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President Kennedy signs the Equal Pay Act into law, June 10, 1963. (Bettman/Corbis)

JFK AND THE GIRLS

In the July/August issue, Caitlin Flanagan laid bare her conflicted feelings about President John F. Kennedy’s notorious infidelity (“Jackie and the Girls”).

For all his womanizing, including an affair with a White House intern, John F. Kennedy took the first important steps in federal policy to expand opportunities for American women. In December 1961, he appointed the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt to chair it. This spawned state commissions, creating a national network of activists who continued to work in both governmental and non­governmental organizations. In 1962, Kennedy ordered executives in the federal civil service to hire without regard to sex.

On June 10, 1963, Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, the first federal law to limit sex discrimination by private employers. The success of equal-pay legislation, which had been hanging fire since 1945, came about largely through the work of Esther Peterson, an assistant secretary of labor. When Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers, headed by Walter Heller, sent the Bureau of the Budget a message objecting to the bill, citing a lack of “convincing evidence” of its necessity, Peterson took the Council of Economic Advisers to task, and the next day the council withdrew its letter, signifying that in this instance Kennedy was in Peterson’s corner.

In his penultimate executive order, in November 1963 (at the urging of his commission on women, which had issued its report in October), Kennedy created two continuing bodies, an internal Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and a Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Each president who followed established a similar group until Ronald Reagan, a conservative and a faithful family man, took office in 1981 and began to limit women’s reproductive choices.

Bill Clinton, who (more than we knew) took John Kennedy as a role model, established his bona fides with women in February 1993, when he signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, the first bill he signed into law. He had already employed executive orders to reverse anti-abortion policies put into effect by Reagan and George H. W. Bush. And yet he had an affair with (at least) a White House intern. Irony abounds.

Cynthia Harrison
Associate Professor of History, Women’s Studies, and Public Policy
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

This letter represents a familiar pattern of hopeful loyalty to the JFK legacy: By fishing around in his minor accomplishments, might we find some shining example of his fealty to great liberal causes? How promising this one looks, with Kennedy appointing Eleanor Roosevelt to a special council on women—a marriage of true minds if ever there was one! Deeper examination, sadly, complicates this happy picture considerably. Eleanor Roosevelt, who represented the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, of which so many confused Baby Boomers believe JFK was a staunch member, abjured most of his presidential agenda. Roosevelt, a genuine hero of the left, could not abide JFK’s cowardice regarding Joseph McCarthy and civil rights. In Roosevelt, Joltin’ Jack finally ran aground of a broad he couldn’t seduce with the old Choate one-two: she remained unmoved by his (aptly termed) charm offensive. In the heel of the hunt, she found him less poisonous than Nixon and reluctantly backed him, and he was only too glad to pay her off with the lady-chat thing, which got the unions off his back because it eliminated any forward movement on an equal-rights amendment.

Suggesting that Ronald Reagan’s attitude toward abortion rights would have been at odds with Kennedy’s is absurd; Jack Kennedy may have offered to finance a few illegal and dangerous scrapes, but he was steeped in Roman Catholicism and backed by one of the most socially conservative voter bases in modern American history.

A QUESTIONABLE TRIUMPH

In “The Triumph of the Family Farm” (July/August), Chrystia Freeland used her father’s large farm to exemplify how farming is “in the midst of a startling renaissance—one that holds lessons for America’s economic future.” Readers pushed back, calling attention to the plight of small-scale farmers.

I was quite startled by Chrystia Freeland’s article, which seemed to imply that family farmers are fat cats now, doing great in the current economy. Why does this seem like news? Because it isn’t true.

Ms. Freeland’s family is in the top 10 percent of farm households, those with farm incomes of more than $250,000. She correctly noted that this group accounts for 79 percent of production, but neglected to mention what a small proportion of farm households they represent. It turns out that 30 percent of farm households have incomes of $10,000 to $250,000 and represent 18 percent of production, while 60 percent of farm households have incomes of $10,000 or less and represent less than 2 percent of production. This last group is losing money on farming. That is to say, most of our farm households are in trouble, just as we suspected.

Jo Gent
Brookline, Mass.

One might well have called the article “The Triumph Over the Family Farm.” There no longer needs to be any family—indeed, the author is now barred from helping her father out because of her lack of technical prowess. There need not be many people of any sort, apparently, just genetically modified seeds and $500,000 supertractors.

John A. Murdock
Falls Church, Va.

Chrystia Freeland’s well-written and revealing article out­lining the state of the contemporary large farm seems to lack any awareness of what this evolution has wrought for people beyond the owners of big farms. To wit: It was achieved in the context of global free markets that have put many farmers and families out of work, as industries move overseas; it was achieved with tremendous losses of topsoil, notwithstanding any progression into “no till” cultivation; it was achieved by giving massive taxpayer subsidies to large farms, keeping them operating even in bad economic times. It is now being achieved by using massive inputs of herbicides, insecticides, and other chemicals that contaminate the land and our food. Freeland lives in a rosy world of optimism where her family, among others, profits and achieves a high standard of living for themselves—at the expense of others hurt by the recession.

William Frank Laraway
Silverhill, Ala.

Chrystia Freeland replies:

Jo Gent, John Murdock, and William Laraway are all troubled by the fact that the thriving family farmers whose businesses I describe are a minority. Gent and Laraway point out that big, profitable family farms account for most of the production but represent a minority of family farms. Murdock shares my sadness at being barred from the cabs of my father’s three combines (please do lobby him on my behalf!).

My correspondents are right to point out that farming, like the rest of the economy, is subject to a winner-take-all competition in which a few successful producers are crowding out everyone else. This broader theme happens to be a subject dear to my heart—I wrote a cover story for The Atlantic on this issue (“The Rise of the New Global Elite,” January/February 2011), and Penguin is publishing Plutocrats, my book on the phenomenon, this month.

In writing about the triumph of family farmers like my father (of whom, I admit, I am enormously proud), I was seeking to draw attention to two other, less well-known, facts. The first is that the luckiest family farmers have managed to turn their ancestral homesteads into thriving, modern businesses. Farmers like my dad—who drives and repairs and curses and loves the magnificent, $500,000 machines that cultivate his fields—account for the bulk of agri­cultural production. That is a pattern quite different from what occurs in many other sectors of the economy, a pattern at odds with the corporate “agri­business” stereotype I encounter among most city dwellers.

I am even more passionate about my second point—the way agricultural communities navigated the fraught transition from employing almost everyone to employing nearly no one. This story of a collective realization about the coming impact of technological change, and a collective investment in the tools that the rising generation would need in order to cope with it, is one that America needs to relearn.

A final note on subsidies, an issue raised by Laraway. I agree with him that given the economics of farming today, subsidies are unnecessary. Perhaps one reason the image of the struggling family farmer is so enduring is that farmers understand that if more urbanites realized you can make a very good living in agriculture, those subsidies would be harder to justify.

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