The Future of Feminism

Report by the PCSW

Cover of the final report produced by the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. 


In December of 1961, JFK asked Eleanor Roosevelt to chair the newly formed Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). This would be her last official duty before her death in 1962. Due to pressure from labor lobbyist Esther Peterson, the President signed Executive Order 10980 to form the commission in order “to review progress and make recommendations for constructive action.” The PCSW looked at the status of American women in terms of employment, legislation, political rights, civil rights, property rights, and family relations. Not only did Roosevelt provide a strong political background and knowledge of the women’s network, she also provided visibility and credibility to a commission critiqued by the right wing. The PCSW was comprised of the secretaries to the departments of commerce, agriculture, labor, health, education, and welfare as well as twenty members appointed by JFK with the help of Roosevelt for recommendations. The first meeting was held on February 12th, 1962 where Roosevelt prioritized equal pay for women as a mission of the commission. In the summer of 1962 she wrote on her My Day column about the efforts of the commission and the progress being made: “The effort, of course, is to find how we can best use the potentialities of women without impairing their first responsibilities, which are to their homes, their husbands, and their children.” In August the PCSW produced a progress report that stressed the education of women as an aid to gender inequality. Shorty after the release of the progress report, Roosevelt’s health declined and she was unable to continue as chair of the commission. Following her death, the PCSW refused to name a new chair because “there could be no adequate replacement.” The commission presented its final report on the status of women on Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday in 1963 with a dedication to her on the first page: “Her devotion to fuller realization of the abilities of women in all walks of life and in all countries raised the status of women everywhere in the world.”

ERA Protestors

Women protest for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Washingotn. 


In 1923 the National Women’s Party (NWP) proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) as a legislative equalizer. The amendment was proposed after the realization by the NWP that suffrage did fix the inequalities in political citizenship, economic opportunity, or social status. Other women’s organizations at the time such as the League of Women Voters and the National Consumers League were in immediate opposition to the ERA, claiming that it would jeopardize legislation that protected women in the workplace. Legislation that called for universal equal laws would invalidate maximum hour laws, bans on dangerous workplaces for women, and minimum wage for female workers. By the mid 20’s a clear line was drawn between women’s organizations that supported the ERA and those that opposed it which shook the solidarity of the women’s movement and separated advocates within the same cause. Eleanor Roosevelt identified with the anti-ERA social reforms due to her close ties to labor activists and labor laws protecting women workers. While the ERA supporters reflected concerns for white collar women, the anti-ERA cause reflected the concerns of the working class. The two causes did not differ strictly by classes they represented; pro-ERA activists emphasized the total equality between genders and campaigned for genderless laws while anti-ERA activists stressed the positive differences that women possessed and the need for protective legislation to prevent sexism. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act, enforcing a universal minimum wage and ultimately supporting the ERA efforts of genderless labor laws, was passed. Support for the ERA continued to grow in the 30’s, but Roosevelt continued to speak out against the amendment in the name of protective labor legislation. As support grew for the ERA it became the new threshold for a feminist identity: and an NWP member was quoted as saying, “They are reformers- we are feminists.” This presented Roosevelt with a conflict of doing what’s best for all women or for a lower class of women and as she continued to publicly oppose the ERA she faced criticism and her identity as a women's rights activist was questioned. Ruby Black of the United Press wrote that “She talks like a social worker and acts like a feminist,” in response to the claims that Roosevelt was not acting as an advocate for women. By 1940 Roosevelt had muted her opposition to the ERA, though she still worked to block it legislatively. By 1951, after her work with the United Nations, Roosevelt’s opinions of the ERA had evolved and she expressed this in an article published that year, stating that protective legislation for women might not be necessary anymore and it might be best for women to be “declared equal before the law and equal politically and in whatever work.” Following the publishing of this article, president of the NWP wrote to Roosevelt asking for full support of the ERA. Roosevelt responded, “While I’m not going to fight the ERA, I really do not feel enthusiastic enough about it to write you a letter in its favor.”


Political Cartoon of ER

Political cartoon drawn for Roosevelt's seventieth birthday


Eleanor Roosevelt has made many impacts on women of the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s as we’ve seen through the policies outlined in this exhibit, but Roosevelt transcends her lifetime and works as an influence on feminism in modern America. In 1996, Bob Woodward published in his book The Choice that Hilary Clinton often communicates with Roosevelt through spiritual channels. While conducting the first major campaign as a female candidate for president in 2007, Clinton told a crowd that Roosevelt “said, ‘You know, if you’re going to be involved in politics you have to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros’. So occasionally, I’ll be sitting somewhere and I’ll be listening to someone perhaps not saying the kindest things about me. And I’ll look down at my hand and I’ll sort of pinch my skin to make sure it still has the adequate thickness I know Eleanor Roosevelt expects me to have.”

In March of 2015 the process of choosing a female face for the twenty dollar bill began and immediately Roosevelt’s name was mentioned due to her legacy as a First Lady, an advocate of Human Rights, and as a woman who inspires young women across the globe every day.