In 1963, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. The civil rights movement was in full force throughout the nation, perhaps most memorably in Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 28 March on Washington. Earlier that summer, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had become the first woman to orbit the planet. And back on Earth, with her feet firmly on U.S. soil, Esther Peterson was also focused on helping women reach new heights.
Peterson is one link on a long chain of Labor Department employees who have championed the rights of working women. A former teacher, labor organizer and lobbyist, she had been appointed assistant secretary of labor and director of the Women’s Bureau by President Kennedy in 1961. In 1963, she advocated for the passage of the Equal Pay Act, and she also served as executive vice chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women.
1963 was also the year Peterson and her commission colleagues issued a groundbreaking report titled “American Women.” Though working women have played a vital role throughout the nation’s history, the 1963 report represented a sea change in the way policymakers and the U.S. talked about their contributions. Addressing issues such as gender-based job discrimination, equal pay for equal work, and the need for daycare for working parents, the report formed a cornerstone for policies and programs that enhanced women’s participation in many aspects of American life.
Throughout the department’s 100 year history, its female employees have helped advance the cause of working women – from advocates like Peterson to the indomitable Frances Perkins, the nation’s first female cabinet member, to Alexis M. Herman, both the youngest person (at 29) to lead the Women’s Bureau and the first African-American secretary of labor.
Since the publication of ”American Women,” the Women’s Bureau has continued to advocate for the nation’s working women. In the 1970s, the bureau threw its support behind the Equal Rights Amendment, which sought to guarantee equal rights for women. In 1984, the bureau launched a national initiative to educate the public about the Job Training Partnership Act and its potential to improve the economic status of women. In 1992, it joined the Employment and Training Administration in administering the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations program, to assist employers and labor unions in placing and retaining women in apprenticeship and nontraditional occupations.
Today, my colleagues in the Women’s Bureau are still committed to helping women reach new heights. As a member of the president’s National Equal Pay Task Force, we know that a wage gap persists 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was signed, and we are committed to opposing gender-based pay inequality. Fifty years after “American Women” identified the importance of workplace flexibility, we continue to promote work-life balance and flexible work arrangements that recognize the importance both for employers to retain talented staff and for workers to fulfill familial obligations. We are also actively helping women, both civilians and veterans, find profitable, satisfying jobs in the U.S. workforce.
Our mission is to develop policies and standards to safeguard the interests of working women, to advocate for their equality and economic security, and to promote quality work environments. In today’s economy, with the majority of U.S. households relying on women’s wages to pay the bills, this mission is more important than ever.
Today is Women’s Equality Day – which commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed U.S. women the right to vote. It’s a day to reflect not just on suffrage but on all the movements that have led to better treatment and greater equality for women throughout our nation’s history. Today and every day, the Women’s Bureau is proud to take our place in the chain of champions, and to continue the struggle for equality and opportunity in the U.S. workforce.
Latifa Lyles is the acting director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.