERA in 1923 women's organizations on both sides of the question were uniting to work on an alternative plan for constitutional equality.[88]

The creation of the President's Commission on the Status of Women thus succeeded in achieving one of the goals of the Women's Bureau coalition. During the commission's life it fore-


137

stalled action on the ERA in Congress, and it developed an alternative that seemed likely to sap the strength of the amendment's appeal in the future.

But by agreeing that women needed to be considered "equal under law," it broke the long-standing stalemate that had hobbled concerted action on behalf of American women since the end of World War II. The President's Commission on the Status of Women had included the amendment's backers; it had further declined either to make an unacceptable policy statement at its inception or permanently to reject the amendment at the commission's conclusion. In fact, the commission's suggested alternative—"that the principle of equality [for women] become firmly established in constitutional doctrine" by means of an "early and definitive Supreme Court pronouncement"—was acceptable ideologically to the ERA's advocates; most merely thought it impractical.[89] Moreover, the amendment's opponents had even suggested that constitutional amendment might be required if the judiciary did not vindicate their belief in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The central argument over the ERA had now been sidestepped in such a way that both proponents and opponents could work together on constitutional equality and other women's issues as well. Although the NWP doubted that the Supreme Court would ever rule in favor of equal rights for women, other ERA advocates contended that a well-organized case had not before been presented, and they were willing, at least for a time, to take on the task.

The outcome of the Commission's work on this issue thus proved salutary; the way in which the commission functioned had an equally useful result. By isolating the discussion of the ERA during its life, the President's Commission on the Status of Women found itself able to embark on what it viewed as its main work: the creation of a program for women that would address the many problems that constitutional equality would not rectify.


138

8
The PCSW and a Unified Agenda for Women's Rights

By the 1960s, the political objective of equal treatment for women seemed more within reach than it had in the previous postwar years. The ambivalence over new social roles for women had abated as the family and the economy revealed not only the ability to tolerate women as permanent workers but also the need for women to assume this role. A president now held office who was committed to growth and the liberal agenda of government intervention on behalf of the social good. The internal politics of the Kennedy administration had given a particular shape to the development of a strategy of which the President's Commission on the Status of Women was the centerpiece. Sequestering the ERA allowed the commission to move toward developing a unified agenda to expand opportunities for women.

As soon as the commission inquiry began, however, it became apparent that it would not resolve the philosophic contradiction that had beset all previous efforts to improve women's opportunities outside the home. The commission took the stand that women had the right to be full-time permanent workers and to be treated as such according to their merits, but only so long as their traditional relationship to their children remained unchanged. As far as the commission was concerned, women's obligation to be the primary nurturers of children remained immutable, a critical difference between men and women as workers. This fundamental conflict between equal opportunity for women in the public realm and fulfillment of the role of traditional motherhood showed itself in the ambivalence that pervaded the commission's discussion and reports.


139

The inherent incongruity left the commission open to criticism from both sides. The executive order establishing the commission stressed employment aspects of women's status, reflecting the new social acceptance of women as workers. It charged the commission with "developing recommendations for overcoming discriminations in government and private employment on the basis of sex and . . . developing recommendations for services which will enable women to continue their roles as wives and mothers while making a maximum contribution to the world around them."[1] Because of the emphasis on work problems, some accused the commission of urging mothers to leave their children and join the labor force. Following Eleanor Roosevelt's discussion of the PCSW with the president on her television show, "Prospects of Mankind," Lee Udall, wife of the secretary of the interior and the mother of six children, told a Washington Post reporter that the program "didn't do a thing to elevate the profession of motherhood."[2] Letters to the president from the public made the same point. In response, Peterson drafted a reply affirming her conviction that motherhood was the "major role of the American woman" and her "primary responsibility."[3] Conscious indeed of the national commitment to women as mothers, whenever the commission encountered a conflict between the roles of mother and of worker, it usually endorsed the former at the expense of the latter.

Because it supported the general view that sex roles could not fundamentally change, the commission could not reconcile the underlying contradiction between its affirmation of motherhood and the simultaneous assertion that women shared with men "the freedom to choose among different life patterns." Hyman Bookbinder, who represented the secretary of commerce on the commission, observed: "It is a fact of life—past, present, and future—that the great majority of women either choose to, or have to, devote their energies and their talents to the rearing of children and the management of homelife during at least half of their adult years." The implication of this "fact of life" for Bookbinder followed: "We should not pretend that women as a group are equal to men as a group in qualifying for participation in the world of work and in public affairs."[4] Margaret Mealey, speaking for the National


140

Council of Catholic Women, of which she was executive director, cautioned that woman's nature and the well-being of her family imposed limitations on her public life.[5] The Committee on Home and Community maintained in its report: "Over and above whatever role modern women play in the community . . . , the care of the home and the children remains their unique responsibility. No matter how much everyday tasks are shared or how equal the marriage partnership may be, the care of the children is primarily the province of the mother. This is not debatable as a philosophy. It is and will remain a fact of life."[6] Logically, the commission also espoused a corollary belief, that the major responsibility for the family's financial support fell to the father. Given these assumptions and a stated objective of equal opportunity for working women, vice-chairman Richard Lester pointed out to the commission that it had a problem of "inconsistent justification for . . . different recommendations."[7] The dichotomy between the primacy of traditional sex roles and the goal of equal treatment for women at work produced a tension which the commission never satisfactorily explored or resolved. No coherent intellectual argument for women's equal treatment would emerge from the president's commission.

Not only were the commission's choices limited by its unwillingness to question the sex-role structure or prevailing beliefs about the nature of women in American society, but the commission's desire to recommend proposals that would likely be endorsed by the administration, adopted, and implemented also constrained its options. Because it coveted widespread approval, the commission rejected most potentially contentious positions, from fundamental changes in the Social Security system to endorsement of the provision of birth control information. It did not intend to begin a debate over the basic principles that sustained the social order. Hyman Bookbinder pointed out facetiously that if the commission took the position that monogamy, for example, created certain problems, the publicity directed to that opinion would overwhelm all the other material in the report and cause the public to dismiss the balance of the recommendations. Convinced that even internal dissension would vitiate the strength of the suggestions, the commission


141

also pursued unanimity, sometimes sacrificing a majority opinion to achieve it. Both the committees and the full commission strove to produce documents acceptable to the administration, to which end Esther Peterson cleared all proposals and reports with cabinet and White House officials before their release. The President's Commission on the Status of Women very much represented a mainstream reform attempt, working for the Kennedy administration within the constraints of prevailing values and liberal politics.[8]

Because they were working within a liberal consensus, most commission members felt no need even to articulate the principles they held in common. Commission recommendations evinced a faith in the ability to make meaningful changes without radically altering the economic or political structure. With constructive leadership, the commissioners believed, the nation progressed through time toward increasing freedom and greater equality of opportunity, to the benefit of both individuals and the society as a whole. Therefore, the commission assumed, government had the right and the duty, using "expert advice," to intervene within the private sector in order to bring about desirable goals, provide services, and assist those in need. Few of the commissioners found it necessary to define their terms, although many would no doubt have differed as to what constituted appropriate federal intervention in either the private sector or the family.

No commission member grappled with the idea that business might find a marginal female labor force efficient and economical; instead, recommendations contended that better opportunities for women would inevitably result in larger profits and increasing productivity. Many did acknowledge that women should not individually have to bear all the costs of childrearing—that industry and educational institutions should seek some accommodation to the wants of women and children. But none suggested that maternity and childrearing ranked first, with employment structured to suit those needs. With certain modifications, women would still have to fit into a male-designed world.

Within its ideological and political boundaries, however, the commission made a conscientious effort to establish as expedi-


142

tiously as possible a record of responsible action on behalf of women, both in the home and at work. Recommendations took note of differences in class, race, political ideology, and individual preferences, as well as some social norms it deemed inappropriate to support. The total package of recommendations resulted in a blueprint for change that, if implemented, would significantly enlarge the range of choices for American women.[9]

Federal Employment

The president's commission began its operations by addressing employment discrimination practiced by the federal government—the obvious place to start. The nation's largest employer, it had sixty thousand women on its payroll. Moreover, the government practiced a blatant form of sex discrimination: agency heads by law could limit jobs to persons of one sex or the other. Taking steps against sex discrimination in the civil service presented few procedural problems and, because the form of discrimination was so bald, few ideological problems.

Sex discrimination in the civil service had a long history. The first women clerks had been hired specifically to provide cheap labor. In 1864 Congress enacted a law allowing the appointment of female clerks at a rate of six hundred dollars per year, half the lowest government wage. By 1870, however, with more than seven hundred women employed in federal offices in Washington, Congress passed a new provision permitting department heads to hire women to fill the regular clerkship grades and to pay them the commensurate salary. In the revised statutes, adopted the following year, this section came to read: "Women may, in the discretion of the head of any department, be appointed to any clerkship therein authorized by law, upon the same . . . conditions . . . as are prescribed for men."[10] Although clearly intended as an authority to pay women the same rate as male clerks, the Civil Service Commission (CSC) interpreted the provision to mean that Congress had granted agency heads the absolute right to specify the preferred sex of a worker for any job. Agency heads used their prerogative almost invariably to select women for the low-paying jobs and men for the more responsible ones. In 1919 only 5 percent of new


143

women federal employees received salaries over $1,299, compared to 46 percent of the men. Under pressure from the Women's Bureau coalition, the CSC that year had rescinded the rule barring women from more than 60 percent of the civil service examinations, but it maintained the right of agency heads to designate sex in requesting names from the eligibles list for employment. In 1923 the Classification Act mandated equal pay for equal work regardless of sex, but the right of federal managers to hire by sex was not addressed. Finally, in 1932, just before his term was to expire, President Herbert Hoover, acting on the advice of Republican members of the National Woman's party, issued an executive order rescinding the right of agency heads to select by sex, although reserving the right to the Civil Service Commission in the case of jobs where sex represented a bona fide occupational qualification.[11]

Although this decision pleased the National Woman's party, the Women's Bureau coalition had mixed feelings. Before the passage of the Veterans' Preference Act during the Harding administration, they too had argued for the change. But because veterans had points added to their scores automatically, women had less chance of falling among the top three eligibles from which appointments were customarily made. Therefore, the Women's Bureau preferred selection by sex, which at least gave women access to clerical positions and permitted sympathetic agency heads, like Mary Anderson, to choose women regardless of the availability of men with higher scores. The interests of each side reflected its class orientation. The NWP sought to open opportunities so that able women could move into upper-level jobs; the Women's Bureau concerned itself with the right of women to entry-level positions.[12]

Soon after FDR became president, the Women's Bureau gained enough leverage to assure the outcome it sought. The bureau pointed out that under Hoover's executive order, appointments of women to the civil service did actually decline (although the Depression, which impelled all employers to give preference to men, probably accounted for the change at least as much). Mary Anderson asked the new president to countermand Hoover's instructions. In response, the Civil Service Commission polled women's organizations throughout the country;


144

with six replies in favor of restoring the previous rule and two preferring the new one, Roosevelt's attorney general ruled that Hoover's executive order had been illegal. Only Congress, he said, could rescind the power it had given agency heads to select by sex. In October 1934, to the NWP's disgust, Franklin Roosevelt reversed Hoover's directive.[13]

The policy remained in force throughout the forties and fifties, although it had become increasingly apparent that, veterans preference or no, selection by sex consigned women to low-level jobs. In 1954 the median grade for women had been four; for men, seven (excluding postal employees). Out of every hundred women federal workers, 80 percent held jobs in grades one to five, compared to only 25 percent of the men; less than 1 percent of women served as administrators, as opposed to 9 percent of males. By 1959, the median for men had risen by two grades but remained at GS-4 for women; half of all women were found in the four lowest grades, compared with only one-fifth of the men. Even in professional positions, the median grade for women was lower than for men generally, GS-7 compared to GS-9.[14]

Despite these facts, repeated presidential statements about the need for women in policy-making positions, and the increasing disapproval of women's organizations, neither the Democratic nor the Republican administrations of these decades took steps to limit the right of federal managers to select by sex. Complaints and appeals to the CSC and the attorney general brought the response that only Congress could revoke this authority. But when, in 1957, Representative Marguerite Stitt Church (R-Ill.) introduced a bill to amend section 165 of the Revised Statues to remove the discretion in appointments, the Civil Service Commission reacted unenthusiastically, and the bill died in committee.[15]

The CSC had not deemed the status of women federal employees a problem. Although a 1959 federal employment survey had found that women, still one-quarter of the federal labor force, continued to be clustered in the lowest grades, the commission failed to identify discrimination as a cause of this situation. After all, it noted, more men than women were trained professionals and therefore were naturally classified in the higher grades. Yet


145

the Commission did concede that even in fields such as social administration, which contained as many women as men, the median grade for men was still GS-13, and that for women was GS-12. The commission suggested that still another factor might account for the disparity: the traditional employment pattern of women. Because women left the labor force to raise children, the "interruption of their careers retards their progress up the promotion ladder."[16] Nevertheless, the commission cheerfully observed, there was still room for women at the top. Out of 575,990 women federal employees, 18 had attained positions among the 1,496 employees in grades sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, slightly over 1 percent.[17]

In seeking to eliminate so obvious a form of sex discrimination within the civil service, the President's Commission on the Status of Women did not need to address the conflict between motherhood and equal opportunities at work, and in the presence of the Civil Service Commission it did not have to draw up formal rules regarding penalties or affirmative action. In addition, John Kennedy was already on record favoring the eradication of sex bias in the civil service. When he announced the creation of the presidential commission, Kennedy (with prompting from Peterson, Senator Philip Hart [D-Mich.], and others) had expressed his belief that the federal career service should be a "showcase" of equal opportunity in employment. He at that time instructed John Macy, chairman of the Civil Service Commission, to review policies and procedures to ensure that selection was made solely on merit without regard to sex. As president, Kennedy could execute additional PCSW recommendations on the subject without further ado.[18]

The PCSW promptly recommended the policy change and John Kennedy promptly implemented it. Robert Kennedy reversed the ruling made by Roosevelt's attorney general, and the president put CSC chief John Macy in charge of eliminating the discriminatory practice of selecting personnel by sex. "Bona fide occupational qualification" exceptions would be few.[19]

Merely forbidding agency heads from excluding women did not mean that more women would be hired, and no one considered penalizing executives who did not place women in upper-level jobs; nevertheless, change was visible as early as a


146

year later. Many agencies had appointed women to particular positions for the first time, and the CSC had instituted monitoring procedures. Although the configuration of employment did not change at once, the idea of equal opportunity for women in employment had been introduced, confirmed, and legitimated.[20]

The president's commission also addressed, albeit cautiously, the other form of federal employment of women: presidential appointments. Although no woman representative of the Democratic National Committee sat on the commission (a fact that irritated many DNC members), the PCSW nevertheless recognized administration appointments as being worthy of attention. Still, criticism of the administration would be impolitic, so the members decided to focus on the needs for the future rather than the failures of the past. The commission's recommendation on nominations read: "Increasing consideration should continually be given to the appointment of women of demonstrated ability and political sensitivity to policy-making positions."[21] The White House did not find the suggestion objectionable, and Dan Fenn, head of the administration's "Talent Search," met with Margaret Hickey, chairman of the commission's Committee on Federal Employment, to find a way to implement it. Fenn deplored the practice of merely supplying lists of names of women seeking positions. He therefore proposed a small committee of women who would help locate the right woman for a given job and lobby to appoint her—in short, that the president's commission perform the function India Edwards had fulfilled for Truman. But because the commission had less than one year to its conclusion, it could not assume such a responsibility. Kennedy's appointment record remained undistinguished.[22]

Private Employment

The desire to make the civil service a "showcase" reflected in part the presidential commission's belief that private employers would emulate the federal model. But if the federal government intended to take action with regard to sex discrimination in the private sector, the guidelines of enforcement and conse-


147

quences of noncompliance had to be spelled out more clearly than for the civil service, where the Civil Service Commission could implement a general policy on an ad hoc basis.

Both political and philosophical considerations, however, prevented the commission from seeking to penalize business for sex discrimination. James Roosevelt (D-Calif.) proposed a fair employment practice bill in 1962 that barred discrimination based on sex as well as on race, but the NAACP and the Departments of Justice and Labor objected to including women in the bill. The House Committee on Education and Labor omitted the sex provision on the motion of Edith Green (D-Oreg.) in order to give the president's commission time to study the best methods of achieving employment equity for women. Neither the PCSW's Committee on Private Employment nor the commission as a whole believed that coercive measures would win acceptance from either the business community or Congress. In addition, because no sanctions against sex bias obtained within the federal government, it would be hard to defend punitive measures against private business for the same offense. More to the point, although they held up equal treatment as ideal, both the Committee on Private Employment and the commission, reflecting the beliefs of most Americans, regarded differential treatment in employment on the basis of sex warranted under some circumstances because of women's familial obligations.[23]

By the time the commission began to consider the attitude of business toward women, the administration had already taken executive action with respect to racial discrimination in private employment. Shortly after assuming office, John Kennedy had issued an executive order (EO 10925) establishing the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. The order required federal contractors to agree not to discriminate on the basis of "race, creed, color or national origin" and to take affirmative action to ensure equal treatment. A second executive order, issued in June 1963, extended the initial provision to federally assisted programs receiving grants, loans, insurance, or guarantees. The possibility of including "sex" in EO 10925 had been considered, but administration drafters concluded that racial discrimination constituted enough of a burden without adding other conditions,


148

such as sex, age, or handicap. Moreover, ever since World War II a widespread social movement to end racial discrimination had been pressuring the government and seeking to change public attitudes—and with some success: race had become less and less a legitimate criterion for discrimination. Neither a social movement nor a coherent feminist philosophy existed to support the inclusion of a prohibition on sex-based discrimination in an executive order (or a bill, also considered) to ban racial bias in private employment.[24]

The president's commission considered this issue a fertile field for policy initiatives, and, although sex discrimination had been omitted from the first executive order, the commission continued to view the relationship between the federal government and its contractors as the most accessible vehicle for bringing about some change in the private sector. The president could prohibit sex discrimination merely by fiat, and an executive order pertaining to contractors would protect a significant number of workers. In 1960, the federal government bought about 20 percent of all goods and services produced in the country, and the one hundred largest defense contractors employed ten million workers.[25]

The question for the Committee on Private Employment to resolve centered on the kind of executive order to recommend. Committee member Caroline Davis, director of the Women's Division of the United Automobile Workers, strongly urged that the president ban discrimination based on sex and include penalties and machinery for enforcement. She had supported the addition of the word sex to EO 10925, and because of her defeat on this issue, she said, she had failed to win a prohibition against sex discrimination in the automobile industry contracts of 1961.[26]

The Private Employment Committee refused to go along with her proposal, though. As committee chairman Richard Lester explained, "There are very good grounds, apparently, for discrimination against women in connection with training, promotion and upgrading in certain lines." Because women differed from men in motivation and career aspirations, and usually interrupted their work lives to raise families, the government, Lester contended, would find it difficult "to determine


149

the line between justified and unjustified selection of males over against females in training and promotion." Moreover, said Lester, because illegitimate sex discrimination could not at that point be specified, any executive order prohibiting it would have to depend for enforcement on "moral suasion and company consultation." The experience gained using these techniques would, he argued, permit the formulation of stronger measures later if they proved necessary.[27]

The administration stepped in to quell the dispute. The new secretary of labor, Willard Wirtz, refused to endorse an executive order that relied on more than education and moral suasion for its enforcement. At its meeting one week later, the Committee on Private Employment, in keeping with the administration's wishes, passed a recommendation for a contract clause to be specified in an executive order: "It is the policy of the Government that there should be no discrimination against women in regard to hiring, training or promotion in employment by reason of their sex. In the performance of this contract, the contractor is requested to use his best efforts to comply with this policy in order to assure that equal employment practices for women are observed." After strenuous objections from Caroline Davis and Muriel Ferris, Senator Philip Hart's legislative assistant, the committee compromised and changed is requested to to shall .[28]

In its report, the committee recounted its reasons for not recommending the amendment of EO 10925 and for preferring persuasion to compulsion. "The consensus," the report explained, "was that the nature of discrimination on the basis of sex and the reasons for it are so different [from race] that a separate program is necessary to eliminate barriers to the employment and advancement of women." Volunteerism would permit business managers to demonstrate that they could act without coercion, and a noncoercive program would therefore elicit more support from industry, Congress, and other groups, the committee asserted. Information could be collected "in a cooperative atmosphere" that would permit distinguishing "differentiation that is justifiable on the basis of sex from differentiation that cannot be justified." In cases of willful noncompliance, firms could conceivably be barred from federal contracts, and if more


150

definite penalities turned out to be necessary they could be added later.[29] Only Caroline Ware dissented, citing experience with voluntary compliance and cases of racial discrimination.[30]

The commission would not accept davis's proposal to add the word sex to EO 10925, which it believed meant ignoring the impact of family responsibilities on women workers and their employers, nor could it envision forcing private employers to share with women the costs of taking time out from work to raise families. Thus, despite initial protestations of the commission's planners that "prevailing institutions and work practices . . . largely shaped by and for men"[31] limited women's chances, the commission did not propose to forbid sex discrimination. Unable to reconcile the conflict between pursuit of equality for women and endorsement of the traditional obligations of women, the commission suggested that women's interrupted work patterns might justify exclusion from on-the-job development programs—implying that women would have to continue to pay the price of lost promotions and missed wage increases for fulfilling what the commission deemed to be their appropriate roles. Further, PCSW personnel viewed with sympathy the objections of civil servants and business people who did not want to be saddled with additional burdens in getting or offering contracts for government supplies. Finally, the commission did not want to place the White House in a position where it would refuse to comply with a PCSW recommendation. The commission had been designed to enhance the president's reputation, not embarrass him. Given the nature of the dispute, political considerations dictated leaving the recommendation vague. Interested in achieving widespread endorsement of its views, the commission, in this instance as in others, attempted to arrive at positions that would not unduly inconvenience its constituents, even at the expense of working women's opportunities. It thus wound up in large measure mirroring rather than advancing the state of national opinion.[32]

Although hardly a battle cry, the commission's statement denouncing discrimination in employment still advanced the cause of wider opportunities for women. In its report the commission called attention to the number of women employed (one worker in every three was female) and the need for their skills and their


151

income.[33] It also decried women's low wages and countered the myths, such as increased absenteeism, that employers offered to justify discrimination. "Reluctance to consider women applicants on their merits," the commission declared, "results in underutilization of capacities that the economy needs and stunts the development of higher skills."[34] The commission enunciated for the first time a federal policy censuring discrimination against women in employment by the federal government itself, by the private sector, and by state governments receiving federal grants. Although the limits to discrimination were not clearly drawn, at least, according to the commission, there ought to be some limits.[35]

Protective Labor Legislation

The commission could not easily insist on full equality for women in hiring and training, but it was able to come closer to affirming nondiscriminatory treatment for women under protective labor laws, the coverage of which could be extended to men rather than withdrawn from women.

Because employers had always used labor laws to justify discrimination, advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment had for a long time urged that such legislation either apply to men as well as women or be eliminated. The Women's Bureau, in contrast, had traditionally maintained that protective labor laws helped the overwhelming majority of women and hurt only a few. When faced with the imminent threat of the ERA, advocates of protective labor legislation, fearing that the amendment would result not in extension but in obliteration of the labor laws, fought the amendment vigorously and defended the laws for women. With the Committee on Civil and Political Rights working on a method for achieving constitutional equality while still safeguarding protective laws for women, the Committee on Protective Labor Legislation was free to consider the laws themselves, undisturbed by the heated ERA controversy. By the 1960s many of those most committed to protective labor laws were willing to acknowledge that some of the more restrictive and rigid rules did more harm than good. It was up to the Committee on Protective Labor Legislation to determine the difference between the laws still useful


152

and those now antiquated and to find a way to reconcile the demand for equal opportunity for women and the expectation of special protection.

Consideration of the laws apart from the Equal Rights Amendment produced a ready accord; in most cases the Committee on Protective Labor Legislation, and the commission as a whole, concurred in principle with ERA proponents. The most desirable outcome, committee members concluded, was the extension to men of the laws in effect protecting women. However, whereas ERA adherents saw constitutional equality as causing the beneficial changes in state laws, the Committee on Protective Labor Legislation strongly believed that laws pertaining to women should remain in force until they were superseded by better laws covering men as well.

This judgment did not present any problems for the committee in most areas of discussion, which were quickly decided by consensus. At the first meeting, members endorsed the extension of minimum wage legislation with premium pay for overtime at both federal and state levels to men and women workers presently uncovered; likewise for equal pay legislation. The committee also agreed that industrial homework should be eliminated. Later the committee voted in favor of a flexible weight-lifting law pertaining to both men and women. Cash maternity benefits under disability programs and the right to maternity leave also met with approval.[36]

The sticking point came over hours legislation. Most members concurred that state law should establish an absolute number of hours for workers, but committee member Henry David, a prominent labor historian, adamantly and successfully resisted a proposal to recommend extending prohibitions on women's hours to male workers. He contended both that the PCSW had no mandate to recommend laws for men and that proposing a limit to the number of hours men could work would elicit "howls of rage." Furthermore, David argued, hours laws for women were well established; applying them to men would raise "a whole new series of questions which we certainly are not able to deal with and on which we have seen no basic data at all."[37] Ultimately, after David's vehement argument, the committee recommended that hours laws set a definite maximum


153

for women, that they be administered "flexibly," and that women in administrative, executive, and professional jobs be exempted.[38]

Commission members greeted the committee recommendation with varying degrees of satisfaction. Margaret Hickey said she had hoped the time had come to apply these standards equally to men. Henry David explained to her the reasoning of the committee—which was in fact his own—that hours laws for men would not gain public acceptance. Hickey responded that such a consideration did not appear to be a very good reason to burden women. Many commission members, including Peterson, expressed the view that overtime pay as a deterrent might be preferable to maximums, but David argued strongly for his position, insisting that the commission was making trouble for itself on the matter and that to come out against maximum hours for women would be breaking with "a body of history which meant something and conceivably still does mean something." Sarcastically, he admitted that the original resolution did have a weakness; it was, he said, "realistic."[39]

Faced with an apparent deadlock, Peterson had a statement drawn up before the next meeting detailing the Department of Labor's position on the issue. According to this position paper, the department desired adequate labor standards for all workers, and it judged premium pay for additional hours for both men and women as the best way to shorten the workday. The Department concluded that, where special hours laws for women represented the best attainable protection at present, they should be "maintained, strengthened and expanded."[40] The commission adopted this position almost verbatim, adding the exemption of professional and executive women from the committee's original recommendation. Although David believed that the commission had adopted his position, this statement differed in that it spoke of maximum hours laws only as interim measures, to be eliminated when states enacted laws requiring premium pay for overtime. Hours laws constituted the only area of conflict with respect to protective labor legislation and, except for pregnancy and maternity leave, became the only kind of labor legislation about which the committee and the commission proposed differential treatment of women workers—and even


154

this remaining distinction was to be temporary. The gap between the Women's Bureau coalition and proponents of the ERA was growing smaller.[41]

Taken all together, the commission's proposals on employment revealed its ambivalence toward women's roles. While continuing to endorse equality in the civil service, in private employment, and in labor law, the commission also spoke of "justifiable" discrimination and extending and strengthening hours laws for women. Recognizing that private employers were unlikely to change their behavior without federal direction, it nevertheless declined to specify the action the White House should take. Because it was caught between the fundamentally contradictory ideals of traditional womanhood and equality, the commission could not make a clear statement.

Education

The dichotomy of women's needing both equal and different treatment that ran through the commission's discussions on employment also weighed on the consideration of recommendations concerning education. The commission maintained that educational institutions needed to accommodate to the patterns of women's lives so that women who followed traditional paths could reenter the labor force when their children had grown. Educational programs had to be available in the community, through either local junior colleges or correspondence schools. Schools had a responsibility to offer part-time study, financial aid, and flexible academic and residency requirements.[42]

But the educational establishment had another obligation as well. According to both the Committee on Education and the commission as a whole, educational institutions needed to help women prepare for their special role. "The expectation that a woman will become a wife and mother differentiates the educational requirements of girl and boy from the very beginning,"[43] the committee report asserted. The commission cautioned that "widening the choice for women beyond their doorstep does not imply neglect of their education for responsibilities in the home." All girls and women should learn about childcare and


155

family relations, nutrition, family finances, and "the relation of individuals and families to society." The commission did not recommend such a program for boys and men.[44]

Yet at the same time that the commission proposed educational programs to fortify prevailing sex roles, it also argued that education played a key role in expanding women's horizons. Counseling women, the commission contended, required special skills: "From infancy, roles held up to girls deflect talents into narrow channels. . . . Imaginative counseling can lift aspirations beyond stubbornly persistent assumptions about 'women's roles' and 'women's interests' and result in choices that have inner authenticity for their makers."[45] But here again, the commission refused to acknowledge the underlying problem. Many of the characteristically male-dominated fields did not mesh well with the traditional roles of women. If childcare remained ultimately a female responsibility, as the commission assumed it should, fewer women could be expected to overcome the hurdles in fulfilling both the role of nurturer and that of career professional. A young woman who received both the homemaking education the commission prescribed and counseling to become a mechanical engineer had to sort out conflicting messages. Its recommendations on both employment and education disclosed the commission's vacillation between the two ideals it professed.

Financial Security

When it came to issues of family support, however, the traditional view of women as dependent ultimately took clear precedence. Consonant with its view that women had unique responsibilities with respect to families which justified differential treatment in employment, the commission also affirmed that men had to continue to fulfill traditional support obligations. The Committee on Civil and Political Rights recommended that "in view of the childbearing and homemaking functions of the wife" the husband should continue to bear the primary burden of financial support.[46] The commission concurred in


156

the committee's judgment, which colored many of the commission's additional suggestions.

The Commission made no recommendation for changes in the Social Security system for women workers who paid Social Security taxes and, in many cases, received no additional awards over that which they would have gotten as wives who had not made payments. The system presumed the dependency of both wives and children on male workers and so also denied benefits even for the children of working women. The commission did, however, emphasize the need for increased payments to the widows of workers and to divorced women.[47]

Part of the commission's reluctance to tackle these questions came from the complexity of the Social Security system and the expense of making changes in benefits.[48] But the Committee on Social Insurance and Taxes went out of its way to affirm that it would not "be appropriate for the social insurance program to provide a benefit so that the father could stay at home to care for the child" in the event of the mother's death.[49] Childcare, after all, was women's work. Thus, despite the assertion throughout the commission report that women worked to provide necessities for their families, the commission nevertheless failed to acknowledge that such families would continue to need the mother's income if she died—without recognizing that this omission undercut its initial premise.[50]

Although the commission declined to explore the implications for equality in employment of leaving traditional assumptions about financial support untouched, it did acknowledge some danger in the complete economic dependency of the homemaker. Most states followed the common-law precept that income belonged to the person who earned it. Thus, in a family where the husband worked for pay and the wife did not, she had no legal right to any of the family income or property. The commission took exception to this state of affairs. Calling marriage a partnership "in which each spouse makes a different but equally important contribution," it asserted that wives should have a "legally defined substantial right in the earnings" of the husband and in the property acquired through those earnings.[51] The implementation of the commission recommendation would mitigate the financial insecurity of full-time homemakers.


157

Care of Children

In fact, the commission recognized the need to offer other kinds of help to homemakers, as well as to working women. If the commission's devotion to the ideal of motherhood tempered its commitment to equality of treatment for women, its belief in free choice moderated its stand on who could care for children. The commission understood that unless women received some help in raising their children, educational and employment opportunity had little value. Moreover, as the commission repeatedly pointed out, mothers of young children did hold jobs outside the home, and these children needed supervision. Therefore, the Commission strongly endorsed an extensive day-care program.

The last time federal dollars had been allocated for day care was during World War II, and even then the provision of services had met less than 10 percent of the presumed need. The Children's Bureau, located in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), published a study in 1958 which asserted that four hundred thousand youngsters under the age of twelve lacked adequate arrangements for care; nevertheless, the Eisenhower administration opposed government funding of childcare centers. The National Conference on Day Care for Children, held in Washington in November 1960, recommended a comprehensive program of day care, supported by federal and state money, and during the 1960 campaign John Kennedy had promised his support in a letter to Elinor Guggenheimer, a founder of the day-care movement in New York State. Guggenheimer, now heading a group called the National Committee on Day Care, met with the new secretaries of HEW and Labor in 1961, and won a provision for funding in the administration bill regarding amendments to the Social Security Act. Peterson strongly supported Guggenheimer's goals of day care for children of working mothers and placed her on the Home and Community Committee.[52]

By the time the committee gathered for its first meeting in May 1962, however, Congress was close to enacting a day-care funding law that aimed not to care for the children of mothers already at work or to give those mothers who wished to work


158

the opportunity to do so, but rather to force the mothers of young children into the labor force, a goal anathema to the Women's Bureau coalition reformers working with the president's commission. The Public Welfare Amendments, signed into law in July 1962, authorized money only for day care for children on public assistance and implied that the service was to be provided so that the mothers of children receiving public assistance could be forced to work for wages. Congress apparently believed that middle-class taxpayers wanted impoverished, unmarried, disproportionately black women to leave their children in the care of others and take paying jobs, although they disdained middle-class women who chose to do so themselves.[53]

The commission usually deferred to prevailing political sentiments, but it could not do so in this case because insisting that lower-class mothers work contravened the philosophy of the Women's Bureau coalition, which expressly promoted the protection of women and children. Ideally, the commission believed, mothers should care for their young children at home regardless of class. The commission came out against using day-care services to support coercion of welfare recipients to work for wages and expressed sorrow for low income women who did leave babies in the care of others. The Committee on Home and Community declared that women with small children should not "be forced by economic necessity or the policies of welfare agencies" to seek outside employment,[54] and the full commission labeled the practice "regrettable."[55]

The commission declined to support day care as a coercive measure, but still it emphasized the need for such services. Both the committee and the commission maintained that day care should be available to families at all income levels, to provide for the children of mothers already working and to permit mothers who wanted to join the labor force to do so. They also contended that full-time homemakers who desired to devote a portion of their energy to the community or who had to meet other family needs should also have access to day-care facilities.[56]

Although the provision of day-care services would help some women take advantage of the new opportunities the commission proposed, it could not completely resolve the dilemma of


159

reconciling family obligations and equal chances for women in the public sphere—nor did the commission intend it to. Day care could assist women, especially those who needed to work, but the final responsibility for young children lay with the mother, and the commission presumed that she would still devote a large portion of her life to childrearing. The commission believed that women's maternal functions made them different from men in both motivation and career aspirations; therefore, it could not see forcing employers to invest equally in the training of women—equality at work would have to yield to a greater imperative of motherhood. Fatherhood implied not childcare but financial support.

In all its recommendations, the commission sought to correct the clearest injustices, to remove anachronistic obstacles to women's participation in public life, to affirm the desirability of equal treatment and the unfettered expression of individual talents, and to serve obvious and unfulfilled social needs. In doing so, however, the commission also resolved to remain firmly within the framework of traditional family roles. In making this choice, the commission reflected the ambivalence of the culture it served.

The Impact of the President's Commission

The President's Commission on the Status of Women took trouble to see that interest in women's status did not end with the submission of its report. In order to monitor the implementation of its proposals, and to serve as a reminder that the problems persisted, the commission asked the president in its final proposal to appoint two continuing federal bodies: an interdepartmental committee and a citizens' advisory council to "evaluate progress made, provide counsel, and serve as a means for suggesting and stimulating action."[57] John Kennedy established the two groups on November 1, 1963; it was the next-to-last executive order he signed.

The outlook seemed hopeful. The establishment of the president's commission had raised the expectations of those concerned about women. In her bestseller, The Feminine Mystique , published in February 1963, Betty Friedan had written: "The


160

very existence of the President's Commission on the Status of Women, under Eleanor Roosevelt's leadership, creates a climate where it is possible to recognize and do something about discrimination against women, in terms not only of pay but of the subtle barriers to opportunity."[58]

Moreover, to ensure that its proposals would find a sympathetic response, the president's commission had made a sustained effort throughout its deliberations to reach out to those women's organizations that it viewed as its primary sources of support, the members of the Women's Bureau coalition. The commission had asked for the assistance of these organizations when searching for data to support its recommendations, requesting information about their experiences with protective labor legislation, their knowledge of employment and statutory discrimination, and their familiarity with court cases involving sex bias. The women's organizations reciprocated the commission's interest. Most responded to commission queries at length, many wrote articles in their newsletters, and the National Council of Catholic Women distributed sixteen thousand commission brochures. Only one organization had a less than satisfactory relationship with the commission. The National Woman's party, although it participated in every commission-related function to which it was invited, viewed the commission with justified suspicion about the Equal Rights Amendment; and for her part, Esther Peterson, who invited the NWP to all appropriate commission functions, regarded the organization as intractable.[59]

The recalcitrance of the NWP notwithstanding, the enthusiasm of the women's associations even outside the traditional Women's Bureau coalition had resulted in the development of an entirely new set of institutions at the state level concerned with the status of women. In November 1962, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs notified Peterson that it wanted to undertake a program to encourage every governor to appoint a state commission patterned after the "excellent structure" of the president's commission. The leaders of the organization asked for a meeting with the president to get his approval of their plan, and, at Peterson's request, he complied, endorsing the proposal. The governor of the state of Washington was the first to respond to the federa-


161

tion's campaign; he appointed a commission in February 1963 based closely on the president's model. At the same time, he issued an executive order asking for a review of state employment regulations to ensure that they did not discriminate against women. The states of Indiana and Illinois quickly followed, as did many others, often with the assistance of the regional offices of the Women's Bureau. Although some other women's organizations resented the primary role of the BPW, during the presidential commission's lifetime ten state commissions on women were formed, and by 1967 every state had created one. The state commission movement indicated widespread national support for the president's commission; moreover, because the state commissions looked to it for their lead, they gave the parent body increased visibility and influence.[60]

In addition to inspiring state commissions, holding meetings with women's organizations, and inviting the participation of almost two hundred citizens on its committees, the commission had enlarged its base of support through "consultations" with special interest groups. Altogether, the commission held four such consultations; three of them, "Women in the Mass Media," "Private Employment," and "New Patterns in Volunteer Work," brought in delegates from relevant organizations in an effort to explore issues and win potential allies.[61]

Only in the fourth consultation, on the problems of Negro women, did the commission address the black woman specifically, even though it generally acknowledged in its discussions that virtually every disability affected black women more severely than white. In preparation for the consultation, the staff furnished a paper that described how pending recommendations of the president's commission, such as the extension of minimum wage laws, would assist minority women. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, special assistant to the secretary of labor, believed that the staff paper gave insufficient attention to the fact that "Negro society in America," according to his "limited understanding," was still "substantially a matriarchy," and did not address methods by which male-headed families could be established "if that is what is needed."[62] The people attending the consultation—educators, editors of black magazines, representatives of the New York Urban League, and government offi-


162

cials—agreed with Moynihan that the black family was matriarchal, a situation forced on them, they said, by lack of job opportunities for black males. They therefore advocated better, black-run community programs and the inclusion of Afro-American history and culture in the elementary school curriculum to provide male models for black children. The participants also raised an objection to the idea of forcing mothers of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) families to work. In general, the consultation revealed that black women considered racial bias, not sex discrimination, their major handicap. For the commission, the consultation provided evidence of its concern for the opinions of black leaders as well as white.[63] But whereas the commission recognized the special hardships of black women, it rejected an analogy between discrimination based on sex and discrimination based on race, and between remedies for racism and those for sex bias.

The commission formally ended its work with the presentation of its report to the president on October 11, 1963, Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday.[64] Press coverage of the report was widespread. The New York Times gave it front-page space, the Associated Press devoted a four-part series to it, and the "Today" show on NBC television offered a live interview with Peterson on the day of the presentation. More than one newspaper editorial observed that the commission was inconsistent in maintaining that a woman's first responsibility was to her family in the home and then expecting employers to treat her the same way they did male employees; the Wall Street Journal found the commission's proposal for day care "a tinge . . . collectivist."[65] On the whole, however, these views were exceptional. Most women's magazines and journals of women's organizations, after summarizing the report's contents, commended it to their readers.[66]

White House advisers concluded that, with the presentation of the commission report, the Kennedy administration had put together a worthy record on behalf of women, regardless of the number of women appointees. In preparation for the presentation ceremony, Myer Feldman recounted for the president the list of achievements. Most had proceeded from the agenda laid out in the Women's Bureau: the presidential commission's study; equal pay legislation; the ruling against discrimination in


163

the civil service; the elimination of a quota system for women officers in the armed forces (undertaken also at the request of the president's commission); and the extension of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include retail workers, many of whom were women. Feldman also included the establishment of a consumer advisory council, which Kennedy had pledged in his campaign, and the provision of money for day care.[67] The administration was justified in regarding the President's Commission on the Status of Women as the jewel in its crown for women.

Constrained by its refusal to examine the conflicts in defining roles by sex, its search for unanimity, and its desire for political acceptability, the PCSW often left the hardest problems untackled and forswore the most potent solutions; nevertheless, taken all together, the recommendations of the president's commission broke new ground. Were it brought to fruition, the agenda formulated by the commission would improve opportunities for women outside the home and enhance support within it. For the first time, a federal body examined the status of women, found it wanting, and offered prescriptions for its improvement. It decreed the problem of sex discrimination legitimate, insisting that it hurt not only the individual but also the nation. In doing so, the commission responded to a social reality and a social need. Although not far ahead of public opinion, the president's commission, by openly acknowledging the validity of the quest for equal treatment, nudged public opinion along.

Commission proposals covered the range of problems observed by each of the three interest groups of women in the fifteen years since World War II and forged them into a unified agenda. Like the Women's Bureau coalition, the President's Commission on the Status of Women suggested many "specific bills for specific ills." The committee asked the federal government to assume responsibility for encouraging private employers to treat women workers equitably and requested both public and private enterprises to provide women with the chance to work part-time so that they could acquire or use their skills while at the same time meeting their family responsibilities. Both federal and state legislation, counseled the commission, should mandate minimum wages for men and women, pre-


164

mium pay for overtime, and equal wages for men and women performing equal work. The commission maintained that unemployment insurance coverage had to offer women better protection and that employers, trade unions, and government at all levels should unite to develop a program of maternity benefits that would remove some of the burden from women who bore all the costs of having and rearing children. The commission advocated that the federal government permit more generous tax deductions for childcare and that local, state, and federal governments finance both educational programs and skilled counseling assistance sensitive to needs of women at all stages of their lives. The commission proposed community childcare facilities, with costs shared publicly and privately, so that women might take advantage of better educational opportunities and employment possibilities. Like ERA advocates, the commission endorsed the need for an affirmation of constitutional equality for women, as well as a movement to expunge from state legal codes antiquated laws that discriminated against women, barring them, for example, from jury service or hampering their right to own or convey property or change their domicile. Following the counsel of political party women, and to ensure that the legal system would become more responsive to women's needs, the commission encouraged women, political parties, and appointing officials to see that more women participated in government. The president's commission combined and endorsed all the separate agendas, permitting the boundaries that had separated the groups before to fade into the background.

Three weeks after the submission of the report, Kennedy completed his actions on behalf of American women by creating the continuing groups the commission had recommended: the Interdepartmental Committee and the Citizens' Advisory Council on the Status of Women. In the executive order, the president declared: "Enhancement of the quality of American life, as envisioned by the Commission's report, can be accomplished only through concerted action by both public and private groups, through coordinated action within the Federal Government, and through action by States, communities, educational institutions, voluntary organizations, employers, unions,


165

and individual citizens."[68] Further federal initiatives would take place under a new administration.

In her memorandum to Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg proposing the establishment of a commission on women, Esther Peterson had argued that the commission would not only block the Equal Rights Amendment, but it also would "help the nation . . . move further towards full partnership, creative use of skills, and genuine equality of opportunity." As Peterson intended, the President's Commission on the Status of Women had important implications for the politics of women's issues in the 1960s. It drew opposing interest groups together, narrowing the gap between the Women's Bureau coalition and ERA advocates; it enunciated a federal policy against sex discrimination, affirming that women, like men, had a right to paid employment; it presented a cogent set of proposals to begin the amelioration of the difficulties women faced; it built up networks of support among women's organizations and served as the model for analogous institutions on the state level; and, at its conclusion, it provided for a continuing presence at the federal level, to ensure that the consideration of the status of women would not disappear with the termination of the commission.[69] But only indirectly did the commission foster its most important sequel: a resurgent, energetic, widespread women's movement that arose from the active politics of the 1960s.


167

previous part
3 THE PRESIDENT'S COMMISSION ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN
next part