How Sex Slipped into the Civil Rights Act

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED August 31, 2010
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You might naturally associate the 1964 Civil Rights Act with race, since the crux of the bill dealt with racial equality. But as many of us know, the legislation also bars employers from discriminating based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” However, ‘sex’ might have been left out in the cold were it not for — ironically — an anti-civil rights representative from Virginia and leader of the Congress’ Conservative Coalition (via Encyclopedia Virginia).

Stuff Mom Never Told You listener Emily alerted Molly and me to an article from the National Archives explaining how Rep. Howard Smith slipped “sex” into the bill’s verbiage in an attempt to kill it. According to the National Archives, Howard thought that pulling gender discrimination into the conversation was such a ridiculous notion that surely other House members wouldn’t want to pass such a farce.

Following the JFK’s assassination in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson pushed heavily for passage of civil rights legislation to honor his predecessor. As the bill gained traction, Howard’s sneaky ‘sex’ stuck around in the language. Even after its passage, some representatives wanted it removed, but Rep. Martha Griffiths and Sen. Margaret Chase Smith wouldn’t have it, so ‘sex’ stayed.

Aside from creating legal protection against sex discrimination in the workplace, that three-letter word is also responsible for women-friendly maternity leave programs as well. Although the Family and Medical Leave Act didn’t roll through the Capitol until 1993, many offices already had maternity policies thanks to the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Actually, make that thanks to Rep. Howard, the unintentional feminist.

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