The Feminist Chronicles, 1953-1993
“A serigraph by Corita Kent has been hanging on the wall of my room for so many years that it’s easy not to really see it or react to its message any more. But as I became absorbed in there-creation of NOW’s early years, I found myself again registering the words on it.”
-William Sloane Coffin
” . . . hope, as opposed to cynicism and despair, is the sole precondition for new and better experiences. Realism demands pessimism but hope demands that we take a dim view of the present because we hold a bright view of the future; and hope arouses as nothing else can arouse …a passion for the possible.”
Awakening from the ’50s
The peculiarly passive obsession with security as the ultimate happiness, the compulsive conformity of life styles (engendered at least in part by the virulent anti-communism of McCarthyism in odd combination with the Eisenhower era’s pacifying blandness), and the pervasive apathy of most of the ’50s was replaced in the 1960s with an extraordinary and even reckless social energy and political activism.
First Blacks, then other racial minorities, students, the New Left, peace protesters, and finally women, emerged one by one as forces demanding social change.
Each group became inflamed with a passion for the possible.
The momentum of the feminist movement of the earlier decades of the 20th century had waned in the post-World War II decades. Though work for women’s rights actually continued by core organizations, it had become almost an underground resistance to a nearly overwhelmingly negative media blitz that insisted on proclaiming the death of feminism and on writing its obituary as it celebrated the happy suburban housewife.
As early as 1946, Doris Stevens, a long-time militant suffragist with the National Woman’s Party, wrote to a friend, wondering “if those who were living at the beginning of the last Dark Ages. . . knew the darkness had descended!” 1
However, hope for a revival of feminist momentum in the United States was stimulated in part by a curious series of events.
On August 26, 1957, (the uncelebrated 37th anniversary of the woman’s suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution), the Soviet Union announced it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. On October 4, it launched Sputnik I, the first “man-made” space satellite, and on November 3, Sputnik II, which carried a live dog.
This demonstration of a challenging superiority in space technology spurred what was immediately termed “the space race” between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.
The demands in the United States for a skilled and educated workforce escalated to the point where even women – who, along with minorities, constituted the traditional reserve labor force summoned forth in national emergencies — were worth serious consideration.
Prelude and Precursors
In 1957, the National Manpower Council (NMC) at Columbia University published its study, Woman power, A Statement by the National Manpower Council with Chapters by the Council Staff. It was a comprehensive look at the experience of women in the labor force, their employment needs, and the implications of both for education, training, and public policy. 2
This NMC analysis called women “essential” and “distinctive” workers and recommended that the Secretary of Labor establish a committee to review “the consequences and adequacy of existing Federal and state laws which have a direct bearing on the employment of women.” But this suggestion was not acted upon by the Eisenhower Administration.
In 1959, three landmark books on women were published: A Century of Struggle by Eleanor Flexner, the first professional history of the 19th century women’s movement, which contained an implicit call to arms; A Century of Higher Education for American Women by Mabel Newcomer, which disclosed that the relative position of women in the academic world was in decline; and Women and Work In America by Robert Smuts, which drew attention to the fact that”the picture of women’s occupations outside the home between 1890 and 1950 had changed in only a few essentials.”
By 1961, President John F. Kennedy, elected on a platform that committed him to achieve an American victory in the space race, was open to pressure to establish a President’s Commission on the Status of Women.
The pressure came from a variety of sources and was successful for a variety of reasons.
Esther Peterson, Assistant Secretary of Labor and director of the Women’s Bureau, the highest ranking woman in the Kennedy Administration, wanted such a commission. Along with equal pay legislation, it had long been on the agenda of labor movement women and it was in that movement that Peterson’s working career had been concentrated.
Women’s organizations, notably AAUW and BPW, had been proposing a similar idea. They found a champion in Eleanor Roosevelt, who backed the proposal when she met with Kennedy at the White House after his election.3
The establishment of the Commission may also have been regarded by Kennedy as an expedient way to pay off his political debts to the women who had supported his campaign but were bitterly disappointed with his dismal record of appointments of women to his Administration.
There was also a desire to have Eleanor Roosevelt, the most respected woman in the country, associated with the Kennedy Administration. Roosevelt had only reluctantly supported JFK’s presidential candidacy after her first choice, Adlai Stevenson, lost the nomination.
Her acceptance of the appointment as the chair of the Commission accomplished that. More importantly, however, was its symbolic impact.
In many ways, Eleanor Roosevelt’s extraordinary political life was the bridge between the end of the drive for the right to vote in 1920 and the revitalization of the feminist movement in the United States in the 1960s. If she was a late supporter of woman’s suffrage, once awakened and aware, there was no issue significant for women that did not concern her.
Inspired by Carrie Chapman Catt and allied with her social feminist friends, she worked through the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party to empower women politically and economically — as, in fact, she had empowered herself.
Already in ill health, Mrs. Roosevelt’s role in the actual work of the Commission was limited: she conducted meetings of the Commission, signed many of its letters, served as adviser, and made herself available for purposes of publicizing the Commission. She died on November 7, 1962, a year before the report of the Commission was completed.
The Commission set up seven study committees on education and counseling, home and community services, women in employment, labor standards, security of basic income, women under the law, and women as citizens. Two special consultations were also organized by the Commission on “the problems of Negro women” and “the portrayal of women in the mass media.”
The Commission met only eight times in the two years of its existence. As a consequence, the Women’s Bureau and the hired staff of the Commission were very influential in steering its direction, most notably in dealing with the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which Peterson and the labor-dominated Women’s Bureau had long opposed, largely because of its anticipated impact on protective labor legislation for women. It was, in fact, Peterson who succeeded in removing — for the first time since 1944 — a plank supporting a constitutional amendment from the 1960 Democratic Party platform.
Debate over the ERA had torpedoed previous efforts at such a commission. Peterson was determined that the Commission would, once and for all, kill the proposal for such a constitutional amendment by taking a different approach to the problems of discrimination facing women. She contended that “specific bills for specific ills” was the more effective approach.
Alice Paul, the aging leader of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), who had originated the idea for the amendment in 1923, had good reason to be cynical about the Peterson approach: the NWP had tried the “specific bills” approach, literally framing hundreds of bills, but had succeeded in passing only a few. She had devised the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution as a way of wiping out all discriminatory laws in one stroke. Now she was convinced that the Commission had been set up to block its passage and expected that opponents would persuade Congress to delay any action on it until the Commission issued a report. She was right. 4
On the day the Commission released its report, October 11, 1963, Esther Peterson wrote a thank you letter to Senator Carl Hayden for his help in immobilizing the ERA in Congress. She described his rider to the Equal Rights Amendment, which nullified its intent, as “an indispensable safeguard” against its passage. She asked him to continue attaching it in the event the ERA was introduced in Congress again. 5
In terms of sheer attention focused on women, however, 1963 was certainly a banner year.
The Feminine Mystique
The “pervasive limitations” narrowing women’s choices of roles that would be cited in the Commission’s report were essentially those that Betty Friedan described polemically in and as The Feminine Mystique, published in February 1963, which rapidly hit the bestseller lists with three million copies sold.
Friedan participated in the Commission’s special consultation on the portrayal of women in the mass media.
Friedan also documented the fact that there was a substantial reservoir of educated women, remote from the labor force, that remained untapped precisely because “the feminine mystique” required their compulsory isolation in suburban homes with an almost mandatory 2.3 children and a largely absentee husband, uniformed in a gray flannel suit and preoccupied with upward mobility on a corporate organization chart.
Essentially, Friedan argued for the right of the wife and mother to pursue an identity and a career of her own.
The Commission published its report, entitled American Women. Far from a radical feminist document in its recommendations, it did describe many of the problems confronting women, including a desperate need for child care and the fact that “one of the most pervasive limitations is the social climate in which women choose what they prepare themselves to do.”
But the Commission’s discussions, as well as the report itself, were racked by ambivalence between a commitment to women’s traditional role of motherhood and its desire for equal opportunity for women in employment and in public life.
As an entity created and, in many respects, manipulated by members of the Kennedy Administration, the report steered a cautious course to avoid making controversial proposals that might prove an embarrassment to the President.
The report attempted to finesse the issue of the ERA by proposing that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments already provided women with Constitutional equality and all that was required was judicial clarification through test cases. It was a tactic that worked – for a time.
The report also recommended:
- the end of blatant sex discrimination in government employment (where agency heads could still specify the preferred sex of applicants to fill any job);
- an Executive Order to encourage Federal contractors to end sex discrimination;
- consideration of women “of demonstrated ability and political sensitivity” for appointment to policy-making positions;
- the improvement and extension of protective labor laws to men, in the meantime retaining legislation limiting maximum hours of work for women [Author’s note: thus retaining a barrier preventing women from earning higher overtime pay];
- that restrictions that set maximum limits upon weights women were allowed to lift (which barred able women from many higher paying jobs) did not take account of individual differences and should be replaced by more flexible regulations;
- continuation of the prohibition against home work, but permitting some flexibility for clerical, editorial, and research part-time work for women “during years of intensive homemaking;”
- passage of laws establishing the principle of equal pay for comparable work;
- a widow’s benefit under Social Security be equal to the amount her husband would have received (but made no recommendations for changes in the Social Security system for married women workers who paid the tax but received no more than wives who made no payments);
- paid maternity leave or comparable insurance benefits for women workers;
- that educational institutions accommodate to the patterns of women’s lives by offering part-time study, financial aid, and flexible academic and residency requirements so that women who followed the traditional role could reenter the labor force when their children had grown;
- programs to help women prepare for their special role by teaching child care, family relations, nutrition, family finances, and”the relation of individuals and families to society”(with no recommendation of such a program for men and boys);
- and (ambivalently) imaginative counseling programs to “lift aspirations beyond stubbornly persistent assumptions about ‘women’s roles’ and ‘women’s interests’ and result in choices that have inner authenticity for their makers.” 6
Release of the report made the front page of the New York Times, was covered by the Associated Press, and given a segment on NBC’s “Today Show.” It also elicited editorial comments in newspapers around the country. The Wall Street Journal may have set the tone for all child care legislation that would be proposed for many years to come with its comment on the Commission’s recommendation for day care, terming it “a tinge collectivist.” 7
The task of the Commission was completed with publication of its report and, in the year following its release, the government distributed 83,000 copies. (In 1965, Scribner’s published another edition, edited by Margaret Mead, which went on sale in the nation’s commercial bookstores). However, on November 1, 1963, the InterdepartmentalCommittee on the Status of Women and the Citizen’s Advisory Council were established by President Kennedy’s Executive Order-one of the last two he signed-to “insure the work begun by the Commission would be continued.”8 Catherine East was named as Executive Secretary of both groups.
East was a confirmed member of an informal feminist underground in Washington, D.C., composed largely of women who had long careers in government service and were painfully aware of the limitations that had been placed on those careers by rampant sex discrimination in Federal employment.
Another earlier development also insured that the effort begun by the President’s Commission would continue and spread. As early as November 1962, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs told Esther Peterson that it wanted to initiate a campaign to pressure the governors of every state to appoint state commissions based on the model of the President’s Commission. They wanted and got, with Peterson’s intercession, President Kennedy’s endorsement of the plan. The first state commission was appointed by the Governor of Washington in February 1963 and by 1967, every state had established one. 9
The appointments to these commissions almost inevitably assembled as a group the “best and brightest,” most politically active women in each state, eventually creating a new and potentially powerful national network of the like-minded, committed to advancing the status of women. (The Equal Pay Act of 1963)
Even as the Commission was being established, Peterson launched another initiative – a campaign for equal pay legislation – and in March 1961, hired Morag Simchak, then a lobbyist for the United Rubber Workers, to head the operation. Rep. Edith Green (D-OR) authored and introduced the bill in the House.
The proposed legislation was endorsed at the first meeting of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women on February13, 1962. In a subsequent press conference, Eleanor Roosevelt expressed the Commission’s belief that unequal wages for comparable work were “contrary to the concept of equality and justice in which we believe.”10
Efforts to pass equal pay legislation had begun in 1945 but had failed time after time under both Democratic and Republican Administrations. All of the early proposals for this legislation and the Commission’s own report used the language “comparable work,” 11 but as in contemporary debates over comparable worth legislation, opponents argued that “comparability” was simply impossible to determine.
This time, compromise language was offered by Rep. Katherine St. George (R-NY) so that the key clause was amended to read, “equal pay for equal work.” The House actually passed this bill by voice vote and without any vocal opposition, but it died in the Senate in a snarl of parliamentary procedure that could not be resolved before adjournment.
The business community, however, stunned and aroused by its passage through the House, had also begun mounting an opposition campaign and was ready when a new effort to pass the legislation began in the next session of Congress.
Over the opposition of the Chamber of Commerce and a number of corporate executives who testified against it, the bill passed both houses of Congress in May 1963. It amended the Fair Labor Standards Act and prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in the payment of wages for equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, which were performed under similar working conditions; prohibited employers from lowering men’s wages to achieve this goal; it exempted wage differentials based on seniority, merit, or piece rate; it prohibited unions from attempting to negotiate wage differences based on sex; but it exempted from coverage executive, administrative, and professional employees, including teachers and academic administrative personnel in educational institutions.
President Kennedy signed the bill into law on June 10, 1963, in a ceremony in his office attended by Peterson, Simchak, and representatives of many of the women’s organizations that had worked so hard for its passage. 12
It had taken 18 years to achieve this victory and, for the first time, the Federal government was asserting the right of women to be employed on the same basis as men.
Even as the debate on equal pay legislation was occurring, for eight months in 1963, a Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Manpower [sic], was investigating “the impact of technological change upon the work force, our communities and our industries.”Its report, published in April 1964, disclosed the fact that a sleeper revolution of women had in fact been underway throughout the ’50s: women (most of them married) had been quietly moving into the nation’s work force in massive numbers and constituted its largest increase.
According to the report, “Women, particularly those in the older age groups, accounted for an unexpectedly large part – nearly 60% – of labor force growth during the 1950s.” (Rossi’s Immodest Proposal)
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences also sponsored a conference on “The Woman In America” in October 1963, assembling a preeminent roster of women and men from academic and professional fields, including historians, sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists.
The ubiquitous Esther Peterson was there and presented a paper on “Working Women,” documenting the reasons women worked outside the home and the inequities that beset them. In perhaps her boldest statement, Peterson declared: “I cannot agree with those who would raise the moral issue concerning whether or not a mother should work outside the home. Surely the question here is one which she, in counsel with her family, must settle on an individual basis. It is an area in which she has every right to exercise her freedom of choice. If the decision is that she should work, then the tenets of our democratic way of life dictate that her choice be respected and she have the same opportunities and rights afforded the male worker. Actually, we have, in my opinion, moved beyond that point in history where a woman has to choose between a home and a career. Today, she can have both – often at different intervals in her life, sometimes simultaneously.” 13
But the landmark paper of this conference, entitled “Equality Between The Sexes: An Immodest Proposal,” was presented by sociologist Alice Rossi.
In this iconoclastic essay, Rossi pointed out what the conservative psychoanalysts and sociologists of the post-war period had chosen to ignore: that “for the first time in the history of any known society, motherhood has become a full-time occupation for adult women. . . . women in all strata of society except the very top were never able to be full-time mothers as the 20th century middle class American woman has become. These women were productive members of farm and craft teams along with their farmer, baker or printer husbands and other adult kin. Children either shared in the work of the household or were left to amuse themselves; their mothers did not have the time to organize their play, worry about their development, discuss their problems.”
Rossi made it quietly clear that her proposal was really immodest: “By sex equality I mean a socially androgynous conception of the roles of men and women, in which they are equal and similar in such spheres as intellectual, artistic, political and occupational interests, complementary only in those spheres dictated by physiological differences between the sexes. This assumes the traditional conceptions of masculine and feminine are inappropriate to the kind of world we can live in in the second half of the 20th century.” 14 (The Civil Rights Act of 1964)
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded to the Presidency after John Kennedy’s assassination in late November 1963, had expressed strong support of the Commission on the Status of Women when he was Vice President. Now, anxious to demonstrate his commitment to completing Kennedy’s unfinished agenda and transfer JFK’s popularity with key constituencies to himself, he initiated efforts to win the support of women’s organizations for his Administration.
One initiative, particularly pleasing to Party-affiliated women, was the appointment of more women to his Administration. Though he did not appoint a woman to his Cabinet, by 1968 he had appointed 52 women, (compared with 30 serving in 1963), a significant number of them in positions that were firsts for women. He named Esther Peterson to serve as his special assistant on Consumer Affairs in addition to her post as Assistant Secretary of Labor.
Peterson voluntarily gave up the directorship of the Women’s Bureau, and Johnson replaced her with Mary Dublin Keyserling. Keyserling, an economist who had been active in the Democratic Party and with the National Consumers League, believed strongly that women workers required special protective legislation — a philosophical commitment that would put her in conflict with many other activist women and women’s organizations that had begun to see them as restricting opportunities for promotion and higher wages.
In June 1963, Rep. Emmanuel Celler (D-NY), who had long opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, had introduced an omnibus civil rights bill, primarily directed at protecting Blacks and other racial, religious, or ethnic minorities against discrimination in voting, access to public education, employment, public accommodations, and in Federally-assisted programs. After 22 days of hearings, the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Cellar, had reported the bill out favorably on November 20, 1963, just two days before President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas.
In December, 1963, the National Council of the National Woman’sParty passed a resolution calling for an amendment to the Civil Rights bill to prohibit discrimination based on sex and protesting that, as the bill stood, it “would not even give protection against discrimination because of ‘race, color, religion, or national origin’ to a White Woman, a Woman of the Christian Religion, or a Woman of United States origin.” 15
As radical as National Woman’s Party members appeared in the campaign for suffrage, there was strong inclination among many of its well-to-do members to a conservatism that abhorred interference in private enterprise, mirrored the racism of the majority of Americans and, even in the 1950s, led some of them to support Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade.
The reality was that racism and ethnic and religious bigotry were pervasive in American life and few organizations — whether composed of women or men — were free of all traces.
It was also true that white, male politicians promoted prejudice by making minority groups compete against each other in the pursuit of civil and economic rights that should have been theirs as a birthright. The temptation to exploit a backlash to advance one’s own group would be hard to resist, given the frustrations that blocked civil rights movements.
With the Civil Rights bill headed for debate on the floor of theHouse, members of the National Woman’s Party contacted Rep. Howard W. Smith (D-VA), chairman of the House Rules Committee, to suggest that a ban against sex discrimination be included in the legislation.Smith, a Southern archconservative who was also a longtime sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment, told them he expected such an amendment to be offered on the floor, but did not commit to do it himself.
Though he opposed the Civil Rights bill, he apparently agreed that if it was going to pass it should cover sex discrimination as well so that women would have the same rights as Blacks.
During Committee hearings, Smith questioned Cellar about the absence of a provision banning sex discrimination and said he would correct the omission.
On January 26, on the television show, Meet The Press, lifelong feminist May Craig, a member of the White House press corps and a regular on the show, questioned Smith about whether he would amend Title VII of the legislation to ban sex discrimination. (Craig had also long made it a practice at Presidential press conferences to query the incumbent President on what he had done for women lately).
“Well, maybe I would,” Smith replied. “I’m all strong for women, you know.”
“Amendment on the floor?” Craig persisted.
“I might do that, ” Smith replied. 16
Both Congresswomen Martha Griffith (D-MI) and Katherine St. George (R-NY), strong supporters of the ERA, had by now decided to back the amendment but to let Smith introduce it. They knew that Smith’s sponsorship of the amendment, as part of a Southern strategy designed to defeat the entire bill, would guarantee the votes of 100 or more Congressmen from the deep South, who would otherwise vote against a feminist measure.
On February 8, 1964, Smith introduced the amendment to add the word “sex” to the provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The debate that followed has been characterized as “Ladies’ Day in the House.”
Though Smith later denied he was insincere in introducing the amendment, Griffiths has said that it was Smith himself who told her he had proposed the amendment as a joke. The fact that he began his own arguments in its favor by reading a letter from a woman complaining that the 1960 Census had reported 2,661,000″extra females” in the U.S. and asking that he introduce legislation to remedy the shortage of men for women to marry certainly set the tone. 17
His reading of the letter brought down the house and, though Smith had to repeatedly ask for quiet, he concluded, “I read that letter just to illustrate that women have some real grievances.”
Cellar, the leader of the coalition handling the bill, responded in kind: “I can say as a result of forty-nine years of experience — and I celebrate my fiftieth wedding anniversary next year – that women, indeed, are not in the minority in my house. . . . I usually have the last two words, and those words are, ‘Yes, dear.’ “
On a more serious note, he also quoted Esther Peterson, who insisted that adding sex to the Civil Rights bill would “not be to the best advantage of women at this time.”
Liberals in Congress were reluctant to add the sex provision to the Civil Rights Act because they feared it would endanger its chances of passage, jeopardizing this historic opportunity to advance the civil rights of Blacks. For them it was, as it had been with passage of the 14th Amendment in 1866 which also excluded women, once again “the Negro’s hour.” Many conservatives were blind or indifferent to discrimination against women or believed that such discrimination was reasonable to protect women’s traditional role.
But, as the ribaldry of the debate swelled among the male representatives, it seemed to betray not a patriarchal gallantry but a deep-rooted contempt for women. And regardless of the many reservations expressed by some of the women representatives, every Congresswoman but one abruptly rallied to support the amendment in defiance of party discipline.
Martha Griffith, who had planned to support it and had come prepared, rose to point out that the laughter of the men at the introduction of the amendment only underscored women’s second class citizenship. The bill as written, she said, would leave white women without the protection it would provide Black women. The main function of protective labor laws for women, she said, was to protect men’s rights to the best paying jobs. She ended her speech declaring that a white man’s vote against the amendment was a vote against his wife, his widow, his sister, and his daughter.
Only Rep. Edith Green continued to oppose it, but not without a feminist awareness, as her statement indicated.
“As the author of the Equal Pay bill, I believe I have demonstrated my concern and my determination to advance women’s opportunities,”she said. “But I do not believe this is the time or place for this amendment. At the risk of being called an Aunt Jane, if not an Uncle Tom, let us not add any amendment that would get in the way of our primary objective. . . . For every discriminationI have suffered, the Negro woman has suffered ten times that amount of discrimination.”
The Southern strategy backfired and on February 8, 1964, the prohibition against sex discrimination passed by a vote of 168 to 133. As the teller announced the vote count, a woman’s voice from the gallery cried, “We made it! God bless America!” 18
The provision stayed in Title VII of the version of the whole Civil Rights Act that passed the House two days later by a vote of 290 to 130. It’s worth noting that every man who had spoken in favor of the sex discrimination amendment, except Rep. Ross Bass (D-TN), voted against the Civil Rights Act.
The National Woman’s Party, which had already been lobbying intensely for passage of the amendment, now set up an emergency committee to work on keeping it in the Senate version of the bill. Pauli Murray, a Black woman attorney and one-time protegé of Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote a forceful “Memorandum in Support of Retaining the Sex Amendment,” which the lobbyists of the Business and Professional Women, by then also actively campaigning, distributed to members of the Senate.
The Administration also dropped its opposition to the amendment in order to expedite passage of the same version of the bill in the Senate. On June 17, the Senate, in fact, passed a substitute bill, with the sex discrimination provision included, by a vote of 76-18. Two weeks later, on July 2, the House adopted the Senate version by a better than two-thirds vote. On the same day, President Johnson signed the bill into law.
By coalescing with the reactionary Southern strategists, and in the absence still of a widespread national women’s rights movement, a handful of feminists had succeeded in pulling off a major political coup.
But the struggle was far from over.
Trivialization Takes Its Toll
The existence of the Citizen’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women and the mushrooming State Commissions on the Status of Women kept the pressure on for change. Between 1963, when the President’s Commission released its report, and 1965, many states made changes in the laws affecting women in the work force, largely as a result of the activities of state commissions and a resurgence of activism of existing women’s organizations. Some of the changes:
- six states enacted minimum wage laws that applied to both women and men and nine states extended the coverage of the laws to men;
- eleven states made the laws limiting the hours women could work more flexible, and three repealed them altogether;
- six states adopted laws to give women overtime pay for work in excess of a specific number of hours;
- nine states enacted equal pay laws, bringing the total number of states with such a provision to 35;
- local community services to homemakers became more widespread;
- four states amended jury service provisions that discriminated against women;
- three states amended laws that restricted a woman’s right to dispose of her own property;
- several states eliminated the difference in the age at which women and men could marry;
- a number of states began to bolster child support laws. 19
But more significant than any of these efforts was the fact that in 1964 the Citizen’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women and the Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women began holding national conferences of the state commissions in Washington, D.C. The first meeting, on June 12, 1964, was attended by 83 representatives from 31 state commissions. By the second conference, on July 28-29,1965, there were 400 representatives from 44 states. These conferences were attended also by cabinet members, other Federal agency heads, and President Johnson himself.
Women from all over the country were mingling in workshops and expanding their knowledge beyond the boundaries of their individual states on a whole range of topics affecting women’s everyday lives: minimum wage laws, equal pay, daycare, public employment, special educational and counseling programs for women, media treatment of women and women’s issues, vocational guidance, labor standards, income maintenance, community services, women in public life, educational and employment opportunities.
The conferences expedited the creation of a new, national network. They provided a forum for an expression of women’s rising expectations for correcting the injustices they all now saw as limiting the lives and opportunities of women. Passage of the Civil RightsAct of 1964 had raised these expectations even higher.
On June 1, 1965, the Senate confirmed President Johnson’s five appointees to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcing Title VII’s provisions. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. was named Chair and Luther Holcomb, Vice Chair. The other Commissioners were Richard Graham, Samuel C. Jackson and Aileen Clarke Hernandez, the only woman — as she termed it, “a 20% nod to more than 50% of the population.” 20
As a black woman with a Hispanic-American surname (even if acquired by a marriage that ended in divorce), with a background in the civil rights and trade union movements and fresh from a job asAssistant Chief of the California Fair Employment Practices Commission, Hernandez was well-qualified for the appointment.
The law required that the EEOC begin operations on July 2, 1965, and with the Commissioners now in place, there was a scramble to assemble a staff. It turned out to be the first indication, as Hernandez put it, “that the Commission was not planning to be an example to industry of the meaning of ‘equal opportunity employer.’ “21 No women were included in the top appointments (Civil Service Grades 16, 17, and 18), and, in fact, none were hired over Grade 12.
The new commissioners began preparing themselves for their work by reading hundreds of pages of documents, prepared by consultants, to orient them to the duties of the EEOC. Hernandez found that there were ” only limited references to sex discrimination — all of which suggested minimal attention to the entire subject.”22
Even as they were setting up, there was a drumbeat in the press that continued the trivialization of the sex amendment that had begun in the Congressional debate. On June 22, 1965, the WallStreet Journal ran an article that asked readers to picture “a shapeless, knobby-kneed male ‘bunny’ serving drinks to a group of stunned businessmen in a Playboy Club” or a “matronly vice — president” chasing her male secretary around a desk.The personnel office of a large airline was quoted asking, “What are we going to do now when a gal walks into our office, demands a job as an airline pilot and has the credentials to qualify?”The manager of an electronic company employing only women worried aloud about having to provide “equal opportunity” to men: “I suppose we’ll have to advertise for people with small, nimble fingers and hire the first male midget with unusual dexterity[who] shows up.” And a government official said the EEOC would be lenient in enforcing the prohibition against sex discrimination”if the women’s groups will let us get away with it.”23
Hernandez noted that “Commission meetings produced a sea of male faces, nearly all of which reflected attitudes that ranged from boredom to virulent hostility whenever the issue of sex discrimination was raised. The message came through clearly that the Commission’s priority was race discrimination — and apparently only as it related to Black men.”24
“There was such insensitivity to sex discrimination,” she said, “that a major meeting with employers in California was arranged at a private club which barred women-even though I was scheduled to accompany the Chairman to the meeting.”25
In August 1965, while it was really still pulling itself together, the EEOC was diverted into planning and executing the White HouseConference on Equal Employment Opportunity as its public debut.According to Hernandez, “Of the 75 people listed as speakers and panelists, only nine were women, and six of the nine were on the panel dealing with sex discrimination. Of the 14 people who were either chair or vice chair of a session, I was the only woman. Many of the women who attended were infuriated at the cavalier manner of Commission members and staff concerning the importance of sex discrimination cases. The conference may well have underscored,”Hernandez concluded, “in the minds of some of the participants, the need for an outside, activist organization to force the Commission to pay serious attention to the problems facing women in the job market.”26
Though the majority of the Commission may have been reluctant to deal with sex discrimination, one third of the complaints that began to flow in were filed by women, putting pressure on the Commission for some decisions. The initial complaints coming from women were concentrated in three areas: newspaper help wanted ads that were segregated by sex in separate sections; state protective laws that had the effect of discriminating against women in employment; and bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ) for the job of flight attendant, for example, whether being female, single and under 32 to 35 were really essential qualifications.