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JFK’s Equal Pay Act Meets ‘The Feminine Mystique’

JFK signed the Equal Pay Act 50 years ago today.

TODAY is the 50 year anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which was signed by John F. Kennedy. President Obama is commemorating the event and prodding action by Congress.

Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Act, while Republicans opposed it and continue to do so by opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Once again, it’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand fighting for women.

The disparity led Sen.r [sic] Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to co-sponsor an update to the law, called the Paycheck Fairness Act, along with a number of other female senators.

“We believe this is an economic issue. It’s not only about women but the middle class, and if you’re not paying a woman dollar for dollar for the exact same work you’re not really tapping the full potential of the economy,” said Gillibrand on “CBS This Morning.” “And why wouldn’t you tap the full potential of 52 percent of the resources of the women of this country? “If you paid women for dollar for dollar, you could raise the GDP by up to 9 percent.”

The speech President Kennedy gave 50 years ago today is below.

Having studied President Kennedy, as well as wrote and produced my own one woman show on his life and times that included his wife Jacqueline as well, I find it ironic that he made this speech as president. The marriage of J.F.K. and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy didn’t represent anything close to what the signing of the Equal Pay Act meant.

President Kennedy’s Equal Pay Act speech was made the same year Betty Friedan’s revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique exploded. It was a moment when the social construct of American life began unraveling.

In a marriage described by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as “rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic,” it’s remarkable when you put the political motivations of President Kennedy’s speech in context. In 1963, what he was saying didn’t come close to representing what was going on in American lives, especially President Kennedy’s own.

J.F.K.’s speech on signing the Equal Pay Act was, however, foreshadowing of the era that was about to break open.

Remarks Upon Signing the Equal Pay Act.
June 10, 1963

John F. Kennedy

District of Columbia, Washington

I AM delighted today to approve the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits arbitrary discrimination against women in the payment of wages. This act represents many years of effort by labor, management, and several private organizations unassociated with labor or management, to call attention to the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job. This measure adds to our laws another structure basic to democracy. It will add protection at the working place to the women, the same rights at the working place in a sense that they have enjoyed at the polling place.

While much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity–for the average woman worker earns only 60 percent of the average wage for men–this legislation is a significant step forward.

Our economy today depends upon women in the labor force. One out of three workers is a woman. Today, there are almost 25 million women employed, and their number is rising faster than the number of men in the labor force.

It is extremely important that adequate provision be made for reasonable levels of income to them, for the care of the children which they must leave at home or in school, and for protection of the family unit. One of the prime objectives of the Commission on the Status of Women, which I appointed 18 months ago, is to develop a program to accomplish these purposes.

The lower the family income, the higher the probability that the mother must work. Today, 1 out of 5 of these working mothers has children under 3. Two out of 5 have children of school age. Among the remainder, about 50 percent have husbands who earn less than $5,000 a year–many of them much less. I believe they bear the heaviest burden of any group in our Nation. Where the mother is the sole support of the family, she often must face the hard choice of either accepting public assistance or taking a position at a pay rate which averages less than two-thirds of the pay rate for men.

It is for these reasons that I believe we must expand day-care centers and provide other assistance which I have recommended to the Congress. At present, the total facilities of all the licensed day-care centers in the Nation can take care of only 185,000 children. Nearly 500,000 children under 12 must take care of themselves while their mothers work. This, it seems to me, is a formula for disaster.

I am glad that Congress has recently authorized $800,000 to State welfare agencies to expand their day-care services during the remainder of this fiscal year. But we need much more. We need the $8 million in the 1965 budget for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare allocated to this purpose.

We also need the provisions in the tax bill that will permit working mothers to increase the deduction from income tax liability for costs incurred in providing care for their children while the mothers are working. In October the Commission on the Status of Women will report to me. This problem should have a high priority, and I think that whatever we leave undone this year we must move on this in January.

I am grateful to those Members of Congress who worked so diligently to guide the Equal Pay Act through. It is a first step. It affirms our determination that when women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelopes.

We have some of the most influential Members of Congress here today, and I do hope that we can get this appropriation for these day-care centers, which seems to me to be money very wisely spent, and also under consideration of the tax bill, that we can consider the needs of the working mothers, and both of these will be very helpful, and I would like to lobby in their behalf.

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