The ERA and Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women
The news media took little note of the launching of John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women on December 14, 1961, in Human Rights Week. Over the next two years, the public remained unaware of most of the commission's work. Most Americans took women's social and cultural roles for granted and might have wondered why female status required formal study by the executive branch, but administration officials had many reasons to scrutinize the status of women. Major social changes in women's roles had been underway for over a decade and many people hoped to find alternatives to an equal rights amendment for coping with them.
After World War II, despite recommendations that women return to domesticity from warwork, female employment escalated annually. Forty percent of women over age sixteen--24 million, to be precise--held jobs in 1960 and almost a third of these had children. Even middle-class women sought work to help maintain family status despite increasing inflation and they risked little social stigma in doing so. Although most of these women were uninterested in the dormant feminism of their era, they were part of a quiet, gradual social revolution. 1
Simultaneously, and barely related, political pressure mounted for passage of an equal rights amendment (ERA). The bill, first proposed by the National Women's party in 1923, finally seemed viable, with bipartisan support, in 1943. It gained further momentum under Dwight D. Eisenhower, when over thirty women's organizations, including the National Association of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, the American Association of University Women, and the General Federation of Women's Clubs, supported the ERA, arguing that the Supreme Court repeatedly held that existing constitutional amendments did not assure the rights of women, and new guarantees were needed. 2