Secret History of Women's Rights

Secret History of Women’s Rights

I was a teenage newcomer to Atlanta in the 1960s and very committed to the struggle of Negroes – as some whites called them in polite company –  for equal rights. At least intellectually I was, but my typically Southern white family wouldn’t think of letting me actually go to a demonstration. They didn’t even want those people sharing a lunch counter with them and they didn’t understand where I had gotten my “radical” ideas.

So when the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, I missed the part that gave women the same protection against discrimination in employment that it gave African Americans.


Yes, you read that right.

It wasn’t part of the original bill. It was intended by staunch segregationist Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia as a “poison pill,” to make it so unpalatable to some House members that it would be rejected.

There are variations on the story of how it happened, but the basic tale is this:

Smith introduced his amendment adding women in a joking manner, hoping to trivialize the bill and turn legislators against it. Then several women representatives rose to silence the laughter and advocate seriously for the amendment. In the end, Smith’s strategy backfired and the bill passed.

Even though Smith was a segregationist, he was a long-time supporter of women’s rights, so it would not have been out of character for him to be earnest in his desire to gain justice for women in the workplace.

Even though he used the amendment as a joke, it didn’t start out that way. After the passage in 1963 of the Equal Pay Act (another interesting fact: We’ve actually had a law mandating the same pay for the same work since 1963!) women’s groups were looking for someone to add sex to the list of protected classes in the workplace. No one would do it. But Smith was a long-time friend of feminist Alice Paul, and he had been a sponsor of equal rights amendment bills since 1945 (many people don’t know that the ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923), so he agreed.

No one knows if he did it because he thought it would put an end to the civil rights bill or out of his desire to help women; but whichever it was, it kick-started a revolution for women’s rights. People are complex creatures, neither all good nor all bad, and sometimes they do positive things for negative reasons.

We can appreciate what his action that day did for women without liking the other things he stood for. We can pay his favor forward by making sure we treat all people with equal dignity and respect, and work to make sure we continue to fight the attitudes of the times in which he lived.

(The Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2, 1964.)