Today in Feminist History: Eleanor Roosevelt Pushes JFK to Put Women in Top Jobs (March 13, 1961)

March 13, 1961: Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called on President Kennedy at the White House today, and gave him a three-page list of women he should consider for top jobs in his now 52-day-old Administration.

Thus far only nine of his 240 appointments have been to women, and none of the nine were chosen for Cabinet rank or high policy-level posts. The two had an extended discussion, lasting half an hour, but what else they may have discussed was not revealed.

When asked by a reporter if Kennedy had failed to appoint enough women, Roosevelt diplomatically replied: “Some people feel that way.”

One of those who has expressed that view is Emma Guffey Miller, a member of the Democratic National Committee since 1932. Last month she wrote to the President saying: “It is a grievous disappointment to the women leaders and ardent workers that so few women have been named to worthwhile positions.”

Roosevelt told reporters that the reason for the low number of female appointments may simply be that the President didn’t have a list of the many qualified women who could serve, and that sometimes men needed to be reminded that there are so many able women. She then noted that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a list of women to consider for high office, supplied by an official of the National Education Association. 

Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the nine women President Kennedy has appointed since he took office a little over seven weeks ago, on January 20th. She has been reappointed a member of our delegation to the United Nations. Two other women have been appointed to U.N. posts as well: Marietta Tree to its Human Rights Commission and Gladys Avery Tillett to the U.N.’s Status of Women Commission.

President Kennedy’s other female appointees are: Dr. Janet Travell, the first woman to be a White House physician; Reva Bosone, a judicial officer of the Post Office Department; Elizabeth Rudel Smith, U.S. Treasurer; Esther Peterson, who heads the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau; Frances Willis, our Ambassador to Ceylon, and Marie McGuire is the new Commissioner of Public Housing. 

Fortunately, it’s still very early in the new Administration, so Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal—and well-publicized—call for more women among Presidential appointees could have a major effect in the long run.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.