On John F. Kennedy’s second day as president, he signed his first executive order to improve nutrition for poor families by expanding the surplus commodities program. By 1963, his signing of the Equal Pay Act and publication of the groundbreaking report, “American Women,” by his President’s Commission on the Status of Women, had cemented for Kennedy a permanent place in the history of feminism.
On May 29, we celebrate what would have been Kennedy’s 100th birthday, but we should also celebrate a women’s rights legacy whose echoes can still be heard.
What is extraordinary about this legacy is its inclusiveness.
“American Woman,” released by the President’s Commission six weeks before Kennedy’s assassination, is no treatise on white suburban women, as some might expect given Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” came out the same year.
While it addresses housewives re-entering the workforce, it also focuses on poor women, women of color, particularly African Americans, urban and rural women including migrants, and women in different regions and occupations.
A graph, “Many Mothers, Especially Negroes, Must Work: Percent of Married Women in Labor Force,” exemplifies attention to what today might be called the “intersectionality” of race, gender, class and more. The report pressed policymakers to give such concerns their utmost attention while crafting legislation on pay equity, maternity leave, child care and more.
Kennedy did not build this legacy alone.
Unlike the current presidential administration, he appointed women with longstanding commitments to the labor movement and politics. As director of the Women’s Bureau, Esther Peterson, who met Kennedy in 1947 as Washington legislative representative for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, drafted the Equal Pay Act, persuaded JFK to establish the commission, and brought scores of women on board from labor, civil rights, religious and women’s organizations.
Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the commission, held Kennedy’s feet to the fire. On her radio program in April 1962, she queried him about why the U.S. had fewer women in legislative positions than did poorer countries and what he thought about those who wanted women removed from the workforce because they took jobs from unemployed men.
She liked his answer: “Most of the women who work really need to, to maintain their families.” And most worked at pay levels and in occupations men would reject. What was needed was more jobs, “not to attempt to deprive women of the chance to work and contribute.” Roosevelt, who had worried during his campaign that Kennedy was weak on civil rights, brought such friends as civil and women’s rights attorney Pauli Murray to the commission.
It is no small paradox a president with a checkered record on civil rights would leave a legacy on women’s rights devoting so much attention to racist barriers. Kennedy embittered activists when he failed to act on campaign promises. Only after the infamous violence in Birmingham did Kennedy act definitively by proposing a new Civil Rights Act.
Ironically, Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act one day before proposing that civil rights legislation. He discussed “equal opportunity” in a different context, emphasizing work still to be done, especially the urgent need for day care for women who had no choice but to work.
Today, the gender wage gap persists. Women earn 80 cents on average for every dollar earned by men, but African American, Hispanic and Native American women earn 63, 54 and 58 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to white male counterparts. Less income for women means less affordability for housing, healthy foods, higher education, quality child care and health care.
Kennedy and the women who prodded him toward feminism approached access and opportunity through a standard of what white men possessed and navigating the difference. “American Women” began to introduce a new paradigm, setting the intention to dismantle disadvantage at the interconnected levels of women’s identities, such as race, class and gender.
It is through this lens we today can push rights for women to the next level. Unlike in 1963, many women today have a passion born of frustration, an accumulation of wisdom regarding the need for an intersectional approach, and the power of a movement no presidential commission could achieve.
Laurie B. Green is an associate professor of history and a Public Voices fellow at The University of Texas at Austin. Shetal Vohra-Gupta is the assistant director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis and a Public Voices fellow.
A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today, San Antonio Express News, Abilene Reporter News and the Houston Chronicle.
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