The Law that Transformed The Workplace for American Women

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Young girls hold up banners supporting women's equality at the 'Call to the Nation's Conscience' ERA rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial October 12, 1981 in Washington, DC.
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On July 2nd, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

The law prohibited racial discrimination in public places and in employment, a signature achievement of the Johnson Administration. Thanks in part to Senator Howard Smith, a rampant segregationist, the law also transformed the workplace for American women. 

Senator Smith insisted that the Civil Rights Act also outlaw discrimination based on sex, a part of the law that is now known as Title VII. Some historians have classified Smith's addition as a joke, while others say he was worried about the plight of white women. Whatever his reasons, Title VII has transformed the role of women in the workplace over the last five decades.

Author and attorney Gillian Thomas chronicles that change in her new book, "Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases and Fifty Years that Changed American Women's Lives at Work." As she tells The Takeaway, at first, the law faced a lot of barriers to enforcement.

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which the agency created by Title VII to enforce the statute, really didn't take it seriously," she explains. "There are quotes of the initial leaders of the agency referring to it as a 'fluke that was born out of wedlock.' One of them was at a press conference and was asked, what about sex? And he said, 'I'm all for it!'"

She continues: "It was definitely considered a joke for a good period of time. But eventually, a cadre of very dedicated, mostly-women lawyers within the EEOC brought it around and it became a very powerful force and remains a powerful force."