Women’s history is often told as a series of waves: Suffragettes were the First Wave, Women’s Liberation activists were the Second Wave, and so on. This simplistic history is misleading. Women were not invisible in between the waves; they were doing significant things to promote women’s rights. Between the waves they laid the foundation for women’s equality although they worked in a more subtle way than the activists of the mediated waves. One of the most overlooked aspects of women’s efforts these years were the federal and states’ Commissions on the Status of Women. These groups examined women’s roles in society and documented the gender discrimination that had been routine for decades.
It is often repeated that women worked outside of the home during World War II and then returned to the home during peacetime. The truth was more complicated. Women in different employment fields from clerical positions to a wide range of professions, continued to be part of the paid workforce. The government Commissions normalized women working outside the home by addressing women’s employment issues and documenting the inequities they faced. If women left the workforce to raise children, the Commission encouraged retraining so they could return after their children were grown. This was most commonly done through continuing education programs at local community colleges and universities.
One of the key ways in which the government helped women to enter the workforce occurred in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10980. It created the Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and the Citizen’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the commission, although she died before the Commission issued its report. Longtime governmental employee Catherine East was appointed to serve as executive secretary for both groups. (The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan described East as “the midwife to the contemporary women’s movement.)
When appointing the Commission, the President Kennedy indicated, “We have by no means done enough to strengthen family life and at the same time encourage women to make their full contribution as citizens.” The Commission’s research regarding women’s status in society proved that discrimination against women was a serious problem. The language about family allowed the president to reinforce the concept of tradition while laying the foundation for women in the workforce.
Members of the Commission and its committees met over the course of two years and made numerous recommendations. The members came from professional organizations and trade unions and religious groups, as well as including presidents of colleges and the secretaries of all the relevant executive branch agencies. Several men served on the various committees. Among the Commission’s members were Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, National Council of Negro Women President Dorothy Height and National Council of Jewish Women President Viola H. Hymes.
Esther Peterson, director of the Women’s Bureau and assistant secretary for labor standards in the Department of Labor, oversaw the Commission’s work. According to Peterson, a primary reason for the Commission was to address the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. During the 1960 presidential campaign, there had been debate among Kennedy supporters about whether the candidate should support the amendment. Peterson publicly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment based on her belief that it would weaken protective labor legislation for women. She encouraged the President to form a Commission to address women’s labor issues – although family issues were later added.
The Equal Rights Amendment had a long history. Suffragists Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman wrote the amendment and introduced it to Congress for the first time in 1923, presenting it as the “Lucretia Mott Amendment.” The E.R.A. had three parts: Section 1) Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex: Section 2) The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article; and Section 3) This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification. In its final report, the Commission supported the E.R.A.
But even before the Commission addressed the amendment, the government was backing progress for women. The Commission helped win passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which banned sex discrimination in pay in a number of professions (it would later be amended in the early 1970s to include the professions it initially excluded). It also secured an Executive Order from Kennedy eliminating sex discrimination in the civil service.
The Presidential Commission issued its 85-page report American Women in 1963. Peterson was interviewed about the report on the “Today Show” and the report became a best-selling book. It recommended improved conditions for women in numerous areas including education, home and the workforce. For example, the report recommended an end to sex discrimination in hiring, paid maternity leave and universal child care. The report did not directly address the E.R.A. Instead, the report recommended equality for women under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
The report also recommended that each state form a similar commission on the status of women, and some states had already established commissions. Some cities and colleges also created commissions on the status of women. After the federal Commission’s recommendation, the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation and other women’s organizations heeded the call. At the national level, the Women’s Bureau, a division of the Labor Department since 1920, also worked with these organizations toward establishing the commissions. The various states’ research regarding women’s status in society demonstrated that discrimination against women was a wide-ranging and serious problem. All fifty states had commissions in operation by 1967.
Attendees at a national meeting for the states’ commissions in 1966 created the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.). After feeling frustrated over the lack of action by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to end sex discrimination in employment, they created the new organization to take action. Longtime Wisconsin Commission head Kathryn Clarenbach, PhD, became chair of the board of N.O.W. and Friedan was the first president of the group.
Marches and protests for women’s rights caught the attention of media and historians. Yet, the commissions created an environment and acceptance for women entering the public sphere. It was the quiet, behind-the-scenes actions that allowed women’s roles in society to change. Women who were part of the Commissions helped to lay the foundation for the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.