Women’s Rights: The Impact of Title VII on Gender Equality

Holding a letter in his hand, Howard Smith stands before the House of Representatives and prepares to address his colleagues. Beginning his argument, he starts with facts, reporting the number of women and men in America according to the 1960 Census. After making it clear that there are more women than men, he proceeds to read a citizen’s articulation of the “imbalance of spinsters” in America that restricts every woman’s right to “a husband of her own” (qtd. in Gold 458). The scribe characterizes this as a “grave injustice to womankind” and calls on Congress to “take immediate steps to correct” it (qtd. in Gold 458). As Smith finishes reading, the room fills with laughter.

This presentation occurred on February 8th, 1964 as the House of Representatives discussed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though Congress didn’t pass anything to protect my right to “a nice husband” that day (Gold 459), Howard Smith used this comical letter as an introduction for an amendment to Title VII. The Virginian representative suggested that sex be added to this section of the act in order “to prevent discrimination against another minority group, the women” (Cong. Rec.). After a more serious discussion of women’s rights occurred, during which five Congresswomen spoke in favor of inserting sex (Freeman 181), the amendment passed 168-133 in the House.

Title VII was perceived to be a large victory in women’s rights. It guaranteed “equal opportunities for Federal employees” regardless of sex and prohibited discrimination “with respect to [] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” on the basis of gender (HR 7152). However, the fight for gender equality was far from over. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, responsible for enforcing Title VII, viewed the ban on sex discrimination as a joke. Its director, Herman Edelsberg, told the public Smith’s amendment was a “fluke” that had been “conceived out of wedlock” (Rosenberg 1152). Of the four thousand claims of sex discrimination in the workplace filed from 1964 to 1966, the commission ruled against women workers in almost every case (Schomp 101).
While the situation looked grim after the bill passed, progress has been made in the fifty years since. The National Organization for Women has worked through courts and legislatures to get Title VII enforced and various women’s groups have used political mobilization to eradicate ideas of sexism (Schomp 103; Rosenberg 1153). But even with these positive changes, gender inequality remains both in and out of the workplace. For me, the difficulty in changing people’s mindsets and eliminating sexism has become evident through my participation in debate, an activity dominated by males. While women are permitted to participate, there are obstacles that I, and all other female debaters, must overcome that our male counterparts get a free pass from.

Speaker points, a measure of how well a debater articulates his or her arguments, is where this discrimination becomes most visible. My partner and I, a rare team composed of two females, have been given lower speaker points for a variety of gendered reasons. Judges have told us that our high-pitched voices are unpleasant to listen to and that our appearances don’t fit their idea of a “professional woman.” When my partner and I become competitive or take on an argumentative tone, qualities that are celebrated in male debaters, we are characterized as overly aggressive and rude.

Though speaker points are subjective, it is clear that some judges impose gender stereotypes in their measurements of my abilities as a debater. In debate, women deviate from some people’s traditional perception of a woman as a “submissive, nurturing, and friendly” person (Mazur 35). Because I and other females don’t fill this expected role, some judges feel it is necessary to give us lower speaker points. These sexist assumptions are the same reason some people believe women don’t belong in certain workforces, such as politics and business, and fail to treat women equitably.

Despite my experiences of unfairness in debate because of my gender, I recognize the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the positive changes it has brought to American society. Title VII has led to new job opportunities for women and gives them legal protection from sex discrimination, as they have a way to challenge their sexist employers and coworkers. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also created the precedent that the United States government will work towards gender equality and women’s rights. This commitment continues today, as President Obama recently announced his goal to achieve income equality for men and women.
Though I have a few years before I enter the workforce, I can thank the 88th Congress for legal protection from gender inequality. Its bill has helped eradicate the sexist mindset that was once rampant among Americans and has reduced sex discrimination in the workplace. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is monumental, creating the foundation for an equal society.

by Lisa R. Hsi

Works Cited

Cong. Rec. 8 Feb. 1964: 2577. Print.
Freeman, Jo. We Will Be Heard: Women's Struggles for Political Power in the United States.
     Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Print.
Gold, Michael E. "A Tale of Two Amendments: The Reasons Congress Added Sex to Title VII
     and Their Implication for the Issue of Comparable Worth." Duquesne Law Review 19.453
     (1981): 453-77. Print.
Mazur, Michelle A. "Women in Parliamentary Debate: An Examination of Women's
     Performance at the National Parliamentary Debate Association's National Tournament."
     National Parliamentary Debate Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.
Obama, Barack H. “State of the Union Address.” 2014 State of the Union. Capitol Building,
     Washington, D.C. 28 Jan. 2014. Address.
Rosenberg, Gerald. "The 1964 Civil Rights Act: The Crucial Role of Social Movements in the
     Enactment and Implementation of Anti-Discrimination Law." Saint Louis University Law
     Journal 49.1147 (2004): 1147-154. Print.
Schomp, Virginia. "The Second Wave." American Voices from the Women's Movement.
     Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2007. 100-04. Print.
United States. Cong. House of Representatives. 88th Congress, 2nd Session. The Civil Rights
     Act of 1964. [introduced in the U.S. House; 20 June 1963]. 88th Cong., 2nd sess.
     Congressional Bills. GPO Access. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.