Segregation and Cum-Filled Boots: The Story of Women in the Civil Rights Act

"Most American women would probably be surprised to know that they have an unrepentantly racist, male octogenarian to thank for outlawing sex bias on the job," says Gillian Thomas, ACLU attorney and author of the new book "Because of Sex."

Mar 25 2016, 9:30pm

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act into law. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

In the 1960s, movements for social justice and civil rights secured historic legal protections for subjugated groups. Many of those victories are still significant today; for example, Title VII (one of the principal accomplishments of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) made discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex illegal over 50 years ago, yet it is still frequently utilized.

Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Women's Rights Project (WRP) and author of the recently acclaimed book Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women's Lives at Work, thinks that it is important for young women to know about the historical precedents that have been set which allow them legal protection for gender discrimination. This is why, in her book, Thomas chronicles court cases crucial to Title VII, and in doing so, illustrates the decision's enduring achievement.

Detailing these cases—a woman who was denied the right to work in a factory because she had small children, a pair of young women who fought together for their right to be employed as a state patroller and prison guard, respectively—humanizes those who were a part of the fight for equality. According to Thomas, the cases in her book (and the stories of the women behind them) are far more important than one might think. "[They're] why we now all have sexual harassment policies at work: Because one woman got a lawyer and her case ended up at the Supreme Court."

Gillian Thomas, Photo by Elena Seibert

The cases that Thomas illustrates are from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but, as an attorney, she works on comparable cases today. Until recently, she was employed by Legal Momentum in New York City (formerly the Legal Women's Defense and Education Fund) where she fought for the rights of women working in traditionally male dominated fields, such as firefighting and construction. "As you can imagine, those places are extremely hostile to women," Thomas said, adding that hostility towards women in these fields primarily manifests as more overt sexual harassment (and differs from the potentially more inconspicuous sexism women may face in office settings, for example).

She related several anecdotes from her time trying these contemporary cases, which encompass things like hardcore pornography being left out in the open, the name or picture of a female employee being placed beside obscene graffiti, and women being forced to endure sexual propositions and groping on the job: "A lot of the harassment takes on a primitive or animalistic nature," Thomas explained, adding that one of her client's tools was soaked in urine. "I heard from a lot of [female] firefighters who, going to put on their boots or their gloves, would find feces inside of them or semen inside of them," she said. All of this, Thomas told me, is a way for men to communicate that "women are not welcome here." Title VII allowed Thomas to make legal cases against this form of harassment, something that would not be possible had women not set the precedent decades ago.

However, while Title VII was an unprecedented achievement for women, "sex" was only added late in the bill's development, something for which we have America's enduring legacy of anti-Black racism to thank. Thomas writes in the opening of Because of Sex: "Today, most American women would probably be surprised to know that they have an unrepentantly racist, male octogenarian to thank for outlawing sex bias on the job." Title VII, which was about to be made into law, did not include protections for sex, which disturbed a "segregationist congressman" named Howard Smith. "[He] figured if it was going to pass he wanted women to be protected," Thomas said, adding he wanted to protect "white women specifically because black women, in theory, were protected by virtue of their race." So, because a racist congressman didn't want Black people to have more rights than white women, sex became part of Title VII's protections.

"Title VII is kind of the monster law from which all of our rights stem." Thomas said. "There's also the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act—those were modeled on Title VII." All of this history, however compelling, is scarcely known, she explains.

On Thursday night, Thomas discussed her book with senior editor at Slate and TV pundit Dahlia Lithwick, at the ACLU national headquarters in Manhattan. Former college roommates at Yale University, Thomas and Lithwick bounced off each other in front of a room of mostly women, summarizing Thomas' text. Lithwick, noting the gender disparity in the room, highlighted that "men are educable" and Thomas, showing off her deep, detailed understanding of how women's rights are fought for, sped through Title VII's history s with a slideshow, underscoring the significance of it all for women today.

"Yes, I use these laws when I litigate cases, but I also benefit from them when I sit in my office and attend meetings with male coworkers and know that I'm not going to be leered at," Thomas said. She realizes that many young women are not aware, or consciously grateful of, the work women of older generations have done to secure their rights today. Part of the problem is that the history itself is not immediately accessible, which is partially why she wrote Because of Sex. "My hostility comes in if there's willful blindness or lack of curiosity rather than just not being aware of it in the first place," Thomas said.