When Women Demanded Access to Blue-Collar Jobs
Melvin I. Urofsky on the Living History of Affirmative Action in America
In 1993, the New York City Fire Department issued a curious order, namely that no pictures could be taken of Brenda Berkman, a 15-year veteran of the force, on or off duty, inside or outside a firehouse. This proved to be one last gasp in the protest against women in what had been an all-male preserve for the department’s 117-year history.
The fight had started much earlier. In 1971, Secretary of Labor James D. Hodgson issued an order calling on all federal contractors to take affirmative action to eliminate sex discrimination. That order had little effect, and in 1977 the Office of Federal Contract Compliance announced that it planned “to get tough” with building and construction contractors who failed to seek out and train women for work on everything from steel girders to bricklaying. According to Weldon Rougeau, the head of the office, parents should start talking to their daughters about going into blue-collar work instead of traditional female roles such as housekeeper, nurse, or stenographer.
New York City, already under attack for its failure to give women access to traditional male jobs, announced that it would allow women to take the Firefighter Exam. But when over four hundred women passed the written portion, the city changed the standards on the physical ability test to make it practically impossible for women to meet the criteria. It took five years and a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit until 42 women passed new, court-supervised tests and training to qualify as the city’s first female firefighters. That group included Brenda Berkman, who became founding president of the United Women Firefighters and a constant thorn in the side of fire department officials as well as the male union.
One might have expected skepticism as to whether women could do the job, and whether their lesser strength might prove a problem. But male firefighters responded bitterly, trying to drive the women out, sending hate mail and death threats, refusing to talk to the women for months on end, putting up obscene antifemale graffiti in the firehouses, and not only harassing the women in general but in one case actually resorting to rape. The women, despite repeated appeals to the city government as well as public demonstrations, got no help or even support except from one group—the Vulcan Society, the organization of black firefighters, who also had fought a long and bitter fight against discrimination in the fire department.
Between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote, women’s rights activists differed on their goals. The single-issue suffragists aimed solely at obtaining the vote; “social feminists,” while also calling for suffrage, worked to secure protective legislation for women in the workplace, such as maximum hours, minimum wages, and safety regulations. After 1920, feminist fervor subsided until awakened by the civil rights movement in the 1960s, marked by the publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique in 1963, the establishment of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, and the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1972.
For purposes of affirmative action, we can point to several events—the inclusion of gender in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson extending his executive order on affirmative action to include women in 1967, and especially Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibited sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal assistance in all public and private educational institutions. That same year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act gave the EEOC court enforcement powers. Although the initial push by the EEOC focused on African Americans, it soon added women to the demands it made upon employers.
What affirmative action meant for women differed markedly from what it did for people of color. The debate on whether government policy should seek “equality of opportunity” rather than “equality of results” had most people, including African Americans, supporting the former and opposing the latter, which often meant numerical goals and quotas. Women wanted equality of opportunity as well, in that they sought access to jobs that had formerly been restricted to men, such as linemen for the telephone company. In this sense, women and minorities both wanted to have the opportunity to get jobs from which they had previously been excluded.
A significant difference, however, existed between women and African Americans. For blacks, when the EEOC talked about equality of results, it usually meant that if a local metropolitan area had a 37 percent minority population, then 37 percent of the employees of a company with fifteen or more workers should be minority. While African Americans wanted to be paid the same as their white coworkers, they mainly wanted the chance to get hired where they had previously been excluded. For women, most of the complaints they brought to the EEOC involved equality of pay and other benefits, such as seniority and retirement. They also brought suits, especially regarding colleges and universities, about gaining entry to the faculty; blue- and pink-collar women, like black men, wanted equality of results. Women also did not have to rely solely on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; Congress had mandated equal pay for equal work during the Kennedy administration.
Today when we talk about discrimination, the bias against African Americans heads the list; despite the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and talk about a “post-racial” America, the evidence that racism is still strong could not be missed in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and after. But we have also learned about other prejudices—against Hispanics, Jews, the disabled, transgendered, and especially women. “Sexism” in the 1960s had as yet no meaning in public discourse. In some ways, Howard Smith’s “sex” amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act stole a march on history, and although it passed, very few members of Congress paid much attention to it. During 1963 and 1964, the House and Senate held hundreds of hours of hearings and produced thousands of pages of testimony dealing with racial inequality; there was not a single committee hearing or report on gender inequality. Men of power in the government, in business, and in labor unions learned to take racism seriously, but not sexism.
So in 1964 the American public, when looking at Title VII, could be forgiven if they did not pay much attention to the gender provision, and some corporate executives saw it as a joke. When The Wall Street Journal asked business leaders how they felt about Title VII, nearly all agreed that racial prejudice had to cease. One airline personnel executive declared, “We’re not worried about the racial discrimination ban—what’s unnerving us is the section on sex. What are we going to do when a gal walks into our office, demands a job as an airline pilot and has the credentials to qualify? Or what will we do when some guy comes in and wants to be a stewardess?” Even the chair of the EEOC refused to take it seriously. At a news conference, a reporter asked Franklin Roosevelt Jr., “What about sex?” to which Roosevelt responded, “I’m all for it.” Shortly thereafter The New York Times ran a parody on the supposed “bunny problem,” when a male applied for a job as a Playboy Bunny or to clerk in a corset shop. “Bunny problem, indeed!” the Times despaired. “This is revolution, chaos. You can’t even safely advertise for a wife anymore.”
The Times soon had reason to regret its flippant and juvenile attempt at humor. In 1972, a caucus of women employees challenged the paper’s commitment to fairness. The Times had once boasted in an advertisement that one of its women employees, a copy editor, had a “passion for facts.” Eighty women working at the paper collected “facts” and gave them to that copy editor, Betsy Wade—a member of the caucus—who documented sex-based salary inequities, limitation of women to lower-paying jobs, and failure to promote women even after years of exemplary service. In addition, women were totally excluded from nonclassified advertising sales, management, and policy-making positions. The Times initially ignored the petition, so the women hired a lawyer, filed charges with the EEOC, and entered a class-action sex discrimination suit on behalf of the 550 women employed by the paper.“The ladies are up in arms again. They’re demanding equal rights.”
It took six years, but eventually the women won, and the Times settled out of court. It paid the women for past discrimination in salaries as well as their legal costs and adopted an affirmative action plan with numerical goals for jobs previously closed to them, from entry-level to management positions. “Considering where we were in 1972,” said one member of the caucus, the settlement package was “the sun, the moon, and the stars.” In June 2011, the Times named Jill Abramson the first female executive editor in the paper’s 160-year history.
The EEOC tiptoed around the ban on sex discrimination as long as it could, and many felt that the addition of sex to Title VII had been meant to cripple the commission. The EEOC would be so inundated with complaints of gender discrimination that it would have neither time nor resources to deal with more serious problems faced by racial and ethnic minorities. One of the first commissioners, Aileen Clarke Hernandez, complained that “the message came through clearly that the Commission’s priority was race discrimination, and apparently only as it related to Black men.”
Given the practically nonexistent guidance it had received from Congress, it is small wonder that during its early years the EEOC did little—and that in a cautious, sometimes bumbling manner—about gender discrimination. It suggested that the prevalent local culture should be taken into account, which in essence permitted relegating women to lower-paying jobs. The American Newspaper Publishers Association had no problem with the ban on racially segregated want ads but defended the necessity for sex-specific classified advertisements, claiming that both readers and advertisers preferred the traditional single-sex listings. Moreover, according to the association, Title VII had not given the EEOC power to ban sex-specific ads. The EEOC might have continued stumbling around the gender issue except that a new and very activist feminist movement had arisen whose leaders declared that both the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act were sex-blind as well as color-blind.
About this time, the EEOC commissioner, Richard Graham, approached Betty Friedan seeking her help. One reason, he explained, that the EEOC had not responded well to women’s complaints was that there were no organized women’s groups lobbying the commission the way African American groups were so effectively doing. Graham, one of the Republican members of the EEOC, as well as Aileen Hernandez, wanted a feminist equivalent of the NAACP to push gender discrimination issues. Friedan also heard from a young lawyer on the staff, Sonia Pressman, who spoke confidentially to Friedan for fear of losing her job. One of the problems, according to Pressman, was that the women who sat on the EEOC and its advisory panels all represented middle- and upper-class women. None of them had a grassroots base that could bring pressure on the agency.
Graham claimed he had gone to the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, and other women’s organizations headquartered in Washington, urging them to pressure the EEOC to enforce Title VII. Appalled at the suggestion, they told him they were not “feminists.” That June, representatives from all the state status-of-women commissions gathered in Washington, and, mad as could be at the EEOC and the administration, they established the National Organization for Women, with Friedan as founding president, and Graham and Hernandez as founding vice presidents. (Hernandez resigned from the EEOC in frustration a few years later and succeeded Friedan as NOW president.) Graham had found what he needed, a grassroots organization that could push the EEOC to pay attention to gender discrimination.
The “awakening” of the EEOC to gender discrimination did not happen overnight, but growing pressure from NOW and other women’s advocates, as well as the undeniable facts of their own reports, gradually moved the agency to act. At first, EEOC staff and commissioners assumed that women would have the same complaints as African Americans, but this myth evaporated once they looked at the numbers. The first-year report noted that 60 percent of the complaints the EEOC received were racial but nearly all the rest—37 percent—involved sex discrimination. Moreover, the focus of the complaints varied enormously. The major single complaint of black petitioners involved hiring discrimination (37.3 percent), while women charged discrimination in employee benefits, such as wages, pensions, and medical coverage, followed by discriminatory seniority. Only 5.6 percent complained about hiring and firing.
Both women’s groups and the EEOC ran into the problem of state protective legislation laws, dating back to the Progressive and New Deal eras, designed to protect women in the workplace. These included limits on how many hours a day or week a woman could work, mandatory rest periods, and exclusion from dangerous labor, to name a few. Unwilling to enter this minefield, the EEOC announced that it did not have the power to rewrite or annul state laws and that if women did not like these statutes, they should challenge them in federal courts.
Feminist groups jumped on the suggestion and found they could get media attention by legal challenges to state laws, many of them relics of the Victorian era. NOW and others attacked a Texas law barring women from dancing in tents, a Nebraska law keeping women off juries unless the judge approved of their restrooms, and a Washington statute that prevented a married woman from filing a suit in state court unless her husband joined her in the suit. Many of these laws had not been enforced for years, but remained on the books, much to the litigating feminists’ delight. One Texas law dated back to 1856 and recognized the right of a husband to kill his wife’s lover if he caught them in the act, whereas if the wife did the same, she would be charged with murder. In Ohio, then a bastion of organized labor, strong unions had secured rules that barred women entirely from nineteen job categories. A Wall Street Journal on these laws and the legal challenges to them began with the following lead: “Shades of suffragettes! The ladies are up in arms again. They’re demanding equal rights.”
From The Affirmative Action Puzzle © copyright 2020 by Melvin I. Urofsky. Published by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House. Reproduced by permission.