Today in Feminist History: President Kennedy Bans Sex Bias in Federal Service (July 24, 1962)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

July 24, 1962: Equal employment opportunity for women took a major step forward today as President Kennedy overruled an opinion issued in 1934 by then Attorney General Homer S. Cummings giving agency chiefs the right to limit applications for any federal job to one sex only.

The 26-member President’s Commission on the Status of Women, and John W. Macy, head of the Civil Service Commission asked Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to review the 28-year-old opinion, and he determined that the President could overturn it and ban sex bias in hiring and promotion in federal service.

Discrimination at the highest levels of government is still common. A recent Civil Service Commission survey showed that 94% of requests from agencies to fill top management posts specified that they wanted a man for the job.

In the Memorandum issued today to all Executive Departments and agencies, the President said:

“As I recently advised the Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, the Attorney General has rendered an opinion that will make it possible to open up greater employment opportunities for women in the federal service. He has held that the question of whether positions in the Federal Government may be filled by men only, by women only, or by qualified members of either sex, is a matter which may be regulated by the President.

I have previously directed the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission to review pertinent personnel policies and practices affecting the employment of women and to work with you to assure that selection for any career position is made solely on the basis of individual merit and fitness.

I intend that the federal career service be maintained in every respect without discrimination and with equal opportunity for employment and advancement. The opinion of the Attorney General now enables me to direct you to take immediate steps so that hereafter appointment or promotion shall be made without regard to sex, except in unusual situations where such action has been found justified by the Civil Service Commission on the basis of objective and non-discriminatory standards.”

The White House issued a statement accompanying the Memorandum, saying it “hits in particular at any remaining outmoded practices and customs in the employment and advancement of women in the federal service and should open up greater employment opportunities for them.”

Though created only seven months ago, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women has clearly made a good start on its mission to determine “what remains to be done to demolish prejudices and outmoded customs which act as barriers to the full partnership of women in our democracy.”

The Commission, headed by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, had its first meeting on February 12th, with President Kennedy coming by personally to assure its members of his support, and interest in their work. The President has instructed the Commission to deliver a report to him by October 1, 1963, outlining current discriminations based on sex, with recommendations for their elimination.


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.