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.

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.

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).