JFK’s Women Problem

Though John F. Kennedy has entered the pantheon of American heroes since his death, recent data show that women, especially, have been losing admiration for him as a leader. That decline tracks the transformation of Kennedy’s image from charming playboy to dangerously compulsive predator.

NEW YORK – The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy provides an opportunity to consider the shifts in consciousness in the United States that have occurred in the half-century since his death. In particular, though Kennedy has entered the pantheon of American heroes, recent data show that women, especially, have been losing admiration for him as a leader. Why?

In some ways, Kennedy’s legacy for women was as progressive as his legacy on race and poverty. One genuinely visionary move was to ask Eleanor Roosevelt, a longtime feminist, to chair the first President’s Commission on the Status of Women. The PCSW, which included both male and female political leaders, was a real, rather than cosmetic, effort to assess the workplace bias that women faced, what legal protections they should have, and what could be done to end gender discrimination – a concept that did not yet even have a vocabulary.

Indeed, when Kennedy convened the PCSW, women in America could be excluded from juries, lacked access to oral contraceptives and abortion, and could not even secure credit in their own names. The same year that Kennedy was killed, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, igniting a firestorm of debate about “the problem that has no name” – women’s dissatisfaction with their limited roles. The PCSW’s report, issued a month before Kennedy’s assassination, could have been a watershed had he lived.

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