""Nature intended women to be our slaves. They are our property. What a mad idea to demand equality for women."--Napoleon Bonaparte (1)
"Sometimes the best man for the job isn't."--Unknown (2)
"There is hereby established the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity." With those words in Section 101 of Executive Order 10925 in 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the forerunner to the modern Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In a phrase, often repeated since then, the order declared that employers must treat employees and prospective employees "without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." At that time, the order only applied to government contractors.
Executive Order 10925 did not include "sex" in its protections. Two years later, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, also signed by Kennedy, was the first piece of legislation to specifically target sex discrimination, though it only covered wage disparities. Any company that wished to elude the strict liability imposed by the Equal Pay Act could simply refuse to hire or promote women, and later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the more famous Civil Rights Act in 1964. This combined the strict liability imposition of the Equal Pay Act with a blanket ban on discriminatory treatment in any portion of the employee life cycle. And unlike Executive Order 10925, the Civil Rights Act applied to all businesses, public or private.
Still, just two days before passage, there was no mention of discrimination based on sex, and it's questionable whether Johnson intended to extend protections against sex-based discrimination at all. The amendment adding sex to the list of protected classes in the bill was added by Congressman Howard Smith, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act itself. While Smith believed it would "do some good for the minority sex," (3) later comments would indicate he was more concerned about black women having an advantage in the hiring process over white women. Other historians have suggested it was a last-ditch effort to defeat the bill entirely. For all the sweeping rhetoric of Kennedy's "New Frontier" and Johnson's "Great Society," women would only gain protection from inequitable treatment in the workplace because of the political calculus of an avowed segregationist. Out of that somewhat inglorious start, the era of equal opportunity for women was born. (4)
The stroke of a pen in Washington obviously did not end all workplace discrimination against women. Title VII of the EEOC can only levy fines; they do not have the ability to compel organizations to otherwise comply with the law. The EEOC's mandate is only to make an individual victim financially whole, as if the discrimination never occurred. Numerous legal battles have been fought to determine the "true" definition of workplace discrimination. Over the years, lawyers have argued that "sex" in the Civil Rights Act does not apply to discrimination against men (it does). Some claimed that...