Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace

Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace

Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace

Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace

Synopsis

In 1964, as part of its landmark Civil Rights Act, Congress outlawed workplace discrimination on the basis of such personal attributes as sex, race, and religion. This provision, known as Title VII, laid a new legal foundation for women's rights at work. Though President Kennedy and other lawmakers expressed high hopes for Title VII, early attempts to enforce it were inconsistent. In the absence of a consensus definition of sex equality in the law or society, Title VII's practical meaning was far from certain.

The first history to foreground Title VII's sex provision, Equality on Trial examines how the law's initial promise inspired a generation of Americans to dispatch expansive notions of sex equality. Imagining new solidarities and building a broad class politics, these workers and activists engaged Title VII to generate a pivotal battle over the terms of democracy and the role of the state in all labor relationships. But the law's ambiguity also allowed for narrow conceptions of sex equality to take hold. Conservatives found ways to bend Title VII's possible meanings to their benefit, discovering that a narrow definition of sex equality allowed businesses to comply with the law without transforming basic workplace structures or ceding power to workers. These contests to fix the meaning of sex equality ultimately laid the legal and cultural foundation for the neoliberal work regimes that enabled some women to break the glass ceiling as employers lowered the floor for everyone else.

Synthesizing the histories of work, social movements, and civil rights in the postwar United States, Equality on Trial recovers the range of protagonists whose struggles forged the contemporary meanings of feminism, fairness, and labor rights.

Excerpt

In 1964, as part of its landmark Civil Rights Act, Congress outlawed workplace discrimination on the basis of personal attributes like sex, race, and religion. The provision, known as Title VII for the portion of the act in which it appears, laid a new legal foundation for women’s rights at work. Lobbying for the bill in the final months of his life, President John F. Kennedy described equality before the law as “a moral issue” that was “as old as the scriptures” and “as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question,” he contended, “is whether all Americans are afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” While Kennedy and other lawmakers expressed similar high hopes for Title VII, early attempts to police the provision were thin and inconsistent. But in the absence of a consensus definition of sex equality in the law or society, those efforts were also malleable.

Two years after Title VII’s passage, a factory worker from suburban Boston wrote to government officials to express her personal expectations for her new right to sex equality. In her letter to the nascent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency tasked with interpreting Title VII, Thelma Pilch set out her many grievances. Her boss frequently called her “out of [her] sick bed” to go to work, and as a result, she had contracted bronchial pneumonia. Her requests for her preferred morning shift and for less physically demanding work were denied, and she had been passed over for promotions because managers did not tell her about job openings. Pilch also objected to the unsanitary conditions in the plant itself, explaining, “the ladies room is so rotten dirty I wouldn’t let dogs go in there.” In sum, she claimed, her employer was “doing everything to hurt or discriminate against me.” Pilch conveyed her hope that the new EEOC would grant substantive . . .

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