Our History

1970s Laws Are Today's Ammo for Women's Rights

Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's Women's History Month and a mighty time in this ongoing saga occurred not so long ago, during the 1970s. It all began at Newsweek Magazine, when the men got the bylines and women did the research.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--When women today grapple with gender inequity they often find themselves turning to a rich 10-year-period of modern history: the 1970s.

That decade, said Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney at today's Women's Rights Project of the ACLU, "gave us the tools for how we can continue uprooting the bias."

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the leading sex-discrimination litigators and strategists of the 1970s, says the culture was ripe for legal reforms. "There was a spirit that things were not right and they should be changed," Ginsburg told a symposium at Columbia Law School here in February.

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Ginsburg, hired as the first tenured woman law professor at Columbia Law School in 1972, simultaneously guided the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project, which she co-founded. In the 1970s she argued six pioneering sex discrimination cases before the then all-male U.S. Supreme Court, winning five.

By 1980--the same year that Ginsburg was named a federal judge by President Jimmy Carter--the legal landscape for women's rights and opportunities had changed for the better.

U.S. courts were charged with scrutinizing at a heightened level whether laws that relied upon sex classifications or sex stereotyping violated the constitution; women used Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to crack open jobs that were previously barred. New laws were passed, too: Title IX (of the Education Act) in 1972 required equal opportunity in educational settings, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 blocked discrimination, refusal to hire, dismissal or other negative employment sanctions based on pregnancy.

All these laws are still seeing active court duty.

The government, for instance, recently developed new Title IX guidelines to press colleges to establish tougher standards on campus sex assault and in November, three female workers at a North Carolina seafood factory received back pay in a settlement under Title VII and other laws of their claims that they were illegally restricted by gender to lower-paying jobs.

Newsweek Broke Ground

The era began in 1970 at the offices of Newsweek Magazine, where two categories of employees sat poised before typewriters. Men, who were writers. And women, who were researchers--not surprisingly, a lesser status and pay scale. This strict division began to break down only when 50 female employees, teamed with women's rights lawyers, challenged the sex-segregated jobs under Title VII.

Newsweek settled the claims in 1973 and agreed to new hiring standards.

Harriet S. Rabb, an attorney for female employees on the Newsweek case, now serves as vice president and general counsel of Rockefeller University in New York. She said that the magazine and other plaintiffs who stepped forward "opened those doors in the 1970s through which many fortunate and deserving women have followed."

The legal pushback against sex discrimination in the singular decade of 1970s was pivotal to realigning women's role in society. Hundreds of laws and hiring practices in the United States that had quashed women's full enjoyment of equal employment, credit, housing, education, public benefits and civic participation were challenged as discriminatory and cast aside.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act applied to all entities with 15 or more employees and gave women new possibilities for questioning employment bias.

"The bill was opposed by many in Congress, including the Virginia representative who caused it to be amended to add sex, perhaps expecting that the addition of women workers would result in killing the bill," said Rabb. She oversaw an employment rights clinic at Columbia Law School that opened in the 1970s and breathed life into the law by helping women pursue discrimination claims.

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This is to take issue with Ms. Cooper's title: "1970s Laws Are Today's Ammo for Women's Rights." Ms. Cooper apparently had an agenda requiring her to focus on the 1970s and has tried to conform the history of the second wave of the women's movement to that agenda. But the facts are otherwise.

In speeches I've been giving and articles I've been writing in the US and abroad since 1965, I have stated that I date the legal revolution in women's rights in the US to December 1961 when President Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women. That Commission issued its report in 1963 and made recommendations for improving women's status. On November 1, 1963, President Kennedy established the Interdepartmental Committee on theStatus of Women and the Citizens' Advisory Council on the Status of Women to facilitate carrying out the Commission's recommendations.

Also in 1963, Betty Friedan's groundbreaking book, "The Feminine Mystique" was published.

Also in 1963, the Equal Pay Act (nowhere mentioned in Ms. Cooper's article) was passed to become effective in 1964.

Then in 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to become effective in 1965, was enacted.

These laws, which are today's ammo for women's rights, all became effective in the 1960s, not the 1970s.

Ms. Cooper quotes attorney Harriet S. Rabb, with regard to the motivation of segregationist Virginia congressman, Howard W. Smith (whom Ms. Cooper does not name), who introduced the amendment that "sex" be among the prohibited bases of discrimination contained in Title VII even though he later voted against the bill. Ms. Cooper quotes Ms. Rabb as saying that perhaps he expected that the addition of women workers would result in killing the bill. As I've stated in speeches and articles with regard to Smith's motivation: "His motives . . . were apparently mixed. . . . He may have viewed the amendment as a tactic to delay or forestall the bill's passage. On the other hand, he may have favored the amendment beccause he didn't want African Americans getting rights at the expense of white women."