Advancing Rights: 1964 Marks the Beginning of a New Era

Advancing Rights: 1964 Marks the Beginning of a New Era

By Sonia Pressman Fuentes

On August 26, we’ll be celebrating the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. It’s a good time to review what rights women have secured since August of 1920.

Actually, women secured no additional rights in the 44 years after suffrage was ratified. Then in 1964, the first federal law prohibiting gender discrimination became effective, the Equal Pay Act which required equal pay for equal or substantially equal work without regard to gender. In 1965, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became effective, prohibiting sex discrimination by employers, employment agencies and labor unions, as well as discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today enforces both federal statutes.

The EEOC issued a number of decisions which are part of the fabric of our lives today but were revolutionary then. Among its rulings, subsequently affirmed by the courts, were holdings that:
• All jobs, by and large, must be open to men and women alike;
• An employer cannot refuse to hire or promote a woman because of the preferences of her co-workers, clients or customers;
• Employers cannot use sex-segregated classified advertising columns in newspapers nor, for the most part, state a preference based on gender in ads;
• Employers cannot ask pre-employment inquiries of members of one gender unless they ask the same questions of the opposite gender;
• Men and women doing equal or substantially equal work are entitled to equality in pay and all other benefits, including sick leave, annual leave, pension and retirement benefits;
• A woman qualified to do a job cannot be refused employment or fired because she is married or pregnant;
• A woman is entitled to receive the same sick and personal leave and benefits during pregnancy, delivery and post-delivery as employees who request sick or personal leave and benefits for other comparable reasons;
• State protective legislation that restricted the weight that women could lift, the jobs they could perform and the hours they could work was superseded by Title VII;
• State protective legislation that provided benefits for women, such as benches and rest periods, could be harmonized with Title VII by providing the same benefits to men;
• Sexual harassment on the job was prohibited.

In addition, other laws came into effect that expanded opportunities for women.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act which first became effective in 1993, employees are entitled to 12 weeks of job-protected leave each year in connection with the birth or adoption of a child; the serious illness of a child, spouse or parent; or the inability of an employee to work because of a serious health condition.

Executive orders required federal government contractors and subcontractors to take affirmative action to hire and promote women or risk the loss of government contracts.
Discrimination based on sex or marital status in the sale and rental of housing and the granting of credit was prohibited.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, educational institutions that receive federal funds were prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex against students and employees. This includes the requirement for equality in school athletic programs and the prohibition of sexual harassment of students by other students or by faculty and staff.

The effects of these changes spilled over to every area of our society. Laws changed women’s rights with regard to abortion, divorce, alimony, child custody, child support, rape, jury service, sentencing for crimes, appointments as administrators and executors of estates, and admission to places of public accommodation, such as clubs, restaurants and bars.

The courts played a significant role in this legal revolution, too. They affirmed the decisions of the EEOC and other federal, state and local agencies and issued decisions setting forth additional rights. A leading example was the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

As the result of these new laws, executive orders, court decisions and action by women’s rights organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW), we have seen profound changes in our society.

Today, women are found in large numbers in professional schools and in the professions, and, to a lesser extent, in executive suites and legislatures. They work at a host of technical and blue-collar jobs previously closed to them. The percent of women in the military rose from less than two percent in the 1960s to 14 percent in 2009, and the variety of their assignments has increased substantially.

Women have run for vice president on both major party tickets and we have had our first woman attorney general of the U.S. Women currently constitute 17 percent of Congress. In January 2007, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman Speaker of the House.

For the first 192 years of its existence, no woman served on the U.S. Supreme Court. Starting in 1981, four have been confirmed: Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. When Justice Kagan takes her seat this October, for the first time in history 33 percent of the Court will be female.

This is not to say we’ve achieved nirvana. The problems facing women today in the U.S. and the world are manifold and immense: violence, poverty, hunger, homelessness and maternal mortality, to name a few. But on this anniversary of our first right — the right to vote — it is good to remember where we were and how far we’ve come.

August 25, 2010