Litigating sex discrimination cases in the 1970s.

Author:Rabb, Harriet S.
Position:Symposium Honoring the Advocacy, Scholarship, and Jurisprudence of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (1) made it unlawful for an employer to hire or fire an employee or to discriminate by classifying, compensating, or denying opportunity to an employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Sex as a protected category was an afterthought. The bill was opposed by many in Congress, among them a Virginia representative who caused the bill to be amended to add sex--perhaps expecting that the protection of women-workers would result in killing the bill. Another Congressman proposed that a woman should not be permitted to claim sex discrimination unless she filed a sworn statement that her spouse was unemployed. Those maneuvers failed, and the Act passed. It went into effect on July 1, 1965.

Though Title VII promised women equality of employment opportunity, even many supporters of women's rights were committed to protecting women as workers while preserving their traditional roles as wives and mothers. I recommend to you the scholarship of Cary Franklin for a wonderful and illuminating look back at these times. (2)

At the initiative of Columbia Law Professor George Cooper, in the fall of 1971, Columbia opened the Employment Rights Project, a clinical course offering, "staffed," as it were, by our students, with George and me, newly hired, as its instructors. One of the students in our early semesters--Howard Rubin--after graduation, joined me as an instructor, and George returned to classroom teaching.

In those early days, cases were made largely by looking at the defendant employer's job structure and finding blatant segregation and resulting salary discrimination. Two of the Clinic's earliest cases--against Newsweek magazine and the New York Telephone Company--succeeded largely on that foundation. The Newsweek women were pioneers who filed their first complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1970. Those working on Newsweek's editorial side were all too personally familiar with the widely-known truth that, at a national news magazine, a man behind a typewriter was a "Writer," while a woman behind a typewriter was a "Researcher." Though Newsweek signed a Memorandum of Understanding with its women employees, little in the workplace changed. Disappointed by management's broken promises to desegregate the magazine's jobs, in May-June 1972, fifty Newsweek women filed charges at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the New York State Division of Human...

To continue reading