[Excerpt] Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, hosted the third meeting of the Commission at her home in Hyde Park just five months before she died. She expressed confidence in women’s continuing progress toward equality, building on the work accomplished since 1929 when she hosted the Women’s Trade Union League at the same home when Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was Governor of New York. On October 11, 1963, members of the Commission gathered in the White House and presented their final report, American Women, to President John F. Kennedy. Mrs. Roosevelt’s birthday was chosen for the presentation to honor her contribution to the struggle for women’s equality.
The scope of American Women was broad and the issues were complicated. Established by Executive Order 10980 in 1961, the Commission undertook the first national assessment to determine the status of women in all walks of American life. Administered over two years by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Commission laid out findings and recommendations in seven areas: education and counseling, home and community, employment, labor standards, basic income security, the law, and women as citizens. With the leadership of union women, the Commission’s accomplishments included documenting gender discrimination on the national and state levels, contributing to executive and legislative solutions, and forming a network of state women’s commissions that helped link diverse women to the newly emerging women’s movement across the country. This paper reviews the origins of the Commission, its recommendations, the immediate results of its work, and the implications for working women in the 21st century.
Fifty years after the report was issued there has been significant progress toward achieving the goal of gender equality in the home, the workplace, and society. Women are now more likely than men to graduate from high school, college, and graduate school. Women have grown from one-third to almost one-half of the workforce. The greatest increase has come from women with young children, almost two-thirds of whom are now working. Women now earn 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, up from 60 cents. Women now hold 52 percent of management and professional occupations. They are almost half of all union members. Not only are women able to serve on juries, they are now Supreme Court Justices. Women have a significant impact on elections and hold leadership positions in the major political parties.
Challenges remain, including the lack of national child care and paid family leave policies, the ongoing struggle of minority women for racial as well as gender equality, and the interrelated problems of unequal pay between women and men and occupational job segregation by gender. These issues were raised by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, but not resolved. At the same time, critical new challenges have emerged with the expanded global economy and the decline in union membership for women half a century later. The 1963 American Women Report was introduced as “An invitation to action,” and the challenge for continued action is being taken up by new coalitions of working women.