John F. Kennedy: The Promise Revisited

By Paul Harper; Joann P. Krieg | Go to book overview

17
John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women: "A Dividing Line"

Judith Sealander

Rather than a time that marked a return to traditional patterns of women's work and traditional expectations of women's roles, the postwar decade that preceded the presidential election of John Kennedy laid the foundations for dramatic changes in social values, employment opportunities, and federal policies for women. World War II ended, but women workers did not stampede back to their kitchens. Rosie no longer riveted, but she did find a part-time filing job in a downtown office. She still married and had children, but she faced a higher chance of divorce. Under the surface calm of the 1950s existed forces which by the mid-1960s prompted the contemporary women's movement. John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which reflected those forces and functioned as a watershed, deserves scrutiny and is the subject of this chapter. The commission's advisory papers and final report illuminated the position of a federal government poised between two significantly different policy approaches to women. One, a stance maintained since the Progressive era, said that the federal government should create separate spheres for women, should seek to protect them when they ventured from their homes, especially as paid workers, and should seek to ensure their health and readiness for their primary jobs of wife and mother. The other, a policy well in place by the end of the Johnson administration, said that the federal government should advocate equality for women in the workplace, in schools, before the law. A study of the establishment and work of President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women helps explain how federal bureaucrats, under Kennedy, inched toward a major break with a decades-old domestic policy.

By 1950 economists began to realize that the entrance of older women, married women, and middle-class women into the labor force proved not to be a war- emergency anomaly, but a new fact of economic life. The baby boom was also

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