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How Women Became Part of the Civil Rights Act

Making Sex Discrimination Part of Title VII

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Signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Is there any truth to the legend that women’s rights were included in the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an attempt to defeat the bill?

What Title VII Says

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful for an employer:

to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Now-Familiar List of Categories

The law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. However, the word “sex” was not added to Title VII until Rep. Howard Smith, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced it in a one-word amendment to the bill in the House of Representatives in February 1964.

Was Sex Discrimination Added in Good Faith?

Adding the word “sex” to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ensured that women would have a remedy to fight employment discrimination just as minorities would be able to fight racial discrimination. But Rep. Howard Smith had previously gone on the record as opposing any federal Civil Rights legislation. Did he actually intend for his amendment to pass and the final bill to succeed? Or was he adding women's rights to  the bill so that it would have less chance of success?

Opposition

Why would legislators who were in favor of racial equality suddenly vote against civil rights legislation if it also prohibited discrimination against women? One theory is that many Northern Democrats who supported a Civil Rights Act to combat racism were also allied with labor unions. Some labor unions had opposed including women in employment legislation.

Even some women’s groups had opposed including sex discrimination in the legislation. They feared losing labor laws that protected women, including pregnant women and women in poverty.

But did Rep. Smith think that his amendment would be defeated, or that his amendment would pass and then the bill would be defeated? If labor union-aligned Democrats wanted to defeat the addition of “sex,” would they rather defeat the amendment than vote against the bill?

Indications of Support

Rep. Howard Smith himself claimed that he genuinely offered the amendment in support of women, not as a joke or an attempt to kill the bill.  

Rarely does a congressperson act entirely alone. There are multiple parties behind the scenes even when one person introduces a piece of legislation or an amendment. The National Woman’s Party was behind the scenes of the sex discrimination amendment. In fact, the NWP had been lobbying to include sex discrimination in law and policy for years.

Also, Rep. Howard Smith had worked with longtime women’s rights activist Alice Paul, who had chaired the NWP. Meanwhile, the struggle for women's rights was not brand new. Support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) had been in the Democratic and Republican Party platforms for years.

Arguments Taken Seriously

Rep. Howard Smith also presented an argument about what would happen in the hypothetical scenario of a white woman and a black woman applying for a job. If the women encountered employer discrimination, would the black woman rely on the Civil Rights Act while the white woman had no recourse? 

His argument indicates that his support for including sex discrimination in the law was genuine, if for no other reason than to protect white women who would otherwise be left out.

Other Comments on the Record

The issue of sex discrimination in employment was not introduced out of nowhere. Congress had passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Furthermore, Rep. Howard Smith had previously stated his interest in including sex discrimination in civil rights legislation.

In 1956, the NWP supported including sex discrimination in the purview of the Civil Rights Commission. At that time, Rep. Smith said that if the civil rights legislation he opposed was inevitable, then he “certainly ought to try to do whatever good with it that we can.”  (For more information on Smith's comments and involvement, see Jo Freeman’s “How Sex Got Into Title VII.”) 

Many Southerners were opposed to legislation that forced integration, partly because they believed the federal government was unconstitutionally interfering with states’ rights. Rep. Smith may have adamantly opposed what he saw as federal interference, but he may have also genuinely wanted to make the best of that “interference” when it did become law.

The “Joke”

Although there were reports of laughter on the floor of the House of Representatives at the time Rep. Smith introduced his amendment, the amusement was most likely due to a letter in support of women’s rights that was read aloud. The letter presented statistics about the imbalance of men and women in the U.S. population and called for the government to attend to the “right” of unmarried women to find a husband.

End Results for Title VII and Sex Discrimination

Rep. Martha Griffiths of Michigan strongly supported keeping women’s rights in the bill. She led the fight to keep “sex” in the list of protected classes. The House voted twice on the amendment, passing it both times, and the Civil Rights Act was ultimately signed into law, with its ban on sex discrimination included.  

While historians continue to allude to Smith’s Title VII “sex” amendment as an attempt to defeat the bill, other scholars point out that presumably Congressional representatives have more productive ways to spend their time than inserting jokes into major pieces of revolutionary legislation.

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