Betty Friedan’s 1963 groundbreaking feminist manifesto, “The Feminine Mystique,” ignited a firestorm by articulating the “problem that has no name”—pervasive discrimination against women. In public settings, restaurants and bars displayed “men-only” signs, and civic organizations like Rotary and Jaycees relegated women to secondary status.
Many professional bodies, such as press clubs, excluded women altogether. In sports, organizations ranging from Little League to golf clubs hindered girls and women from reaching athletic excellence. Meanwhile, financial institutions folded married women’s identities into those of their husbands.
Amid this backdrop of rampant gender inequality, the call for institutional change grew increasingly urgent, leading political leaders to take notice and act. John F. Kennedy, at 43 the youngest president in American history, ushered in fresh perspectives when he took office in 1960. He championed gender equality as one of his groundbreaking moves.
Early in his tenure, JFK appointed the first-ever Commission on the Status of Women. Comprising representatives from an expansive range of professions, occupations, and organizations, the commission catalyzed renewed support for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Political Will for Change
Gradually, similar commissions were organized in the individual states. Governor Elbert N. Carvel appointed a Delaware Commission in November 1963, making Delaware among the first states to join the initiative.
Mrs. Rosella T. Humes brainstormed the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Delaware. Humes, president of Delaware’s Professional Women’s Society, read the report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, then approached two other Delaware women, Mrs. Wilhemina Miller, Delaware Federation of Business and Professional Women club president, and Mrs. Clifford Stirba, Delaware League of Women Voters president, to gain support for a Delaware commission.
The three took their idea to Governor Carvel, who promptly appointed all three to the commission. Humes and 17 other leading Delawareans sought, through the commission, coordination between women in homes and in professional life. Subcommittees met in early January 1964 for a brainstorming session.
Governor Carvel shared his enthusiasm about the group’s formation, stating, “I’m thrilled over the caliber of people we have serving on the commission.” This wasn’t mere rhetoric; the commission brought together an impressive array of thought leaders from sectors such as education, state government, the press, law, and labor.
Seven subcommittee chairmen gave their first reports to the commission at a March 1964 dinner meeting in Wilmington’s Hotel Du Pont.
James M. Rosbow, one of only several male committee members, provided a nuanced analysis that resonates even today. “A lack of preparation, rather than prejudice,” he said, “accounts for the preference for promoting men over women in some jobs. Women often neglect to take the steps necessary to qualify for top administrative positions. More women should pursue a study of administration in their graduate work to qualify for these positions, Rosbrow said.
Charles Keil, administrative assistant to Governor Carvel, stated, “If the trend continues as it has in the last three years, there will be more women appointed by the governor.” While Governor Carvel had a track record of appointing more women than his predecessors, certain commissions and boards in 1964 still lacked female representation.
Chairman Humes emphasized, “my feeling is that for too long the abilities of qualified women in regard to policy making and jobs in the higher echelons have been ignored.” Despite active women’s groups in Delaware, there were no women on certain key commissions like the Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission or the State Highway Commission. The Governor’s Commission planned to make specific recommendations on female appointments.
The commission set an ambitious trajectory by seeking to recommend a Delaware woman not only for state but also for federal level policy-making positions. “We are looking for an outstanding Delaware woman with administrative experience,” stated Senator Harry T. Price, chairman of the subcommittee accepting the recommendations. Few women held policy-making roles at the federal level at this groundbreaking time.
The Commission on the Status of Women in Delaware concluded in its July 1964 report that women face discrimination in the state but characterized the bias as “hard to pinpoint.” In her introduction, Mrs. Humes stated, “This report contains the gist of four months study… It is our feeling that implementation of our suggestions will work in a constructive manner to improve the status of women in Delaware.”
The State of Female Representation
Governor Carvel concurred with the commission’s findings, noting that women “are constantly being left out in subtle ways.” He ordered 1,000 copies of the report to spur legislative action.
One group within the report advocated for reducing the maximum work week for women from 55 to 48 hours, while another argued against any maximum limit. The commission called for income tax reforms to grant female “heads of households” equal deductions to males, and an overhaul of property rights, such as inheritance laws.
For working women, the commission endorsed a statewide day care system. Despite the higher number of voting-age women in Delaware, they are outvoted by males by about 10%, prompting the commission to recommend campaigns to boost women’s political participation. It also proposed that sex should not be a factor in job appointments.
Among its other recommendations were enhanced educational counseling, a merit system for state employees, and improved community services. Specific subcommittees covered topics from education and health to employment and tax structure, each providing its own set of recommendations. For example, the tax structure subcommittee suggested a standard $900 deduction for child care and other deductions for working women.
The extensive report aimed to inform and influence policies to ameliorate the status of women in various Delaware sectors.
The Commission on the Status of Women in Delaware’s influence didn’t end with the report. In 1965, largely due to efforts spearheaded by Delaware Federation of Business and Professional Women, Delaware became the first state to repeal its so-called “protective” labor laws for women.
The new Governor Charles L. Terry lent his clout to bring about the passage of House Bill 382, which succinctly announced, “the female labor laws of Delaware are repealed.” These laws perpetuated gender inequities in the workplace by creating a separate set of rules for women, rather than leveling the playing field.
A Legacy in Legislation
Delaware made a significant step toward eliminating sexual discrimination by repealing these laws, granting women greater control over their career paths and opening more opportunities for them to break through professional barriers. House Bill 382’s passage garnered national attention and set a precedent for other states to follow.
Furthermore, the commission’s early support for an Equal Rights Amendment proved prescient when Delaware became the first state (simultaneous with New Hampshire) to ratify the amendment in 1972. The ratification symbolized a milestone in the fight for gender equality and solidified Delaware’s reputation as a pioneer in the realm of women’s rights.
The Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Delaware not only echoed the sentiments of contemporaneous feminists like Betty Friedan, but also acted upon them.
The commission laid down a comprehensive roadmap for legislative reforms that would go on to influence both state and national policies. By addressing the “problem that has no name,” Delaware named it, faced it, and set gender rights changes into motion, shaping the landscape of women’s rights across the United States.