Esther Peterson (9/10)

Esther Peterson and John F. Kennedy’s working relationship began in his earliest days on Congress. She was a lobbyist for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and Kennedy was on the House Education and Labor Committee. Peterson had earned a “reputation in Congress for being well-prepared and effective advocate of labor’s position.” Kennedy brought Peterson onto his campaign during the primaries to “build labor support” because most labor leaders supported Hubert Humphrey or Stuart Symington. Due to the success that Peterson brought about during the campaign, Kennedy offered her the choice of administration jobs. Peterson selected the Women’s Bureau, but, within eight months, Kennedy elevated her to assistant secretary of labor as well. This new position allowed Peterson to speak with “far more authority than she could have had merely as director of the Women’s Bureau.” Peterson’s “her dual capacities gave her an added edge of effectiveness,” and she was able to get a lot ton.

Once Peterson had been given these positions of authority in the new administration, she “strongly advocated the creation of a commission on women, perhaps because she assumed-correctly-that she would determine the nature and direction of the commission.” Kennedy created the commission on December 14, 1961, and the stated purpose was “’to review progress and make recommendations as needed for constructive action’ in the areas of private and federal employment policies and practices, federal social insurance and tax laws, federal and state protective labor legislation, treatment of women under the law, and provision of necessary family services.” Since Kennedy trusted Peterson’s abilities and ideas, “he readily assented to her proposal” and even agreed to make it a “presidential, rather than a merely department, commission.” This new proposed commission became known as the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, and, within Peterson as the head, it “became the centerpiece of the administration’s actions on behalf of women’s issues.” The creation of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women was much different than how other president’s chose to address women’s issues. Most past presidents, like Truman and Eisenhower, would appoint a few women to higher positions, but these usually acted as token appointments to satisfy those calling for greater women’s equality.

Due to Peterson’s involvement in the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, she was able to push for greater changes for women in government. Peterson believed in “women’s right to contribute to the society in ways other than as wives and mothers. Furthermore, she had long been involved in working to organize women, in cooperating with the Women’s Bureau, and in working with women’s organizations such as the National Women’s Trade Union League to achieve long-desired reforms-a commission on women, equal pay legislation, inclusion of the lowest-paying occupations (which employed large numbers of women) under minimum wage legislation, and amelioration of some of the conditions working women encountered.” Peterson was the “catalyst” that helped push the Kennedy administration to respond to women’s ever changing roles.

The President’s Commission reexamined laws regarding government jobs appointments and gender discrimination. After the commission’s examination, it suggested that Kennedy could stop the discriminatory practices.  He stated that all “that selection for any career position will be made solely on the basis of ability to meet the requirements of the position, and without regard to sex. ” This action was huge is helping women get more access into government jobs based on their abilities. Peterson also used the President’s Commission to tackled equal pay. Peterson broke an eighteen-year legislation stalemate by collecting data and lobbying for change. “President Kennedy signed the bill on June 10, 1963. An amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act stipulated that employers involved in interstate commerce could no longer discriminate among employees on the basis of sex by paying unequal wages for jobs which require ‘equal skill, effort and responsibility and which are performed under similar working conditions.’” Esther Peterson’s efforts in creating the President’s Commission on the Status of Women helped lead the way in changing women’s roles in the government and in society. “As Betty Friedan wrote in 1963, ‘the very existence of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, under Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership, creates a climate where it is possible to recognize and do something about discrimination against women, in terms not only of pay but of the subtle barriers to opportunity.’”

Harrison, Cynthia E. “’A New Frontier’ for Women: The Public Policy of the Kennedy Administration.” The Journal of American History. 1980. Oxford University Press.

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