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Feminism Reborn Previous Next
Digital History ID 3341


Women in 1960 played a limited role in American government. Although women comprised about half of the nation's voters, there were no female Supreme Court justices, federal appeals court justices, governors, cabinet officers, or ambassadors. Only 2 out of 100 U.S. senators and 15 out of 435 representatives were women. Of the 307 federal district judges, 2 were women. Of the 7,700 members of state legislatures, 234 were women. Nor were these figures atypical. Only two American women had ever been elected governor, only two had ever served in a president's cabinet, and only six had ever served as ambassador.

Economically, women workers were concentrated in low-paying service and factory jobs. The overwhelming majority worked as secretaries, waitresses, beauticians, teachers, nurses, and librarians. Only 3.5 percent of the nation's lawyers were women, 10 percent of the nation's scientists, and less than 2 percent of the nation's leading business executives.

Lower pay for women doing the same work as men was commonplace. One out of every three companies had separate pay scales for male and female workers. A female bank teller typically made $15 a week less than a man with the same amount of experience, and a female laundry worker made 49 cents an hour less than her male counterpart. Altogether, the earnings of women working full-time averaged only about 60 percent of those of men.

In many parts of the country, the law discriminated against women. In three states--Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina--women could not sit on juries. Many states restricted married women's right to make contracts, sell property, engage in business, control their own earnings, and make wills. Six states gave fathers preference in the custody of young children after a divorce. In practically every state, men had a legal right to have intercourse with their wives and to administer an unspecified amount of physical punishment.

Women were often portrayed in the mass media in an unrealistic and stereotyped way. Popular magazines, like Reader's Digest, and popular television shows like "I Love Lucy" often depicted women as stupid or foolish, jealous of other women, irresponsible about money, and overly anxious to marry.

In December 1961, President John F. Kennedy placed the issue of women's rights on the national political agenda. Eager to fulfill a debt to women voters--he had not named a single woman to a policymaking position--Kennedy established a President's Commission on the Status of Women, the first presidential panel ever to examine the status of American women. Chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the commission issued its report in 1963, the year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. The report's recommendations included a call for an end to all legal restrictions on married women's right to own property, to enter into business, and to make contracts; equal opportunity in employment; and greater availability of child-care services.

The most important reform to grow out of the commission's investigations was the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which required equal pay for men and women who performed the same jobs under equal conditions. The Equal Pay Act was the first federal law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender.

The next year, Congress enacted a new weapon in the fight against sex discrimination. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in hiring or promotion based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex by private employers and unions. As originally proposed, the bill only outlawed racial discrimination; but in a futile effort to block the measure, Representative Howard Smith of Virginia amended the bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Some liberals opposed the amendment on the grounds that it diverted attention from racial discrimination. But it passed in the House of Representatives, 168 votes to 133 votes. "We made it! God Bless America!" shouted a female voice from the House gallery when the amendment passed.

The Civil Rights Act made it illegal for employers to discriminate against women in hiring and promotion unless the employer could show that sex was a "bona fide occupational qualification" (for example, hiring a man as an attendant for a men's restroom). To investigate complaints of employment discrimination, the act set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

At first, the EEOC focused its enforcement efforts on racial discrimination and largely ignored sex discrimination. To pressure the EEOC to enforce the law prohibiting sex discrimination, Betty Friedan and 300 other women formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, with Friedan as president. The organization pledged "to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men." NOW filed suit against the EEOC "to force it to comply with its own government rules." It also sued the country's 1,300 largest corporations for sex discrimination, lobbied President Johnson to issue an executive order that would include women within federal affirmative action requirements, and challenged airline policies that required stewardesses to retire after they married or reached the age of 32.

At its second national conference in November 1967, NOW drew up an eight-point bill of rights for women. It called for adoption of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, prohibiting sex discrimination; equal educational, job training, and housing opportunities for women; and repeal of laws limiting access to contraceptive devices and abortion.

Two proposals produced fierce dissension within the new organization. One source of disagreement was the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment consisted of two dozen words: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." It had originally been proposed in 1923 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention and was submitted to Congress at almost every session. For over 40 years, professional women who favored the amendment battled with organized labor and the Women's Bureau of the Labor Department, which opposed the amendment on the grounds that it endangered "protective" legislation that set minimum wages and maximum hours for less-skilled women workers.

The other issue that generated controversy was the call for reform of abortion laws. In 1967, only one state (Colorado) had reformed 19th-century legal statutes that made abortion a criminal offense. Dissenters believed that NOW should avoid controversial issues that would divert attention away from economic discrimination.

Despite internal disagreements, NOW's membership grew rapidly, reaching 40,000 by 1974 and 175,000 by 1988. The group broadened its attention to include such issues as the plight of poor and nonwhite women, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, the role of women in sports, and the rights of lesbians. At the same time, the organization claimed a number of achievements. Two victories were particularly important. In 1967, NOW persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to issue Executive Order 11375, which prohibited government contractors from discriminating on the basis of sex and required them to adopt "affirmative action" to ensure that women are properly represented in their work force. The next year, the EEOC ruled that separate want ads for men and women were a violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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