Today in Feminist History: Kennedy Establishes The President’s Commission on the Status of Women (December 14, 1961)

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.

In a major advance for the cause of women’s rights, President Kennedy today established The President’s Commission on the Status of Women.

He said that it will point out “all barriers to the full partnership of women in our democracy,” and deliver a report by October 1, 1963, on what remains to be done to “demolish prejudices and outmoded customs” that still impede women’s progress.

The goal of bringing women into equal partnership in government is reflected in the naming of the Commissioners. Of its 26 members, 15 are women. The prestige of the Commission is shown in its membership as well. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt will be heading it, and serving with her will be Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and four Cabinet Secretaries. Two Senators and two House members will also serve, as well as representatives from women’s groups, such as Viola Hymes of the National Council of Jewish Women, Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, and Marguerite Rawalt, the first woman elected president of the Federal Bar Association and a former president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women.

The need for such a commission is made clear by the fact that not only are there many laws already on the books that need to be examined in regard to bias, but there are over 400 pieces of legislation affecting women currently being considered by Congress that need to be evaluated to see which of them will best address the inequities women still face.

The President should be commended for doing something so significant for the cause of women’s rights during the first year of his Administration by officially recognizing the fact that the battle for full equality between the sexes did not end 41 years ago with ratification of the 19th Amendment and the banning of sex discrimination only in regard to voting rights, and that feminists today need to carry on, with equal dedication, the work of those who preceded us.

This is the full text of Executive Order 10980:


WHEREAS prejudices and outmoded customs act as barriers to the full realization of women’s basic rights, which should be respected and fostered as part of our Nation’s commitment to human dignity, freedom and democracy; and

WHEREAS measures that contribute to family security and strengthen the home life will advance the general welfare; and

WHEREAS it is in the national interest to promote the economy, security, and national defense through the most efficient and effective utilization of the skills of all persons, and

WHEREAS in every period of national emergency women have served with distinction in widely varied capacities but thereafter have been subject to treatment as a marginal group whose skills have been inadequately utilized; and

WHEREAS women should be assured the opportunity to develop their capacities and fulfill their aspirations on a continuing basis irrespective of national exigencies, and

WHEREAS a Governmental Commission should be charged with the responsibility for developing recommendations for overcoming discriminations in government and private employment on the basis of sex and for developing recommendations for services which will enable women to continue their role as wives and mothers while making maximum contribution to the world around them:

NOW, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, it is ordered as follows:



SEC. 101. There is hereby established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, referred to herein as the ‘Commission.’ The Commission shall terminate not later than October 1, 1963.

SEC. 102. The Commission shall be composed of twenty members appointed by the President from among persons with a competency in the area of public affairs and women’s activities. In addition, the Secretary of Labor, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission shall also serve as members of the Commission. The President shall designate from among the membership a Chairman, a Vice-Chairman, and an Executive Vice-Chairman.

SEC. 103: In conformity with the Act of May 3, 1945 [459 Stat. 134, 31 U.S.C. 691], necessary facilitating assistance, including the provision of suitable office space by the Department of Labor, shall be furnished the Commission by Federal agencies whose chief officials are members thereof. An Executive Secretary shall be detailed by the Secretary of Labor to serve the Commission.

SEC. 104. The Commission shall meet at the call of the Chairman.

SEC. 105. The Commission is authorized to use the services of consultants and experts as may be found necessary and as may be otherwise authorized by law.



SEC. 201. The Commission shall review progress and make recommendations as needed for constructive action in the following areas:

(a) Employment policies and practices, including those on wages, under Federal contracts.

(b) Federal social insurance and tax laws as they affect the net earnings and other income of women.

(c) Federal and state labor laws dealing with such matters as hours, night work, and wages, to determine whether they are accomplishing the purposes for which they were established and whether they should be adapted to changing technological, economic and social conditions.

(d) Differences in legal treatment of men and women in regard to political and civil rights, property rights, and family relations.

(e) New and expanded services that may be required for women as wives, mothers, and workers, including education, counseling, training, home services, and arrangements for care of children during the working day.

(f) The employment policies and practices of the Government of the United States, with reference to additional affirmative steps which should be taken through legislation, executive or administrative action to assure nondiscrimination on the basis of sex and to enhance constructive employment opportunities for women.

SEC. 202. The Commission shall submit a final report of its recommendations to the President by October 1, 1963.

SEC. 203. All executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government are directed to cooperate with the Commission in the performance of its duties.


SEC 301. Members of the Commission, except those receiving other compensation from the United States, shall receive such compensation as the President shall hereafter fix in a manner to be hereafter determined.

December 14, 1961.”


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.