“American Women” Report: Paving the Way for the Second Wave

A photo of Eleanor Roosevelt and Esther Peterson standing together

Eleanor Roosevelt (left) and Esther Peterson laid the groundwork for the 1963 American Women report. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

October 09, 2013


The U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau will host an event December 910 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American Women report. The event was originally scheduled for October but was postponed due to the government shutdown.

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is almost over, isn’t it? So, let’s travel back to 1963 to commemorate another 50th anniversary before the year winds down. This time we will celebrate American Women, one of the most influential reports on women’s issues ever published and the final product of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

The cover of the American Women report, October 1963

The cover of the “American Women” report, October 1963

On December 14, 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the commission to study the issues facing American women and to assess “the position of women and the functions they perform in the home, in the economy, in the society.” It was born out of an idea suggested by Esther Peterson, who was the director of the Women’s Bureau. Kennedy selected 26 men and women to make up the commission, including cabinet members, members of Congress, leaders of women’s organizations, and educators. Eleanor Roosevelt served as chair of the commission until her death on November 7, 1962. The American Women report was published almost a year later, on October 11, 1963.

Considering the qualifications of the president’s appointees, it should come as no surprise that three AAUW members served on the commission: Caroline Ware, Marguerite Rawalt, and Rep. Edith Green (D-OR).

The commission consisted of seven committees to specifically study certain issues, including civil and political rights, education, federal employment, home and community, private employment, protective labor legislation, social insurance, and taxes. The AAUW archives contains a letter written by Roosevelt to then-AAUW President Anna Rose Hawkes asking for us to be represented on a certain committee. Can you guess which one? If you guessed the education committee, you are correct! Pauline Tompkins, who was general director of AAUW from 1959 to 1967, represented AAUW on the Committee on Education.

Text of a letter written in 1962 to AAUW President Anna Rose Hawkes

Letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to AAUW President Anna Rose Hawkes, February 7, 1962 (AAUW archives)

The Committee on Education focused primarily on the continuing education needs of mature women. According to the American Women report, in 1962, the median educational level for an American woman age 25 or older was 11.6 years. Of enrolled college students, 42 percent were women. The findings suggested that continuing education for women returning to the workforce or returning to college was a critical yet unrealized need.

The committee announced in the American Women report that the “acceptance of continuing education, including vocational education” should be a top priority. Not coincidentally, this subject fit well with the activities of AAUW in the early 1960s, and it is clear that the committee drew heavily upon AAUW’s expertise in this area. AAUW had recently initiated the Counseling for the Mature Woman program and the College Faculty program, both designed to help women returning to the workforce with career assistance and financial support. AAUW’s mission was well represented outside the topic of education, too. Other suggestions in American Women included proposed legislation to address the issues of workplace discrimination, child care, maternity leave, and equal pay.

Even after the commission’s work was over, its legacy had tremendous influence. Through reports like American Women, the group helped materialize the early women’s movement, and many states and localities followed suit and established their own commissions. The most lasting result of Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, however, was the recognition — finally — that the issue of equality for women deserved a national stage.

Suzanne Gould By:   |   October 09, 2013

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