On February 8, 1964, an eighty-year-old segregationist congressman named Howard Smith stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives and changed the lives of America’s working women forever.
It was the eighth and last day of debate on a bill that would become the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Smith had a proposed amendment to Title VII, the section dealing with equal employment opportunity. The current draft already prohibited discrimination because of race, color, religion, and national origin, but Smith, a Democrat from Virginia, wanted to add one more category. The clerk read Smith’s proposal aloud. “After the word ‘religion’ insert ‘sex’ on pages 68, 69, 70 and 71 of the bill.”
Smith played his “little amendment” for laughs, claiming to have been inspired by a letter he had received from a female constituent. She asked the government to “protect our spinster friends,” who were suffering from a shortage of eligible bachelors. Over guffaws from his virtually all-male audience, Smith concluded, “I read that letter just to illustrate that women have some real grievances and some real rights to be protected. I am serious about this thing.” Emanuel Celler of New York, the bill’s floor manager in the House, joined in the fun. “I can say as a result of forty-nine years of experience—and I celebrate my fiftieth wedding anniversary next year—that women, indeed, are not in the minority in my house,” he said. “I usually have the last two words, and those words are, ‘Yes, dear.’”
Several of the House’s twelve women representatives rose to try to silence the laughter and advocate seriously for the amendment. Martha Griffiths, Democrat of Michigan, was the one who finally succeeded. “I presume that if there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second-class sex,” she said, “the laughter would have proved it.” Griffiths (who supported the bill) made a shrewd appeal to the Civil Rights Act’s opponents, mainly Southern Democrats like Smith. By then, it looked inevitable that the law they hated had enough votes to pass. So she warned that without the sex provision, Title VII would afford more rights to black women than to white women. “A vote against this amendment today by a white man is a vote against his wife, or his widow, or his daughter, or his sister.”
Civil rights for women were, literally, a joke.
The session eventually dubbed “Ladies Day in the House” had the hallmarks of an impromptu stunt by Smith to try to sink the Civil Rights Act. Civil rights for African Americans might have been palatable to many white legislators now that the horrors of Bull Connor and Birmingham had become national news, but civil rights for women were, literally, a joke.
Though it might have seemed incongruous for an avowed enemy of civil rights, Howard Smith had a long history of supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. Under pressure from the ERA’s supporters, he actually had been dropping hints for weeks that he intended to offer a “sex” amendment. (Most of the ERA’s supporters were white, and many kept alive a legacy of not-so-subtly racist activism dating back a century that decried expanded legal protections for African American men, such as the right to vote, that were denied to women.) As a friend to southern manufacturing interests, Smith also might have understood the human capital that would be freed up by a federal law nullifying widespread state law restrictions on women’s ability to work as many hours as men.
When Smith’s amendment was put to a vote a few hours later, it passed 168 to 133, with the most votes in favor cast by Republicans and Southern Democrats. From the gallery came a woman’s shout, “We’ve won! We’ve won!” and then another’s cry, “We made it! God bless America!” After the bill moved to the Senate for consideration, Smith’s amendment remained intact. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, among its provisions was a ban on discrimination in employment “because of sex.”