no previous
PREFACE
next section

PREFACE


ix

In 1960 a female newspaper reporter covering the presidential campaign pressed John Kennedy to compare his wife, Jacqueline, to Eleanor Roosevelt. Kennedy responded with an accusation: "Oh," he parried, "you're one of those feminists!"[1]

The future president had resorted to an epithet; no matter how devoted to the quest for women's rights and improvements in women's status, female leaders between World War II and the mid 1960s shunned the label feminist . At the end of the war, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs was supporting a program comprising the Equal Rights Amendment, equal pay legislation, the abolition of employment discrimination, and the appointment of women to high governmental positions. Yet in 1945 its president, Margaret Hickey, announced, "The days of the old, selfish, strident feminism are over."[2] Even the National Woman's party, the militant wing of the suffrage movement that had formulated the Equal Rights Amendment, employed the word feminism cautiously, generally restricting its usage en famille .[3] Not until the appearance in 1966 of the National Organization for Women, the first of the modern feminist organizations, did women fighting on behalf of women reclaim the word. In March 1968 a writer in the New York Times Magazine declared, "Feminism, which one might have supposed as dead as the Polish question, is again an issue."[4]

The emergence of a broadly based feminist movement at the end of the sixties produced legislation mandating equal treatment for women in education and in credit, eliminating criminal penalties for abortion, changing prejudicial rape laws, banning discrimination against pregnant women, equalizing property distribution at divorce, and offering tax credits for childcare. Local consciousness-raising groups made innumerable women aware of the social and political forces that had constrained the roles they had "chosen." In August 1970, tens of thousands of women marched in support of women's rights, a public demonstration


x

unseen since the suffrage parades. Advocates of feminism ushered in an age of reordered relationships between the sexes and endorsed a striking transformation of the educational and employment patterns of women.

Yet the first federal legislation to prohibit sex discrimination in employment was enacted in 1963, three years before the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW). A presidential order to eliminate selection by sex in the federal civil service, the nation's largest employer, predated the feminist organization by four years. And the first "consciousness-raising" group, a presidential commission to investigate the status of women, began its activities five years before the founding of NOW. All these events took place during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a man not heretofore characterized as an advocate of women's rights and, by his own disclaimer, no feminist.

The Kennedy administration's agenda for women was rooted in the post-war era fifteen years earlier. World War II had infused discussion of women's roles with new energy. Throughout the war, in order to win support for the defense effort, the government had emphasized national ideals of justice and equality. The contributions of women made many believe that the nation owed them a share in these ideals, some gesture of recognition in the particular form of legislation—an equal rights amendment to the Constitution or, less radical, an equal pay law.

But a longing for the social stability that had supposedly characterized the prewar world dominated the national consciousness and worked against the impulse to recognize women's individual achievements. Americans wanted to reestablish traditional family arrangements at work and at home. Government policy, implemented midwar, turned from urging women to take war jobs toward ejecting women from those places so that they—both the jobs and the women—would be available to the homecoming soldiers.

Economic events sabotaged these plans. Postwar inflation led even married women to want to remain in the labor force, despite their having to move to lower-paying sex-segregated work to do so. Because the clerical and service sectors of the workforce, reserved largely for women workers, expanded


xi

more rapidly than the population of young single women, employers gave up their long-standing objection to hiring married women. And married women, for their part, eagerly accepted the places. In 1940, 15 percent of wives worked outside the home; by 1960, 30.5 percent of them would hold jobs.[5]

Postwar politics concerning women reflected the ambivalence in espousing one set of goals (reinstatement of the "traditional" family) and acting on another (using the employment of married women to improve family financial security). Married women moved into the public arena with determination, both during the war and after, but confronted legal and economic discrimination. Leaders of women's groups sought to help, and policy measures to assist working women, to eliminate legal disabilities, and to study the "problems" caused by new styles of family living won more support than ever before. But they also elicited significant opposition.

The fifteen-year period of postwar consolidation proved inhospitable to policy initiatives on women's issues. By 1960, however, the anxiety associated with wartime dislocation which had so hobbled women had been replaced by a new set of fears. When in 1957 the U.S.S.R. orbited Sputnik, the first space satellite, the feat crystallized national apprehensions stemming from the long-standing suspicions between the two world powers. Americans worried whether their nation would be able to meet the challenge of its chief international rival. Had devotion to a stable family life resulted in a complacent and insular society vulnerable to the threat of Russian domination? The energetic liberalism of the administration of John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960 on a pledge to "get the country moving again," promised to meet the challenge, both at home and abroad. If America was to prove superior in the contest for the planet, all its resources would have to be exploited—including, as it turned out, the capacities of women.

Kennedy's commitment to orchestrate and direct social change provided the setting for the policy departure in women's issues but did not determine its specific nature. For these particulars he relied on his team in the Department of Labor, a group who in turn took their lead from the coalition of women's organizations and labor unions that had formulated a plan following


xii

World War II to integrate women into the peacetime labor force. Their program dovetailed with the administration's other goals: U.S. international security through the use of American talents, revitalization of the economy by increasing the purchasing power of workers, and equal opportunity in both private and public sector for all Americans.

When he was inaugurated, Kennedy himself did not specifically intend to implement a program that would initiate federal intervention on behalf of women's equality in the private sector, raise their expectations, create activist networks, and legitimate women's demands for action. But the actions of his administration had that impact. The Kennedy administration provided both a psychological foundation and a structural basis for the organization of the first women's rights group of the new era. The movement for women that blossomed at the end of the sixties sprang from the combination of long-standing discrimination in the law and in practice, changes in women's lives brought about by increasing experience in the workforce, the activism of civil rights advocates, and liberal politics.

This book looks at the evolution of policy concerning women's issues in the period between World War II and the rise of the women's movement at the end of the 1960s—an era in which women's issues were not "salient." During this time the federal government experienced virtually no outside political pressure or any extenuating circumstance that forced attention to programs for women. Yet between 1961 and 1963 a departure in policy took place, marked by a sudden aggressive implementation of specific initiatives designed to enlarge opportunities for women.[6]

Examination of this issue can be taken as a case study of sorts, one that demonstrates that important policy changes can occur, given an appropriate political and social context and savvy political actors, even if no widespread social movement demands them, and that these changes can then encourage the development of such a movement. Without broad-based support, however, the dimension of such changes will be limited. The study also reveals how political tactics can take advantage of historical moments to foster the attainment of specific goals; conversely, we see that maladroit political decisions can retard their achieve-


xiii

ment. This book examines the specific case of policy measures on behalf of women's rights, but at the same time it evaluates generally the practicality and impact of a variety of strategies common to groups seeking to improve their own condition.

Although this study takes policy making on all women as its subject, the actors in the story are primarily educated, middle-class white women. From this group came those who were able to procure the skills, the position, and oftentimes the leisure to address policy questions, either as officials of civic organizations representing similarly placed women or as unionists championing women they perceived to have fewer advantages than themselves.

In seeking measures to help women, these leaders followed the pattern of black activists fighting for constitutional amendment, legislation, executive orders, and court decisions. During World War II the hypocrisy of a nation that fought the notion of racial superiority abroad while upholding a system of racial stigmatization at home had grown too apparent to ignore. That black and white Americans were doing the fighting in racially segregated battalions only heightened the irony. After the war a vigorous civil rights movement emerged that, with few overt connections to the interest groups acting on behalf of women, provided models of strategies and opportunities for policy change.

Black women leaders participated in the deliberations about women's issues at crucial points, but they in general saw racism as the chief foe. Ideas, more than individuals, linked the civil rights movement and the small group of women working for women's rights in Washington between 1945 and 1968. White policy makers recognized that black women suffered from discrimination based on race and class as well as sex, and they framed a few measures directed specifically to the plight of black women. All assumed, however, that, by and large, policy initiatives phrased neutrally would help black women as well as white. A few measures did aim specifically at the plight of black women.

The story begins in 1945, with Part One, "Consolidation and Stalemate," describing the ambivalent impact of World War II


xiv

on legislative measures of significance to women. Chapter 1 looks at the renewed fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the immediate postwar period, chapter 2 at one alternative suggested by ERA opponents, and chapter 3 at the proposal for equal pay legislation, offered by ERA adversaries as an appropriate approach to women's employment problems. All these efforts were unsuccessful. Chapter 4 discusses the strategy of executive appointments employed by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, by which they hoped to persuade women that the party in power had a genuine interest in their welfare.

Part Two, "Moving Again," presents the consequences for women's issues of the end of "postwar politics" and the resurgence of liberalism. Chapter 5 analyzes Kennedy's politics and his administration's approach to formulating policy about women. The policy change had its source in the Women's Bureau, which determined the content of the new program. Only one measure required the cooperation of Congress: chapter 6 details the administration's achievement of an equal pay law, the first piece of legislation to limit sex discrimination in private employment.

The President's Commission on the Status of Women, the centerpiece of Kennedy's program on women's issues and its most significant outcome, is the subject of Part Three. The commission finessed the problem of the Equal Rights Amendment that had divided women's organizations for forty years, a story told in chapter 7. As a result, women leaders could forge a unified agenda for action on behalf of women, as chapter 8 describes, for the first time since suffrage. The president's commission proved to be the starting point for governmental discussions of women's status that continued for at least two decades.

Part Four surveys the impact of the president's commission. The viewpoint of Kennedy's successor, the implementation of the commission's proposals, and the forging of a women's network are discussed in chapter 9. Chapter 10 describes the interaction of the many events that led to the creation of the National Organization for Women. The combination of federal solicitude toward women, a strategic opening provided by a civil rights measure, conflicts in attitude among key players, and


xv

rising expectations for women led to an unanticipated consequence: the rise of a women's movement that became one of the hardiest outgrowths of liberalism.

The conclusion considers the impact of federal policy on social change and of political pressure groups on federal policy. It also offers an assessment of political strategies that seek to encourage social change in inhospitable times.


xvii

no previous
PREFACE
next section