Ethel Bent Walsh, 80, who served on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1971 to 1981, died of congestive heart disease May 22 at a nursing home in Alameda, Calif.
Mrs. Walsh, appointed by President Richard M. Nixon and reappointed by President Gerald R. Ford, was among those who helped clear up the backlog of nearly 130,000 discrimination complaints that had accumulated at the EEOC by 1976.
She opposed an effort to drop the individual complaint system in favor of prosecuting systemic discrimination. "Some of these people have waited since Eve left the garden to get a fair shake and you can't leave them with nothing," she told a Washington Post reporter in 1977.
She was the lead witness for the administration in the House and Senate during discussion of the Pregnancy Disability Act, which gave all women covered by health insurance the right to have pregnancy treated as a temporary physical disability. Mrs. Walsh twice served as acting chairman of the EEOC, the first woman to hold that position.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was EEOC chairman during the Carter administration, said she worked with Mrs. Walsh during a collegial era "when civil rights matters most often enjoyed bipartisan support. Ethel was a quintessential Republican, a women with a tough and quick mind, and a friend whose commitment to equal opportunity Americans of every background could always count upon."
Mrs. Walsh also created Executive Women in Government, a networking group, and served as its second president. After her EEOC terms expired, she served on a number of business and professional advisory boards.
Mrs. Walsh, who had lived in Washington during her EEOC tenure, retired to California five years ago.
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., she graduated from the Katharine Gibbs School in 1942. She worked in the aerosol industry and as plant manager of a New Jersey cosmetics manufacturer until she became director of the Office of Advisory Councils in the Small Business Association in 1969.
Her marriage to Robert Walsh ended in divorce.
Survivors include two children, Robert J. Walsh Jr. of Huntington, Conn., and Diane Broch of Alameda; a brother; six grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.