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.

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Major Case at New York Times

One such woman was Betsy Wade, a copy editor at The New York Times who became the lead plaintiff in a 1974 sex-discrimination class action on behalf of 545 female employees.

The paper's management seemed oblivious to bias, even though it paid women thousands of dollars less than men in the same positions, had no women working as political columnists and only five women among the 35 journalists in the Washington bureau. The executive editor explained that the paper had a "Hers" column to show the female perspective, said Rabb. "When asked whether the Times had any column written by men to represent the male perception, he answered: 'No. We didn't think it was necessary because so many of our reporters are men.'" Before trial, the paper settled and agreed to new hiring goals and back pay for female employees.

Ginsburg, in particular, took a chisel to sex discrimination embedded in the state and federal laws by brandishing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In 1971, Ginsburg argued the case of Reed v. Reed to the nine male justices of the Supreme Court.

The case involved former spouses Sally Reed and Cecil Reed in Idaho, who both applied to be the executor of the estate of their deceased son. The lower court appointed Cecil because the Idaho law said point-blank that males took preference over females as executors. Ginsburg won a 9-0 decision from the high court, overturning the law as discriminatory and marking the first time that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment was successfully applied to women in the 103 years since its adoption. "It was the turning-point gender-discrimination case in the Supreme Court," Ginsburg said.

More cases began to make inroads into sex discrimination, too, with dissension from some feminist quarters about Ginsburg's frequent strategy of using nontraditional men as plaintiffs to contest gender stereotyping, noted Columbia law professor Katherine Franke, co-director of the school's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, which hosted last month's symposium.

Others, said Franke, saw Ginsburg's approach as deeply radical. In one case, for example, she argued on behalf of a single man who cared for his elderly mother, but was denied a dependency exemption by the IRS because of his sex. Ginsburg, who faced sex discrimination herself as a young lawyer, noted that it would be a "questionable description" to say that she "championed men's rights."


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Cynthia L. Cooper is a journalist and author in New York. A former practicing lawyer, she writes frequently about human rights and justice. She is the co-author with Elizabeth Holtzman of the recently-released book, "Cheating Justice: How Bush and Cheney Attacked the Rule of Law, Plotted to Avoid Prosecution – and What We Can Do About It" (Beacon Press).

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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."