Their names are enshrined on legal cases that became law, and cited ever after as precedents. But the stories of the lead
plaintiffs who went to court and ended up making history got lost. Author Gillian Thomas wanted to find these women, recover their stories, and pay tribute to them. As she writes, “They achieved landmark legal victories that benefitted millions, despite usually having very little to show for it themselves in the end. … When they went to court, their predicaments presented questions that the law had barely begun to address. Forging ahead with a sex discrimination lawsuit where the odds of a favorable outcome were so uncertain, and where the culture was still so skeptical of working women, took a special brand of moxie.”
Thomas tells these ten stories in succinct, engrossing chapters in her book, because of sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, just issued in a paperback edition (Picador). She brings solid credentials to her task, having litigated sex discrimination cases for Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and now as Senior Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project.
These are the accounts of women working on factory assembly lines, as bank tellers and bank receptionists, forklift drivers, a state trooper — women working in factories, on the railroad, at United Parcel Service (UPS), who used the lever of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reconstruct the legal rights of women in the workplace. Today, we take for granted that women can work after becoming mothers; can return to their jobs after a maternity leave; have equal rights to a promotion; that job opportunities should be allotted without regard to gender; and that women should have the right to a safe workplace, without having to experience sexual harassment. These rights were secured for women because individuals faced discrimination on their jobs and called it by its rightful name—saw their inability to get hired, to advance, to provide for their families, as wrongful treatment, and then did something about it. With all of the organizing and feet in the street it took to bring about the change that brought us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, every new law requires that individuals will try to exercise those new-found rights — and when denied, stand up and speak out.
Thomas begins by recounting the sequence of events that led to women’s inclusion in the Civil Rights Act, when “[O]n February 8, 1964, an eighty-year old segregationist congressman named Howard Smith stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives and changed the lives of America’s working women forever. … Smith, a Democrat from Virginia, wanted to add one more category. ‘After the word religion, insert sex’ … Smith played his ‘little amendment’ for laughs … an impromptu stunt by Smith to try to sink the Civil Rights Act.” He failed. “When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, among its provisions was a ban on discrimination in employment ‘because of sex.’”
Another excellent history serves as a perfect companion volume: Equal: Women Reshape American Law (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009), by Fred Strebeigh, tells the story of women and the legal profession, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s generation — the few, the proud, the brave — to the women who entered law school after the doors opened wider. As late as 1967, men outnumbered women twenty to one in American law schools. Equal tells the story of what they found in the classrooms, in their workplaces, and in the law — and how they worked to imaginatively transform the legal landscape for all of us. A thrilling and essential account.