1961 December 14

President Kennedy Creates Commission on the Status of Women


President John F. Kennedy on this day created The Commission on the Status of Women, through Executive Order 10980. Credit for ensuring creation of the Commission, however, properly belongs to Esther Peterson, then head of the U.S. Women’s Bureau, who lobbied hard for its creation. One of her main objectives was to develop an affirmative liberal Democratic Party program on women’s issues so as to head off support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, even though that support was very weak in the early 1960s. The ERA, which would have guaranteed equal rights to women was first introduced by Alice Paul on July 21, 1923.

The Commission issued its report, “American Women,” on October 11, 1963. Arriving just weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination, it was largely ignored at first, and then embraced by the newly revived women’s movement. The most remarkable and important recommendations by the Commission was a call for test cases to determine whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited differential treatment based on sex.The report even called for test cases on this issue — probably the first time ever that a government report urged people to bring civil rights law suits.

The Supreme Court, in Reed v. Reed (November 22, 1971), finally decided that it did. The argument that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause did apply to women was advanced by Pauli Murray in a paper solicited by the Commission on the Status of Women. For more on Pauli Murray, see November 20, 1910.

Read Executive Order 10980 creating the Commission: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=58918

Read the Commission’s report: Margaret Mead, American Women (1965)

Learn more: Stephanie Coontz, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (2011)

Read more about Esther Petersonhttp://www.greatwomen.org/women-of-the-hall/search-the-hall-results/details/2/119-Peterson

Read: Gail Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (2009)

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