Thursday, April 10, 2014

Women almost left out 50 years ago -- April 10, 2014 column


Six. One. Not at all.

That’s how many times President Lyndon B. Johnson uttered the words “men,” “housewife” and “women,” respectively, in his nationally televised speech when he signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The tally is significant because it shows how little emphasis even LBJ put on the law’s potential effects on women’s lives. Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act again has focused on the struggles of African Americans and other people of color, but we should remember that the law transformed all of society. The law prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race.
Today’s media savvy White House leaves little to chance, making sure photos of the president look like a soft drink commercial. For example, women of nearly every age and ethnic group stood behind President Barack Obama at a National Equal Pay Day event this week.

You’d never know, though, that women stood to gain from the bill LBJ signed with more than 75 pens in a grand East Room ceremony on July 2, 1964.

 The first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, wearing a red dress, sat on the front row, a sea of white men in sober suits around and behind her. Among the hundred guests were powerful members of Congress, a few prominent male civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins, and almost no women.  Men also made up the fringe of reporters and photographers on the sidelines.

A hundred years after the Civil War, the president opened a new era of equal rights for all, but his remarks also reflected the reality that women were not really part of the picture.
“We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty,” LBJ said. “Yet millions are being deprived of these blessings – not because of their own failings – but because of the color of their skin.”

Johnson urged “every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional man, every working man, every housewife” to help make the law a success. He made no mention of women in the workplace.
You might think women were an afterthought in the law – and you’d be right.

Including the word “sex” in the law’s protections was an idea that backfired. House Rules chairman Howard W. Smith, D-Va., an outspoken opponent of civil rights, proposed adding gender as a ploy to kill the bill.

“He had counted on his colleagues to share his view that sex discrimination was not to be taken seriously and that its inclusion would sufficiently trivialize the bill, ensuring its defeat,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia, a publication of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Library of Virginia, which adds, “Johnson, meanwhile opposed the sex amendment lest it disturb what was already a fragile coalition supporting civil rights.

“Smith introduced the amendment as ‘a joke,’ according to a House colleague, and he snickered about the difficulties women faced in achieving what he called their ‘right to a nice husband and family.’ The chamber erupted with laughter,” the entry at says.

Other accounts say Smith insisted he actually had been working with Alice Paul of the National Women’s Party. In any case, Rep. Martha Griffiths, D-Mich., worked to keep the protection for women in the bill. When the measure passed, women in the House gallery cheered, and Johnson signed it into law that evening.

Johnson’s ability to build a bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill and his courage in pressing for equal rights, knowing that the law would be ruinous for the Democratic Party in the South, are impressive. Obama, speaking at the LBJ Presidential Library this week, took an expansive view:

“Because of the Civil Rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody…Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos; and Asians and Native Americans; and gay Americans and Americans with a disability.”

Pictures told the story of how much of a difference the Civil Rights Act has made in all our lives – and  especially that single word that Griffiths fought to keep.

 © 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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