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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

For many year, individual litigants weren’t just doing battle with biased employers or indifferent judges. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency created by Title VII to enforce the statute, considered the sex amendment to be just as silly as Howard Smith’s audience had. When a reporter asked the EEOC’s first chair, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., “What about sex?” he answered, “Don’t get me started. I’m all for it,” while one of the agency’s first executive directors dismissed the sex provision as a “fluke” that was “conceived out of wedlock.” The hilarity of the notion that all jobs should be open to both sexes spawned a running joke, abetted by agency officials, that Title VII had created a “bunny problem”—as in requiring that hairy-legged men be hired as Playboy Bunnies. Similarly confounding scenarios, wrote The New York Times, included “the woman who applies for a job as an attendant at a Turkish bath, a man who wants to clerk in a woman’s corset shop, the woman who wants employment aboard a tug that has sleeping quarters only for men.”

Millions of women in this country labor in jobs that keep them in poverty, that endanger their health, that provide no retirement security or other benefits, that take no account of pregnancy or caregiving responsibilities or even the need to take an occasional sick day.

Despite the fact that women filed one-third of the discrimination charges in the first year after the EEOC opened its doors, the agency’s chauvinism made it slow to address the myriad questions those charges posed. Thanks largely to the efforts of a small but determined cadre of women staff attorneys, along with protests launched by the National Organization of Women—which was founded in 1966 by activists furious at the EEOC’s inattention to Title VII’s sex provision—the agency eventually started taking more aggressive positions. It issued opinions ruling that sex-segregated want ads violated the law, that airlines’ no-marriage policies for flight attendants unlawfully relegated them to the role of sex object, and that state “protective laws” limiting the weight women could lift or the hours they could work were preempted by Title VII and therefore null and void. When Title VII was amended in 1972 to give the EEOC power to bring litigation in its own name, those lawsuits became critical complements to the hundreds of individual cases already being litigated around the country.

The successes celebrated in this book are not meant to suggest that Title VII was or is a panacea for sex inequality at work. For one thing, the law does not even apply to employers with fewer than fifteen employees, which by one estimate leaves nearly one-fifth of the workforce, male and female, without the law’s protections.

Millions of women in this country labor in jobs that keep them in poverty, that endanger their health, that provide no retirement security or other benefits, that take no account of pregnancy or caregiving responsibilities or even the need to take an occasional sick day. Even for professional women, pregnancy and motherhood remain profoundly disruptive to career progression and spawn pernicious stereotypes about their commitment to their jobs. Sexual harassment remains pervasive, especially in male-dominated fields and the low-wage and tipped workforces; e-mail, texts, and social media have given harassers new and sometimes terrifying ways of conveying unwelcome attention. Pay inequality, even when controlling for education and experience, has stalled. White women have inched up to making 78 cents for every male dollar, while the numbers for women of color are, predictably, far worse. It’s still a curiosity to see a female construction worker or a female firefighter (or, for that matter, a male nurse or a male secretary). Women also are chronically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and the financial industries, and their numbers are also far too small in the top positions on the corporate ladder.

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