Ruth Rosen Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Women's Movement in Historical Perspective: Conversation with Ruth Rosen, historian and columnist; 12/5/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Modern Women's Movement: The Older Generation

One of the other dynamics in this change occurs from the push of the NOW generation -- that is, this older generation who had worked in unions and in the government and so on. You're suggesting or arguing that a turning point came in the early days of the Kennedy administration when the newly elected President Kennedy did not deliver jobs to women in the new administration. This led to the appointment of a commission to look at the status of women; Eleanor Roosevelt was named chairman. And that had unintended consequences.

Some of the biggest.

Yes. Talk a little about this, because as we were talking earlier at lunch, this is a theme that occurs. You set up a formal body to explore a question, and it also is a way of changing consciousness.

Well, this is an object lesson. I don't know if I should publicize this. But if you give women a conference as a sop and you try to buy them off, this actually has revolutionary consequences. When Kennedy did that, he was, in effect, thanking women in the Democratic Party for having worked so hard for his election. He created a big cross-class and cross-race representative group of women from all over the country. I don't think he meant to give birth to the women's movement, but that, in effect, is what happened, because when that group started meeting, women of all [ethnicities], backgrounds, and classes began to discuss what women's status was in the United States. What they began to discover is whether you worked in a labor union or on an assembly line, or you were corporate attorney, you were devalued and paid less, and that you also did all the work at home.

When you get women together, they talk about their lives. Now, I'm letting out a very important secret here. They talk about their lives. I interviewed all these women who were on the Commission on the Status of Women. I read all their transcribed interviews. This is what happened. They talked about their lives. As they talked about it, they also collected a vast amount of data and demographic information that documented the widespread discrimination of women in all groups.

So by 1963, when the report was issued by Eleanor Roosevelt, although it was very tepid when it talked about discrimination against women, the really, really important part of that conference of women meeting for those years is that they spawned state commissions on the status of women, which in turn spawned county commissions on the status of women. And all of these groups collected that kind of data, which they then threw in the face of elected officials to change laws, to change public policy. It had a very big impact. And those women were very savvy. They were older. They were already experienced speakers; they were experienced in organizing labor unions and so forth; they were experienced in being part of the government. So they knew how to manipulate things. Without them, the women's movement could never have been successful.

And without Kennedy having appointed that commission, I don't think the women's movement would have taken off quite like that. Remember, Betty Friedan's book came out in '63, but Kennedy had to start this earlier. He started this in '61. So this preceded that. It's very important

When every year there would be a conference of these state commissions, the government, the federal government, would ignore what these women wanted. And the women would get more and more irritated, more and more angry, much like the younger women were getting angry in the activist movements. Finally in 1966, they said, "Forget about this. We're going to start an independent, outside-the-government women's movement to pressure the government. We can't act within the government anymore. It's not going to respond." Again, it's women bumping up against the limitations, in that case of liberal politics, in the movement against the more radical and left politics of the antiwar movement.

In this period that we're talking about, the women's movement and women who were concerned about these issues found an ally, strangely enough, in the reactionary Chairman of the House Rules Committee, Howard K. Smith, in the sense that for very reactionary reasons, he thought he would slow up the civil rights legislation ...

That's right.

... by supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.

Well, it wasn't the Equal Rights Amendment. It was Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Okay.

That is the legislation that is used by so many litigators to deal with sex discrimination. Because what it did was add "sex" to race and national origins, and said that discrimination against sex could not be acceptable.

And Smith was using that to destroy the civil rights legislation?

Yes, but it passed.

It passed.

It was one of the great, unintended consequences. History unfolds in very odd ways. In 1964, Title 7 became the founding legislative basis on which sex discrimination cases would be taken to the courts.

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