The Road to Equality
William H. Chafe
The signs were auspicious for change. “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” the young President John F. Kennedy said. After years of being governed by those born in the nineteenth century, the generation that came of age during World War II had surged to power, bringing a new tone of urgency and activism. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” the President said, “but what you can do for your country.” As if to symbolize the changing of the guard, people began paying new attention to problems and issues that for too long had been hidden in the shadows.
Although Kennedy was not known as a feminist, one of his first acts was to create a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, naming Eleanor Roosevelt, the most venerated and admired woman in the country, as its honorary chair. In some ways this initiative was unconnected to Kennedy’s far more conventional concerns with foreign policy and economic growth. Nevertheless, the commission reflected the air of unrest that was making its way through society as people awakened to new challenges. Students on the nation’s campuses started to discuss political reform and social injustice. Young blacks in the American South boldly announced that black people would no longer accept being seated only in the balconies at movie theaters, using rest rooms marked “Colored Only,” or standing up at lunch counters rather than sitting down with other customers. The nation had even started to read again about poverty in America and how more than 20 percent of American citizens—primarily old people and children, women, and blacks— were living below the “poverty level.” All this was happening within a framework of excited optimism. Something should be done. Something would be done.
If a group of journalists had gathered around a table in 1962, they would not have been likely to select changes in women’s lives as one of the major emerging stories. After all, politics as defined by John Kennedy was still a “macho” game dominated by the Cold War. Events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis were its real