I had always heard that the adding of the “because of sex” language in Title VII was intended as a joke. Turns out the story is more complicated than that. Representative Howard Smith (D-Virginia) was a segregationist with longstanding ties to the National Woman’s Party.
In short article over at Slate.com, The Real Story Behind “Because of Sex,” Rebecca Onion provides some historical context to complicate the claim that the addition to the statute was a fortuitous accident or joke. Onion interviews Christina Wolbrecht (Political Science, Notre Dame) for details. Here is an excerpt from that interview.
Why do you think the story of the amendment gets told the way it does—why does the addition of those words get characterized as something almost random, a chance of history, instead of the product of advocates’ work?
Honestly, that interpretation comes from evidence from the time period. An example would be that the actual first director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—which was convened to enforce that part of the law—called the provision “a fluke conceived out of wedlock.” Something that wasn’t supposed to be there.
And also, it’s a great story. Right? It’s one of those stories that persist. The idea that these segregationists were trying to kill something, and instead the one addition has been enormous for women. Sexual harassment law is almost entirely based on it. And now it’s opened up protections for LGBTQ people, as well.
But I think the more interesting story is the real story, which is more consistent with what we know about how politics works. Activists who cared about these issues worked on them, proposed them, lobbied for them, developed relationships, made public opinion shift, got people comfortable … they made it happen.
The full article is available here.