As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act this year, EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic, who spoke in Boise yesterday at the Andrus Center Conference on Women and Leadership, noted a bit of the act’s history that’s largely overlooked today – but that transformed American workplaces.
The act, as originally proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and then by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, was all about race. Congress had passed the Equal Pay Act a year earlier, and many felt they’d dealt with gender discrimination by doing that and needed take no further action in that area. “No one was contemplating that there would be a provision added into the law that would protect women from discrimination in the workplace,” Lipnic said. Then, as the bill worked its way through Congress, a Democratic congressman from Virginia, Howard Smith, who was an avowed segregationist, added the amendment to the law. “There was no legislative history, no committee reports, nothing. This was on the floor of the House,” Lipnic said.
Smith’s move was widely viewed as an attempt at a “poison pill” – a provision so onerous that it would cause the whole bill to fail; he later voted against the bill. But of the 12 women then serving in the House, 11 “rose up to support it,” Lipnic said. “That sisterhood in the House of Representatives then carried the debate.” It passed, 168-133.
When the bill moved on to the Senate, prominent GOP Sen. Everett Dirksen planned to propose an amendment to strip out the sex-discrimination provision. Only two women then served in the Senate; one was Republican Margaret Chase Smith from Maine. She went to a meeting of the Republican caucus, and, the only woman in the room, made such a powerful case that Dirksen decided not to introduce his amendment.
“When that provision was added in to the civil rights bill, it transformed the Civil Rights Act to not leave out half of the population, and it revolutionized the workplace,” Lipnic said. “This conference would not be happening today but for the actions of those women in 1964.”