Fifty Years Ago a Southern Segregationist Made Sure the Civil Rights Act Would Protect Women. Thanks!

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Feb. 7 2014 12:54 PM

The Accidental Feminist

Fifty years ago a Southern segregationist made sure the Civil Rights Act would protect women. No joke.

Rep. Howard W. Smith, Democrat from Virginia (Congress in 1964).
Rep. Howard W. Smith, D-Va., was happier to protect women than black men.

Courtesy U.S. Congress

Fifty years ago this week, on Feb. 8, 1964, Rep. Howard W. Smith, a segregationist Democrat from Virginia, stood on the floor of the House to propose an amendment to the Civil Rights Act. Title VII of the bill, which the chamber had been debating for a week, was written to ban employment discrimination because of race, color, religion, and national origin. To the list, Smith added one more category: sex.

The House, which counted just a handful of female members, erupted in laughter. “I am serious,” Smith drawled. “It is indisputable fact that all throughout industry women are discriminated against.”

In that moment Smith helped catalyze the modern feminist movement—even though, or perhaps because, his motives were hardly feminist. Smith’s mischievous intervention has long been told as an amusing footnote, and opponents of expanded women’s rights, especially early on, used it to stymie efforts to expand gender equality in the workplace. But the story deserves more attention, because beneath its surface lie the sort of ironic complexities that often define our political history. The tale of Smith’s amendment is really about the circuitous and unpredictable ways that legislators and activists combine to push society forward.

Advertisement

Smith had previously tried all sorts of tricks to block Title VII from becoming law as the chairman of the Rules Committee, which approves legislation before it gets to the House floor. Adding sex to the bill, he figured, could undermine Title VII by forcing the government to spend time and resources cracking down on discrimination based on gender, and not just race. At the very least, he hoped to cause mayhem among the liberal supporters of the bill, many of whom had an easier time imagining racial equality than gender equality.

Still, the amendment passed, and when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, it became illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sex. It was a moment when women’s rights activists were finally making other gains—most notably with the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which mandated the same wages for the same work and which John Kennedy signed. When Title VII of the proposed act was added a few months later, the activists saw a chance for an even bigger gain. Adding one word—“sex”—to the list of protected classes could revolutionize the workplace. The problem was, no one wanted to introduce the amendment: Even the groups’ allies were afraid it would scare off tentative conservative supporters of the Civil Rights Act, who might support a bill to help minorities, but not women. So the women turned to Smith.

The racism of Howard W. Smith—“Judge” to his colleagues—was well-known: As the head of the Rules Committee, he had let dozens of civil rights bills wither and die. Less well-known was his quiet support for women’s rights. A longtime friend of Alice Paul, co-founder of the National Woman’s Party, Smith had been a regular sponsor of equal rights amendment bills since 1945. So when the women’s groups asked him to introduce the Title VII amendment, he said yes.

Smith first gave notice during the Rules Committee hearings in early January 1964. “I have just received a letter this morning, which I was going to bring to your attention later, from the National Women’s [sic] Party,” he said to Rep. Emanuel Celler of New York, who was testifying as one of the bill’s sponsors. “They want to know why you did not include sex in this bill. Why did you not?”

Never one to pass up a chance at shtick, Celler played along. “It reminds me of the Frenchman who was going up the Empire State Building in New York. Somebody said, ‘How do you like it?’ He said, ‘Well it reminds me of sex.’ ‘Reminds you of sex? Why is that?’ The answer was, “Everything reminds me of sex.’ ”

Smith didn’t laugh. “I have not found out yet why you did not put sex in,” he continued a few minutes later. “I think I will offer an amendment.”

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Naomi Klein Is Wrong

Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.

The Strange History of Wives Gazing at Their Husbands in Political Ads

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 12:42 PM How to Save Broken Mayonnaise
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.