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The Most Important Women's Rights Legislation in History? To Some, It Was Just a Joke

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The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 was drafted for the purpose of eliminating racial discrimination in employment, but it was amended during the Congressional debate to prohibit discrimination against women as well. However, as N.Y. Times columnist Gail Collins points out in her brilliant new book, that amendment was added to the Bill by arch-segregationist Congressman Howard Smith from Virginia in a whimsical effort to make the whole thing unpalatable to his mostly-male colleagues in the House of Representatives. But to his surprise, the Civil Rights Act passed anyway. This was the most important single step on the road to equal rights for women in America, and it came about as the result of a joke.

Gail Collins spoke about her book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present on October 17, 2009 at the annual Authors Luncheon for the Kidney Foundation in San Francisco, which our store Book Passage helped organize. Since I had told the same bizarre story a few years ago in a book I had co-authored, Sexual Harassment on the Job: What it is and How to Stop it, Collins and I had a chance to compare notes. Yep, it was true. Congressman Smith, the powerful Chair of the Rules Committee, later confessed to his fellow Congresswomen Martha Griffiths, "Martha, I'll tell you the truth. I offered it as a joke."

As Smith had calculated, his amendment evoked hoots of laughter during the House debate. But he hadn't calculated on the determination of Griffiths and her small band of women House members. They managed to squeeze the Bill through with its surprising prohibition against sex discrimination.

But even after passage the prohibition against sex discrimination in employment was treated as a bit of a joke by the guys in charge. As Collins points out:

"Once the Civil Rights Act was on the books, it looked as if the section protecting women from job discrimination was going to do nothing but spawn endless jokes about the 'bunny law' that, wags predicted, would require the Playboy Club to give men equal opportunity to don puff tails and silk ears, and work as one of its scantily clad waitresses. . . . 'Bunny problems indeed!' giggled a New York Times editorial, which also raised the specter of male chorus-line dancers. The New Republic, a bastion of liberal commentary, said the sex provision should simply be ignored. 'Why should a mischievous joke perpetrated on the floor of the House of Representatives be treated by a responsible administrative body with this kind of seriousness?' the magazine asked."

But the law was the law. When President Jimmy Carter appointed Eleanor Holmes Norton head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1977, enforcement of the Civil Rights Act in sex discrimination cases finally began in earnest.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this? Maybe.

It's common wisdom among political scientists that any fundamental social change requires a change in public attitude before it can be enshrined into law. Don't rush too fast, experts advise. It's a mistake to get ahead of public opinion.

But the problem with that approach is that tomorrow sometimes never comes. The Equal Rights Amendment waited its turn for 30 years or so before dropping out of sight. The proponents of universal health care -- the ones who are still alive -- have been waiting since the Truman administration.

On the other hand, the Civil Rights Act's prohibition against sexual discrimination in employment was like a plum that dropped from a tree. After it happened, many determined women picked it up and began the hard work of enforcing that law. They eventually changed public attitudes towards women in the workplace and, in so doing, changed the face of America.

So maybe the moral is this: when you get a gift -- even as a joke -- grab it and run with it.