Fifty years ago today President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the areas of employment and public accommodations.
It would not be an overstatement to say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 transformed American society forever.
The bill was proposed by President John F. Kennedy on June 11, 1963, and was taken up by Congress shortly thereafter. An epic struggle unfolded over several months to get the bill passed, featuring amendments, parliamentary procedures and plain old arm twisting. But the original bill did not prohibit sex discrimination or mention gender at all.
On Feb. 8, 1964, on the House floor, Rep. Howard W. Smith, a Virginia Democrat and powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee, proposed an amendment to add the word “sex” to the protected classes.
This was greeted with hoots and laughter. In his new book about the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come, author Todd S. Purdum described the atmosphere as a “circus” and that “two hours of panicked pandemonium ensued.”
Rep. Smith’s motives have been questioned. He fervently opposed the Civil Rights Act, so some speculated that this was an attempt to sabotage the bill. On the other hand, he had sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution in Congress over the years and was close to Alice Paul, the noted suffragist and leader of the National Women’s Party.
Moreover, since at least World War II, and especially since President Kennedy proposed the civil rights law, women’s-rights groups had been pressing to include the prohibition on sex discrimination. So the idea was out there.
Supporters of the bill were furious because of concerns that the inclusion of sex would doom the bill. This attitude was reminiscent of the debate surrounding passage of the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Suffragists sought to include women, especially since women had played a major role in the abolitionist movement. But the effort failed because of fear that including rights for women would make it impossible to pass the amendment at all.
Ultimately, American women of all races had to wait until 1920 to attain the vote. Thus, the historical narrative that Americans could not deal with expanded rights for both women and racial minorities at the same time was still prevalent in 1963 and 1964.
Regardless of Rep. Smith’s intentions, there was no turning back. Several women in Congress rallied, Democrats and Republicans alike. In the House, Reps. Frances Bolton, Martha Griffiths, Edna Kelly, Catherine May and Katherine St. George took up the cause.
When the amendment passed by a vote of 168 to 133, a woman in the House gallery cried out “We made it! We’re human!” Sen. Margaret Chase Smith fought for the amendment in the Senate and Betty Friedan warned an aide to Sen. Hubert Humphrey that, “If Senator Humphrey and his cronies have any thought about dropping sex from the coverage of this bill, I’m here to tell you they’d better forget about that, because if they do that, you don’t know what trouble is.” The gender amendment stayed.
Those were heady days for the women’s-rights movement. Besides the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women issued its groundbreaking report and Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, all in 1963. And the National Organization for Women (NOW) would be founded in 1966. Today, however, the ERA is still not ratified.
The United States has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also known as the women’s-rights treaty, in contrast to 187 other nations. But at least we can take this occasion to celebrate that back on that day in 1964, women were human, too.