Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
While the country looks back on his the key events of his administration (Cuban Missile Crisis, desegregating Ole Miss, encouraging the space program, etc), we want to highlight his support for the growing feminist movement of the early 1960’s.
President Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) in December 1961.
The commission’s purpose was "…to set forth before the world the story of women's progress in a free, democratic society, to review recent accomplishments, and to acknowledge frankly the further steps that must be taken" to advise the President on any and all matters that affected the status of American women. Former First Lady and First Ambassador to the UN Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed the chair of the Commission. It would be her last public position before her death.
Women are entitled to equality of opportunity for employment in government and in industry. But a mere statement supporting equality of opportunity must be implemented by affirmative steps to see that the doors are really open for training, selection, advancement, and equal pay. ~President John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy instructed the PCSW to focus on specific areas that required “constructive action,” specifically equal employment opportunities, gender bias in civil and property rights, and education and counseling for wives and mothers. T
he PCSW set out to research the status of women in the United States, and ultimately published a report in October 1963 called American Women (also known as the Peterson Report). This report documented serious gender discrimination in the workplace, highlighting laws and regulations that were initially intended to protect women, but had become a justification for employers to not hire women. The report also recommended paid maternity leave and affordable child care as areas in need of positive proactive legislation.
Upon the success of the PCSW, smaller commissions on women started all over the country. It was at a meeting of these groups, and growing dissatisfaction with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that the National Organization for Women was founded in October 1966. Because of the research done by the PCSW and the increased pressure from American women, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which was signed by President Kennedy on June 10, 1963. It amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, providing that:
No employer having employees…shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs[,] the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.
President Kennedy signs the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (June 10, 1963)
Upon signing the Equal Pay Act, President Kennedy remarked:
Our economy today depends upon women in the labor force. One out of three workers is a woman. Today, there are almost 25 million women employed, and their number is rising faster than the number of men in the labor force. I believe they bear the heaviest burden of any group in our Nation. Where the mother is the sole support of the family, she often must face the hard choice of either accepting public assistance or taking a position at a pay rate which averages less than two-thirds of the pay rate for men.