A Forty-Year Search for Equality
By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, June 26, 2004; Page A23
BOSTON -- And now for a small story from the Latter-Day Annals of Working Womanhood.
Fresh out of college in 1963, I got my first job at Newsweek magazine. In those days, women were hired as researchers and men were hired as writers . . . and that was that.
It was, as we used to say, a good job for a woman. If we groused about working for the men we studied with in college, we did it privately. It was the way things were.
I don't share my garden-variety piece of personal history as a lament or gripe. Woe isn't me. Nor am I one to regale the younger generation with memories of the bad old days when I walked four miles in the snow to school. They already know that women were treated as second-class citizens.
But what they don't know, I have found, is that this was legal.
It was legal to have segregated ads that read "male wanted" and "female wanted." It was legal to fire a flight attendant if she got married. It was legal to get rid of a teacher when she became pregnant.
If a boss paid a woman less because she was a woman, he was unapologetic. If he didn't want to hire a woman for a "man's job," he just didn't.
We sometimes forget that the lives of men and women didn't just passively evolve. But on July 2 we'll celebrate the 40th anniversary of a powerful engine of this social change, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
One unexpected word was tucked into Title VII of that landmark legislation banning racial segregation and discrimination: sex.
Legend has it that Rep. Howard W. Smith, a Virginian and head of the House Rules Committee, introduced sex as a joke. He was trying to ridicule the idea that you could legislate social behavior.
But the segregationist was just half of an odd couple. The other half were feminists. The National Women's Party had been trying to get such a law long before they brought it to Smith. After he introduced the sex discrimination amendment to ripples of laughter, Rep. Martha Griffiths of Michigan, one of only nine women in Congress, argued for it fiercely.
Omitting sex, she said, would protect only African American males from discrimination. And if blacks were protected, the only unprotected class left would be white women.
When President Johnson signed the bill, it became illegal for the first time to discriminate in employment on the grounds of sex. What had seemed to many a "natural" way of treating men and women differently because of their roles in the family and society became what the courts now call "invidious."
"This is the act that put meaning into the word discrimination," says historian Alice Kessler-Harris, who remembers when she was forced to sign a paper promising to tell her employer if she became pregnant. "Title VII legitimized a women's search for equality in the workforce."
This 40-year "search" has seen enormous success stories. In the first Title VII case, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to refuse to hire a woman because she had small children. Under pressure, newspapers stopped segregating their employment pages. Women tiptoed into some "male jobs" and took hold in others.
Today's working women sometimes wonder whether we've won the booby prize -- the right to be treated like men. We haven't yet figured out the next phase, how to get support for family and work.
But there are still plenty of reminders that the bad old days are not so old. They may be alive and well and living in your workplace.
Just last Tuesday a federal court allowed a class-action suit on behalf of 1.6 million women employees of Wal-Mart. The plaintiffs' statistics and anecdotes could fill a volume in another generation's Annals of Working Womanhood.
When a single mother discovered that her male counterpart made $23,000 more, her Wal-Mart boss replied, "he has a wife and two children to support." When a woman wanted to sell hardware, she was sent to sell baby clothes. And another woman looking for a promotion confronted a store manager who said, "Men are here to make a career and women aren't."
"What we see with Wal-Mart and other cases," says Marcia Greenberg of the National Women's Law Center, "is an everyday struggle to make sure the promise of the law really becomes a reality."
When the old feminists lobbied the old segregationist to include sex, Smith said mischievously and maybe maliciously, "I don't think it can do any harm . . . maybe it can do some good."
He was joking. But they were left smiling.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company