Presidential Commission on the Status of Women

Presidential Commission on the Status of Women

The Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) was established to advise the President of the United States on issues concerning the status of women. It was created by John F. Kennedy's executive order 10980 signed December 14, 1961.


John F. Kennedy's administration proposed the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women as a "compromise" measure. It would address people who were concerned about women's status while avoiding alienating the Kennedy administration's labor base through a potential mention of the Equal Rights Amendment. While running for the presidency in 1960 John F. Kennedy approached Eleanor Roosevelt for political support. It was granted in exchange for a promise to establish the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. [A portion of a verbal presentation by Judith Nies on BookTV June 19, 2008 concerning her autobiography, "The Girl I Left Behind"]

Equality vs. protective legislation

Legislation related to women in the workplace and until this time had usually taken the form of protective legislation. Protective legislation advocated gender-based workplace restrictions for women on the belief that their biological differences needed to be accommodated in the workplace. Supported by many 19th century progressives including some feminists (difference feminists), protective legislation was supposed to help working women avoid workplace injury and exploitation. However, more often protective legislation provided employers with the justification to avoid hiring women altogether. If women needed so many accommodations in the workplace, it was subsequently easier and cheaper for employers to only hire men.

Until the 1970s, organized labor opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (which would have prevented laws which held different standards for men and women), believing that women workers deserved or needed protective legislation as opposed to equal rights.

The commission is formed

When PCSW began in 1961, Congress began considering 412 pieces of legislation related to women's status. The PCSW's very existence gave the federal government an incentive to again consider women's rights and roles as being a serious issue worthy of political debate and public policymaking. Within that same time period, the Supreme Court handed down rulings which allowed women to serve on juries and married couples to use contraceptives.

The Kennedy administration itself publicly positioned the PCSW as a Cold War era initiative to free up women's talents for national security purposes. To win against "the reds", America needed everybody. America could not have everybody if the nation lacked information about women's sociolegal status.

Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was appointed to chair the PCSW. Roosevelt chaired the PCSW until her death in 1962. A replacement was subsequently appointed to continue the work.

PCSW Members

PCSW committee members came from professional organizations, trade unions, religious groups, social and political clubs. Contrary to latter assertions by some activists from the women's liberation movement, the members were not uniformly white and middle class. They also included men.

*Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair
*Dr. Richard A. Lester, President of Economics, Princeton University, Vice Chair
*Mrs. Esther Peterson, Assistant Secretary of Labor, Executive Vice Chair
*Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General
*Orville L. Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture
*Luther H. Hodges, Secretary of Commerce
*Arthur J. Goldberg, Secretary of Labor
*Abraham A. Ribicoff, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
*John W. Macy Jr., Chair, United States Civil Service Commission
*Senator George D. Aiken (R Vermont)
*Senator Maurine B. Neuberger (D Oregon)
*Representative Edith Green (D Oregon)
*Representative Jessica M. Weis (R New York)
*Mrs. Ellen Body, Rancher and civic leader, Henrietta, Texas
*Dr. Mary I. Bunting, President, Radcliffe College
*Mrs. Mary R. Callahan, Member, Executive Board, International Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, AFL-CIO
*Dr. Henry David, President, New School for Social Research
*Miss Dorothy Height, President, National Council of Negro Women; Director, Leadership Training Services, Young Women's Christian Association
*Mrs. Margaret Hickey, lawyer, Contributing Editor, Ladies Home Journal
*Mrs. Viola H. Hymes, National President, National Council of Jewish Women
*Edgar F. Kaiser, Industrialist
*Miss Margaret J. Mealey, Executive Director, National Council of Catholic Women
*Miss Marguerite Rawalt, lawyer, former president of National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs; branch chief in Office of Chief Counsel, IRS
*William F. Schnitzler, Secretary-Treasuer, AFL-CIO
*Dr. Caroline Ware, Sociologist, Historian for UNESCO
*Dr. Cynthia Wedel, psychologist, teacher, former Vice President, National Council of Churches; Member, National Board of Girl Scouts of America


Because Robert F. Kennedy was his brother's closest adviser, the appointment further suggests the Kennedy White House was genuinely interested in PCSW activities. The administration was not doing PCSW for token appearances.

Rawalt helped found the National Organization for Women after she served on the PCSW.

"The Presidential Report on American Women"

October 1963, the PCSW issued their final report documenting the status of American women.

The report criticized inequalities facing the American woman in a "free" society while paradoxically praising traditional gender roles as themselves being anti-communist.

Reflecting the then-position of labor and Kennedy's labor ties, the report avoided mentioning the Equal Rights Amendment as a potential remedy.

Coverage of the Commission and Report

U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau head Esther Peterson appeared on The Today Show to discuss commission findings and ramifications.

The Associated Press ran a four-part nationwide story on the final report recommendations, and a 1965 mass-market book was published of the findings.

Creation of a national commission subsequently encouraged states and localities (cities, colleges and universities...etc) to begin studying women's sociolegal status. All fifty states had commissions in operation by 1967.

In 1970 these commissions formed the Interstate Association of Commissions on the Status of Women (IACSW) and in 1975, the IACSW became the National Association of Commissions for Women (NACW) ( At that time, the NACW expanded to include city and county commissions.

PCSW founds the National Organization for Women

The PCSW was only supposed to research and report on women's status, but that process subsequently radicalized many commission members. Realizing that they were not alone in caring about women's rights, an underground activist network quickly spread across America. It was only then a matter of time before the network publicly organized.

At a subsequent 1966 Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women (successor to the PCSW), several of the attendees began talking with each other about their similar frustrations with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) lack of interest in enforcing sex non-discrimination. Representative Howard K. Smith (Virginia) previously had added 'sex' into the 1964 Civil Rights Act to attempt derailing the measure so African Americans would not gain civil rights.

Much to his own surprise, the entire amended Act passed into law without additional floor debate. For the first time, the United States had a law against sex discrimination in federally-funded public accommodations.

Because enforcement against sex discrimination was proving to be much more difficult, the CACSW conference attendees subsequently wanted to create an independent organization--a "NAACP for women" which would press for enforcement of this law and for acchieving other objectives.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by former CACSW/PCSW members and public leaders who had grown very frustrated that sociolegal reality was very slow to catch up with both the written laws and their own aspirations of women's equality. A former EEOC commissioner, Richard Graham, was on NOW's first officer board as a Vice President.


* Davis, F. (1999). "Moving the mountain: The women's movement in America since 1960". Chicago: University of Illinois.
* Martin, J. M. (2003). "The presidency and women: Promise, performance, and illusion". College Station, Texas: Texas A&M.

External links

* [ Executive Order 10980]

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