"What Women Wanted": Arkansas Women's Commissions and the ERA

By Parry, Janine A. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

"What Women Wanted": Arkansas Women's Commissions and the ERA


Parry, Janine A., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


AN IMPORTANT BUT OFTEN OVERLOOKED ELEMENT of the women's movements of the late twentieth century is the women's commission. Broadly defined as a government-appointed task force charged with studying and improving the status of women, the first such unit established in the United States was a Kennedy administration initiative: the President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW).1 Chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the PCSW was officially in operation from 1961 to 1963 and in 1965 produced a much-publicized report of findings and policy recommendations titled American Women.2 The more lasting legacy of the PSCW, however, was the role it played in stimulating the wave of state and local women's agencies that sprouted throughout the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Together with the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (BPW) and the U.S. Women's Bureau, the PCSW pursued a vigorous, and fruitful, campaign to persuade states to establish their own advisory commissions.3 Michigan was the first state to establish its own women's commission in 1962. Washington, Indiana, and Illinois quickly followed suit, and the movement burgeoned. By the end of the life of the Kennedy commission in 1963, ten state counterparts had been established. By 1967, all fifty states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico had created women's agencies.

Arkansas established its first women's commission in January of 1964 under Governor Orval Faubus. Its task, like the President's Commission on the Status of Women that spawned it, was to "explore the social, political, economic and legal problems of women," but on the state level.5 Issuing its first report in mid-November of 1965, the commission focused on women's economic and educational needs. The report expressed concern, for example, about "the low wages earned by women, the limited jobs available to them, and the pay discrimination in some fields between men and women wage earners." Greater encouragement for women to attend college and vocational schools, more generous tax breaks for widows (and widowers) left with children to tend to, an increased minimum wage, and more stringent laws regulating employers of domestic help were among the commission's recommended remedies.6 Though Faubus retained the commission through the end of his administration, the unit received little attention and was not credited with any discernible change in the status of Arkansas women. The title of an Arkansas Gazette article about a Novemher 15, 1966 commission meeting attended by the governor is illuminating: "Faubus Lavishes Praise on Women, Statistics Don't.?7

Another women's commission was established under the administration of Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, the state's first post-Reconstruction Republican chief executive. Again charged with studying "state labor laws on the employment and wages of women, differences in the legal treatment of men and women with regard to political, civil and property rights and practices in education, government employment and family relations," the unit was chaired by the immediate past president of the Arkansas Federation of Republican Women, Leona Troxell.8 In February of 1968, forty-two women and men, including the four female members of the state legislature (Senator Dorathy Allen and Representatives Vada Sheid, Bernice Kizer, and Gladys Martin Oglesby), were appointed to serve on the commission.9 Jeane Lambie, who was not a member of the Rockefeller commission but was asked by its members to chair a committee on employment issues, recalled that the unit's main project was a report on women in state government, the conclusions of which were disheartening. "Single mothers were living together," she said, "and pooling all their resources to live." Rockefeller became very interested in the study, and it was, in Lambie's view, a central reason the governor pushed for increased state employees' salaries during his administration. …

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