Scholar Exhibits

GBH and the President’s Commission on the Status of Women

October 11, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of American Women, the final report requested by President John F. Kennedy at the inception of the 26 member President’s Commission on the Status of Women on December 14, 1961. GBH and Massachusetts played an important role in the pubic history of the Commission when they partnered with Brandeis University in the production of the roundtable policy series Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt Prospects of Mankind, moderated by Eleanor Roosevelt. The final segment of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt Prospects of Mankind: What Status for Women? first aired June 4, 1962. It included a 10 minute discussion between President Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt who had been appointed by the President to chair the Commission. A discussion with four experts in labor and education, Secretary of State Arthur Goldberg, Agda Rossel, Representative to the United Nations for Sweden, Thomas Mendenhall, President of Smith College, and Dr. Mirra Komarovsky, Professor of Sociology at Barnard College, followed the Kennedy interview and served the public well in communicating the issues the American government would be evaluating with an eye toward improving opportunities for women. The GBH production and President Kennedy’s executive order to establish the commission predates the February 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, the work most often credited for the start of the Women’s Movement of the late 1960’s. Though Friedan’s book and her help in organizing NOW at the third annual conference of state Commissions on the Status of Women held in 1966 are often seen as the catalyst for change in the nation’s policies for women, a closer look at the earlier President’s Commission on the Status of Women reveals how the work of a different woman, Esther Peterson, Executive Vice Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, carefully set the stage to ensure NOW’s success. This collection gathers newly digitized primary source media archives and research from the GBH Open Vault, the John F. Kennedy Library, and Brandeis University, to share the contribution public television played in giving status to the work of the Commission and to utilize digital capabilities for the public education of a new generation.

Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Massachusetts Public Television

In some ways, the GBH series Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt Prospects of Mankind for National Educational Television (NET) served as a first collaboration between John F. Kennedy and Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt that within two years’ time would become a political partnership.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s monthly political roundtable began television broadcasts in October 1959. Prospects of Mankind was produced in Massachusetts by the son of Roosevelt’s longtime friend from the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, Elinor Morgenthau. Henry Morgenthau III filmed the show on the Brandeis University campus in Waltham where he worked as Associate Director of Brandeis University’s Morse Communications Center. He also worked full time as a producer at GBH, the Boston subsidiary of NET.

Prospects’ fourth episode on European alliances would include Senator John F. Kennedy, then a member of the United States Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. At the time, Kennedy and Roosevelt held no political alliances between them. Roosevelt had publicly criticized Kennedy and his father in past campaigns. To add to the tension, Kennedy had announced his bid for the presidency hours before rushing to the Brandeis campus by family plane to film the episode.

Though they differed politically, Roosevelt was a Democrat and Kennedy’s appearance on her show would serve to raise his status in Democratic circles. However, the former first lady showed no signs of support on the air or off, referencing his candidacy only by saying to him, “Senator Kennedy you have today made a very important announcement and whatever you say and do from now on will have a special interest.” Notes from the production described camera shots of Kennedy as “uncomfortable,” and Morgenthau recalled Kennedy was upset afterwards commenting, “She could have been a little warmer.”1

Despite their tense television debut, Kennedy would appear twice more on Prospects with Roosevelt, both times while serving as President. Their relationship had improved with Kennedy’s second appearance which aired less than two months after his taking office. Filmed at the White House, Kennedy took a moment while still on the air to welcome the former first lady back to the White House for which she responded with equal grace by acknowledging his newly elevated status, “Thank you, Mr. President.”2

However, it would be their final appearance together on Prospects of Mankind which would serve as an historic opportunity for the two political giants to gain status one last time on camera before Roosevelt’s death in November ’62, and Kennedy’s a year later, not for his status or hers, but certainly for the status of all women in the nation.

Together they shared the news of the 26 member Presidential Commission on the Status of Women which would use over 100 additional consultants on seven committees to complete a 16-month investigation to recommend policy changes that would increase opportunities for women. The work would be done under presidential executive order, and best of all, Eleanor Roosevelt was to be its Chair.

It was a policy leap framed in public history. Boston’s GBH produced the show solo and broadcast it to the American public on June 4, 1962 via NET’s 50 affiliates. With the president backing the initiative and the most notable woman in the country at the helm, the Commission symbolized a partnership of men and women at the highest level of executive power in America, working together, to create equality between the sexes.

The President’s Commission on the Status of Women

The Vision of an Invisible Woman

Though the President’s Commission on the Status of Women was established by President Kennedy with executive order 10980 on December 14, 1961, the concept was not initiated by the President, nor was it requested of him by Eleanor Roosevelt. If ever there was an unsung hero in securing equality for women during the Kennedy administration, it would likely be former labor lobbyist Esther Peterson, the woman who proposed the Commission to the Administration in June of 1961.

Peterson had not come to be a voice for women’s unions after working for cheap wages in substandard conditions, but as a college educated teacher troubled by the conditions endured by women less fortunate than she. A first generation American of Scandinavian decent, she grew up and attended undergraduate school in Utah. She worked at the Winsor School in Boston after earning a master’s degree from Columbia University. Dignified, but driven, she began helping women members at the Boston YWCA who worked in the Boston clothing industry to organize and negotiate better working conditions.3

She became a paid lobbyist for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and was sent to Washington, D.C. in 1945 to work with a young Congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Peterson had developed a command of labor issues that gained Kennedy’s respect, and when he won the presidential primary in 1960, he asked her to work at campaign headquarters to organize the labor union vote. After the election, she was appointed Director of the Women’s Bureau under the Department of Labor.

A month after the Kennedy inauguration, Peterson discussed a Commission on the Status of Women at a women’s trade union gathering. Women’s groups had made the request in the past, but Peterson, now an insider, was in a position to secure it. After consulting with Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg, he and Peterson decided the best way to affect the most immediate changes for equality for women would be for President Kennedy to establish the Commission by executive civil order. Peterson rallied support and the idea became reality.4

Before the order was signed, Kennedy promoted Peterson to Assistant Secretary of Labor making her the highest ranking woman in the administration. But even with her new status in the administration, Peterson deliberately preferred using the president’s authority rather than her own while overseeing the process and gathering the important statistics needed for the final report which was ordered by the President to be completed by October 1, 1963.5

A Partnership between Men and Women

Peterson proposed the Commission for several reasons: to create a full partnership between men and women in society, to showcase the federal government as a leader in better policy, and to end the divide between women’s groups on whether to solve the problems of discrimination with specific legislation or an overarching constitutional amendment for equal rights. Though she had the vision, it would be voiced by others—almost verbatim. The president’s written statement upon signing the executive order on December 14, 1961 mirrored Peterson’s philosophy, “I am directing appropriate federal departments and agencies to cooperate with the Commission in developing plans for advancing the full partnership of men and women in our national life.”6

Peterson’s “full partnership” theme would be repeated again and again in the communications of the Commission. Eleanor Roosevelt’s colloquium discussion for Prospects hosted two men and two women panelists, prompting a California viewer to write a letter commending the balanced panel, “I made a special point of attending your June 4, 1962 program because of the intelligence shown by your planning an equal number of women and men participants!” The viewer went on to lambaste the Commission for their published pamphlets omitting the “and men” portion of the phrase, “What Man [sic] wouldn’t have his fur raised by the thought of mass partnership of women—against men?” The Commission sent a personal letter to the viewer, a woman, restating the President’s original statement was a full partnership of men and women.7

Peterson had anticipated that policy changes for women would be a touchy subject, not just for the public, but for those with political power. She studied successful commissions, noted the successes of the civil rights efforts happening concurrently, and purposely avoided taking targets. For that reason, there would be no reference to the newly published book, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan which criticized the suppression of women who married. To preserve the partnership with men, Peterson states in her January 20, 1970 interview for the John F. Kennedy Library that she stayed “away from the Feminine Mystique which I just didn’t want the Commission to be part of, nor, I’m sure, would the President.” 8

Even the make-up of the Commission—13 men and 13 women—reflected Peterson’s belief that men and women would need to partner in the process.

Federal Policy “Showcase”

Though Peterson wanted the spotlight on the President and Eleanor Roosevelt, it was her hope to have government policy shine brightest after the Commission would end in 1963. Discrimination existed in the hiring of women since they first were allowed to work in federal positions. Peterson, understood that an 1870 congressional statute to allow women to work in government “at the discretion of their department heads” had since been used by department heads to specify which sex new hires would be. The interpretation had been debated by women’s organizations for several administrations, but the most recent ruling, under FDR, maintained Congress would need to change the wording before the president could change the practice.9

At their second meeting in April, 1962, the Commission requested the President investigate the legal basis for this practice. President Kennedy instructed his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to look into the request. A day before the Commission’s third meeting, the President sent a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt informing her that the Attorney General, had determined that “the question of whether a position may be filled by men only or by women only or instead by qualified members of either sex may be regulated by the President under his constitutional and statutory authority.” He assured Mrs. Roosevelt that he had directed John W. Macy, Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, “to take immediate steps to amend the civil service regulations.”10

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who would have the pleasure of writing to the President in thanks and hosting a high profile weekend conference announcing the news to the Commission at the Roosevelt Hyde Park estate June 16-17, 1962, barely one week after the GBH program aired nationally. In their Saturday session at the FDR library with Commission member Civil Service Chairman John W. Macy in attendance and on board, Nicholas Katzenbach of the Attorney General’s office explained Robert Kennedy’s ruling that there was no legal basis for the discrimination, and in fact, any continuation of the practice would now be illegal.11

Seven months before Kennedy’s letter, Peterson’s statistics showed the federal civil service commission had 205 requests for men and 216 with no sex specified; seven months after the letter, the agency received 11 requests for men and 683 with no sex specified.12

Equal Pay vs. ERA Showdown

In 1962, most people were aware that pay scales for men and women doing the same work favored men, and the majority of women worked in low level jobs. The statistics already gathered by the Commission showed that the Federal Government was no exception. More than 75% of the annual salaries for women on federal payrolls were below $4,500 and only 24 women were in the highest pay bracket of $16,000-18,000, while only 25% of men were in the low grades and over 2000 were in the highest pay bracket.13

Some men feared more equal opportunity for women would threaten their employment. President Kennedy stumbled over Roosevelt’s question concerning this fear in her Prospects interview. Though he acknowledged that equal pay legislation was in Congress, he felt it would not have a “broad repercussion.” “Most of the women who work—in a large proportion—work in areas that are more suited to them than to men . . .ahh . . . and the kind of work is . . . ahhh. . . and in some case the pay. . . is not ahhh. . . not competitive with men.”14 A nother problem blocking a solution to women’s depressed status was the conflicting views that women’s groups themselves held when it came to new policy for women. National political women’s groups, felt equal pay legislation could not address the problems of women being passed over for high level jobs. These groups wanted an equal rights amendment (ERA). In opposition, national labor unions felt that the language of the fourteenth amendment already provided citizens equal protection under the laws, and to pursue a constitutional amendment would be a long battle, wasting resources needed to pass legislation to help the millions of women working alongside men for less pay. The conflicting viewpoints divided women’s groups for decades.

The Commission’s Committee on Women’s Civil Rights would tackle the airing of the issue. For an entire year of meetings, the Committee could not produce a statement for the Commission on the need for an equal rights amendment (ERA). As the spring of 1963 approached, Harvard University Law professor Frank Sanders felt the group owed Congress some stance on the issue after spending “two years and a hell of a lot of the government’s money.” After a battle over semantics, ERA supporter Attorney Marguerite Rawalt, found the word that brought peace to the debate. The statement would stop short of stating that an equal rights amendment need not be sought by inserting the word “now” after not.15

With the now united front for the Commission’s statement on the ERA, and the Equal Pay Act safely passing through the House and Senate, the Commission held its last meeting May 28-29 in 1963. President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963, and then stepped onto center stage for African American civil rights the next day, sending federal marshals with Nicholas Katzenbach to the University of Alabama to ensure students there could enter and be educated regardless of race. Later that day, Kennedy addressed the nation on television, announcing his plans for a civil rights act. Four days before the March on Washington, Esther Peterson offered the Commission’s papers over to the National Archives.16 The Commission’s report, American Women, arrived at the White House on October 11, 1963 in honor of what would have been Eleanor Roosevelt’s 79th birthday. In the East Room, President Kennedy thanked the Commission on behalf of women everywhere but noted, “It will only be important if we can do something about it.”17

As planned, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women dissolved at that juncture recommending two oversight groups to ensure their recommendations were realized. On November 1, 1963, the President established both the Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and the Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women, and three weeks later, on the 22nd, the death of President Kennedy would numb the nation.18

The Report: A Call to Action

The first sentence of the American Women Report reads, “This report is an invitation to action.” But few in the general public would know it until 1965 when it was published in book form by Scribner & Sons and even then, they would have had to have a healthy interest in census statistics to buy it.

In the report were the facts and figures, proof of the problems that existed in the early 60’s for women. Property ownership, jury duty, social security benefits, higher education, military service opportunities, and pay compared to men were all rights abbreviated or nonexistent in the country when it came to women. Twelve tables and 21 charts showed the discrimination in black and white.

However, also in the report, was clear direction that many of the real changes to come for equality of women would require a push from the public. The report dryly welcomed dissent, “interested groups should give high priority to bringing under court review cases involving laws and practices which discriminate against women.”19 World renowned anthropologist, Margaret Mead, called upon to write the introduction for the report, offered a wordier version of the “realization of ideals” in three steps. “First there are conferences, commissions, platforms and declarations. Then organs of the federal government are established to implement activities embodying the newly enunciated principles.” The final phase, according to Mead, would be in the hands of those not at the highest levels of government, but by “the states, the national voluntary organizations, and the local committees. . . imaginatively and patiently, community by community.”20

Though thousands of copies were printed in 1963 and distributed throughout government and to those in the public who requested copies, it would be the 1965 printing of the report by Scribner Sons that would serve as a further invitation to action for the activists, authors, and academics outside of government who read the report with interest.

Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, was such a person. A voracious reader, journalist, and a PhD candidate who turned down that opportunity in order to marry and raise children, Friedan would read “the long awaited report” thoroughly. For her, it would serve her more in understanding what federal government could not do. Friedan, like others concerned with equal rights for women, experienced the deep disappointment after President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964 included language making discrimination in employment on the basis of sex illegal only to see government agencies overseeing the law failing to enforce it. Friedan decided that “something more than talk had to happen. . . .I had to take action.”21

Friedan attended the 3rd annual conference for state Commissions on the Status of Women held on June 28-30, 1966 in Washington, D.C. and met with others there who were disappointed with the failure of the government to enforce the Civil Rights Title VII legislation that prohibited sexual discrimination in employment practices in interstate commerce. The sideline talk in the hotel during the conference resulted in a decision to start a national activist group dedicated to the rights of women.

A master wordsmith, Friedan would seize upon the text of American Women for the vision of this new activist group to light the torch left for her. The “invitation to action” to complete the “realization of ideals” for women’s equality, which started with the Commission, then moved to new legislation, would be finished just as Mead had said—with a “national voluntary organization” advocating for the “full partnership of men and women,” not “patiently” but —“now.”

“I wrote the word ‘NOW’ on a paper napkin,” said Friedan, “ ‘Our group should be called the National Organization for Women because men should be part of it.’ Then I wrote down the first sentence of the NOW statement of purpose, to ‘take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities there of in truly equal partnership with men.”22

What followed is recounted in detail by Cynthia Harrison in her book On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women’s Issues 1945-1968. Friedan as NOW’s president communicated to government the expectations women had for equality while Peterson worked to calm the men in the Johnson administration by explaining that this was a natural part of the process and if it wasn’t NOW, it would be another organization later.23

With Kennedy and Roosevelt both gone, the public struggled on its own to raise the consciousness of society to the discrimination in its midst and raise the status of women through its own voice.


1Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt Prospects of Mankind: “Europe Faces East and West” Boston: GBH, Program 207, January 1960, 00:03:36; University Photograph Collection: Notes from production, Prospects of Mankind, 1960, Box 11, Robert D. Faber University Archives & Special Collections, Brandeis University; Morgenthau, Henry. “Eleanor Roosevelt at Brandeis: A Personal Memoir,” Brandeis Alumni Journal, p 4, 1984.

2Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt Prospects of Mankind: The Peace Corps: “What Shape Shall it Take?” Boston: GBH, Program 207, March 1961, 00:09:30.

3Harrison, Cynthia. “A ‘New Frontier’ for Women: the Public Policy of the Kennedy Administration.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 67, No.3 (Dec., 1980), 638-9, Published by: Organization of American Historians Stable URL: ;

4“Esther Peterson,” American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations,

5Esther Peterson Oral History Interview. 20 January 1970, United States President’s Commission on the Status of Women Records Digital Collections, JFKL, 55,

6Kennedy, John F., “Statement of the President on the establishment of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women,” Office of the Press Secretary, 14 December 1961, 2, President’s Commission on the Status of Women, Digital Collections, JFKL

7Dr. Nancy Jewell Cross to The President’s Commission on the Status of Women. 21 July 1962, in folder “President’s Commission on the Status of Women, General Correspondence,” box 1, July 1962-August 1962, JFKL.

8Esther Peterson Oral History Interview. 20 January 1970, United States President’s Commission on the Status of Women Records Digital Collections, JFKL, 56,

9Harrison, Cynthia. On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women’s Issues 1945-1968. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 142-4.

10John F. Kennedy to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, 15 June 1962, in folder “President’s Commission on the Status of Women,” box 1, Executive letters 8-10, John F. Kennedy Library.

11Esther Peterson Oral History Interview, 11 February 1970, United States President’s Commission on the Status of Women Records Digital Collections, JFKL,

12Mead, Margaret, ed. American Women: The Report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and Other Publications of the Commission. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965) 51.

13Ibid, 50. “Report of Chairman Macy of the Civil Service Commission to President’s Commission on the Status of Women” 16 June 1962, in folder “President’s Commission on the Status of Women,” box 1, Executive letters 8-10, John F. Kennedy Library.

14Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt Prospects of Mankind*: What Status of Women? 18 April 1962, Program 310, Boston: GBH, 00:09:00.

15Harrison, On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women’s Issues 1945-1968, 134.

16“Guide to the United States President’s Commission on the Status of Women Records #RG-2200.10.4,” United States President’s Commission on the Status of Women Records Digital Collections, JFKL ;

17“Remarks at the Presentation of the Final Report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women,” 11 October 1963, White House Audio Collection, , JFKL.

18Harrison, Cynthia. “A ‘New Frontier’ for Women: the Public Policy of the Kennedy Administration,” 643.

19Mead, Margaret, ed. American Women: The Report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and Other Publications of the Commission. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965) 45.

20Ibid, 3-5.

21Friedan, Betty. (The Feminine Mystique: Betty Friedan 50 years*. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) 460.

22Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique: Betty Friedan 50 years. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) 461.

23Harrison, (On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women’s Issues 1945-1968*, 197-8.