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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


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-


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]


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]

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