Biden’s American Recovery Plan Should Embrace the Ideas Put Forth 60 Years Ago by JFK’s Commission on Women

Ahead of its time in more ways than one, JFK’s President’s Commission on the Status of Women endorsed policies back on the front burner in 2021: paid maternity leave, affordable child care, income guarantees to lessen child poverty, and ending discrimination.

Biden’s Gender Policy Council Should Embrace the Radical Ideas of Its JFK Predecessor
Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, and President John F. Kennedy in 1962. (Wikimedia Commons)

The far-seeing women who pushed for and won the first federal commission on women 60 years ago had a bold and comprehensive plan to move America toward greater equality and well being. President Biden’s American Recovery Plan—informed by the new Gender Policy Council—should follow their lead.

Shortly after John F. Kennedy took his oath of office in 1961, Assistant Secretary of Labor Esther Peterson and her feminist allies convinced the new Democratic president to issue an executive order setting up the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). After 18 months of deliberation, involving hundreds of participants from all walks of life, the PCSW issued a blockbuster program for change.

Ahead of its time in more ways than one, the PCSW endorsed policies that are back on the front burner in 2021: paid maternity leave, affordable child care, income guarantees to lessen child poverty, and ending discrimination based on sex, race, religion and national origin.

But the women leading the commission also insisted that jobs had to be fundamentally reimagined: Giving women the opportunity to move into the same bad jobs as men was not the answer.

Biden’s Gender Policy Council Should Embrace the Radical Ideas of Its JFK Predecessor
On Dec, 14, 1961, President Kennedy established the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. “The multi-racial, cross-class network of egalitarian feminists who served on the PCSW … made securing good-paying jobs for women a priority,” writes Cobble. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum / Facebook)

The multi-racial, cross-class network of egalitarian feminists who served on the PCSW—a group which included civil rights leaders Pauli Murray and Dorothy Height, labor officials Katherine Ellickson and Addie Wyatt, consumer activist Mary Dublin Keyserling as well as Peterson and other prominent figures—made securing good-paying jobs for women a priority.
Much like today, they pursued an intertwined program of “equal pay for comparable work” (their language) and “living wage” initiatives ensuring all jobs paid enough to support one’s self and one’s family.


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They exposed the historic underpayment and devaluation of the work done by women and in 1963 hailed the passage of the first federal equal pay legislation. They judged the law a partial victory, however, and called for broader, more comprehensive fair pay legislation.

For those feminists, reimagining jobs meant thinking about time as well as money. Overwork and work time inflexibility were just as pressing as the problems of underpay and underemployment—yet how to give women (and men) more control over how long they worked and when was not immediately apparent.

For a start, Peterson and her allies proposed strengthening the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law regulating wages and hours. Their recommendations made a difference. Within a few years, the act covered the majority of workers. For the first time, minimums went up, and “premium pay” provisions, it was hoped, would act as a deterrent to “excessive hours.”

But what some feminist commissioners most fervently sought—extending to men the maximum hour protections in the state laws covering women—failed to materialize. What they called the “woman standard” should be used as a model for all workers. Both sexes, they believed, needed the right to say “no” to involuntary overtime and long hours without losing their jobs. Instead, the laws were harmonized downward and hour protections lowered for all.

Today, work hour laws are in crucial need of overhaul. U.S. employers find it cheaper to pay overtime than hire additional workers. Overwork and the maldistribution of work, with some having too much and others too little, are endemic. Americans now work longer hours than in any other comparable nation. Even the Japanese, infamous for karōshi or death by overwork, are updating their laws and requiring more paid time off.

The fair scheduling laws cropping up around the country are a start and more should be encouraged. Yet people are different and require an infinite number of work time arrangements. Only when workers have more power to set their own work schedules and only when they can say “no” to long hours without risk of job loss and economic ruin will we get a fairer, more humane time regime.

Pushing decision-making downward—or strengthening economic democracy by encouraging unions and other workplace organizations—would help, feminists in 1961 argued. So too, they pointed out, would full employment policies and basic income guarantees. As they knew, time and money are intimately connected.

The PCSW closed up shop in 1963. Its report, “American Women,” became a controversial best-seller and within a year, state and local commissions on the status of women proliferated across the country. The PCSW and the visionary women leaders who created it had sparked a new mass movement for gender equality.

Their radical ideas got lost, however, as the nation veered rightward in the 1980s. Individual rather than social solutions predominated and attention turned to how women could learn to fight as hard as men for one of the few jobs at the top.

PCSW feminists wanted to change jobs not women. Indeed, they wanted to remake the world of work and make it possible for all of us to be more human. Hopefully their time has come.

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About

Dorothy Sue Cobble is a distinguished professor emerita of history and labor studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and author of the forthcoming book, For the Many: American Feminists and the Global Fight for Democratic Equality.