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The Working Woman's Revolution of 1964

In honor of Women's History Month, here is a special excerpt from Gillian Thomas' Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women's Lives at Work. 

By
Gillian Thomas
because of sex module

Today most American working women would probably be surprised to know that they have an unrepentantly racist, male octogenarian to thank for outlawing sex bias on the job. Although historians continue to debate Howard Smith’s motives, the law best known as a monumental achievement for African Americans’ civil rights was a milestone in the struggle for sex equality too. Title VII started a revolution for women.

In the Mad Men world of 1964, fewer than half of American women were in the paid labor force, making up just one-third of workers. Most working women were concentrated in a few, low-paying jobs, such as secretary, waitress, and teacher—no surprise, given that job advertisements were divided into “Help Wanted—Female” and “Help Wanted—Male.” Male bosses’ and coworkers’ leers, touches, and propositions were as much part of the air working women breathed as cigarette smoke. Getting pregnant—and for some, even getting married—meant getting a pink slip.

Today, that “Jane Crow” system no longer exists. Sixty percent of all women work outside the home, making up close to half of all American workers, and 70 percent of mothers work outside the home. Women populate the highest ranks of politics, business, medicine, law, journalism, and academia, to name only a few. A third of the justices on the Supreme Court are women, and a woman president is inevitable, possibly imminent. The ubiquitous sexual conduct previously understood to be “just the way things are” now has a name: sexual harassment. Women routinely work until late in their pregnancies, and most return to work after having their babies.

Most working women were concentrated in a few, low-paying jobs, such as secretary, waitress, and teacher—no surprise, given that job advertisements were divided into 'Help Wanted—Female” and “Help Wanted—Male.'

We never would have gotten from there to here without Title VII. But the law’s enactment in 1964 was just the beginning. What happened next is where this book begins.

Women began stepping forward to use Title VII to get justice at work. The first women who sued under Title VII didn’t always get a friendly hearing; in 1964, out of 422 federal judges in the nation, a paltry 3 were women. And because Title VII’s sex provision was added so late, there wasn’t the usual history of congressional hearings and committee reports to define what discrimination “because of sex” even meant.

But with each favorable decision issued by each court, the contours of that definition began to emerge. A small fraction of these cases were propelled all the way to the Supreme Court, whose interpretation of Title VII then bound all of the nation’s judges.

Most of the women whose legal battles made it to this rare pinnacle aren’t well known: Ida Phillips, Brenda Mieth, Kim Rawlinson, the women of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Mechelle Vinson, Lillian Garland, Ann Hopkins, the women of battery maker Johnson Controls, Teresa Harris, Sheila White, and Peggy Young. Most were middle or working class, and most fought their cases alone for years, save for their dedicated attorneys and some supportive family and friends. None filed her lawsuit intending to end up before the nine justices. They all just wanted to work.

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