Were Women’s Rights Just a Congressional Afterthought?

When you look at U.S. Congressional history, it sometimes seems that the road to women’s equality has been paved in detours and oil slicks. Equal rights for women may eventually have been enacted into law, but the Congressional leadership did everything it could to ignore them.

One piece of that Congressional history was brought to light a month ago when former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs died at the age of 97. Boggs had succeeded her husband, Hale Boggs, as a Representative from Louisiana after he died in a plane crash. She went on to serve nine distinguished terms in the House until she retired. The N.Y. Times wrote a warm obituary for Ms. Blindy boggsoggs on July 27, 2013. The article talked about the key role she played in the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.

Lindy Boggs’ daughter, the journalist Cokie Roberts, had alluded to her mother’s role in that legislation when she visited our bookstore in California, Book Passage, on author-tour a few years ago. The N.Y. Times obituary confirmed what Ms. Roberts had hinted at the time: her mother had almost single-handedly secured equal credit rights for women.

Lindy Boggs and the Copying Machine

In 1974 the House Banking Committee was considering legislation that would ban discrimination in lending on the basis of race, age, or veteran status. When Congresswoman Boggs read the proposed bill, she noticed that something was missing: i.e. any protection for women. Lindy Boggs was having none of that. She added the words “sex or marital status” to the prohibition stated in the text. Then she ran to a copy machine to a make a copy of the “amended” document for each member.

She recalled saying to them, “Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do, I’m sure it was just an oversight that we didn’t have ‘sex’ or ‘marital status’ included.”

An oversight? Maybe; maybe not. I would love to have seen the looks on the faces of the old warhorses running the committee, as she mustered up all of her charm to hand them the changed wording.

“I’ve taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee’s approval.”

When the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 was finally adopted, it included a ban on sex discrimination.

The First Time Around

That 1974 story might just have been a nice anecdote if weren’t for the fact that something like that happened in Congress just ten years before that in 1964.

I found this bizarre, earlier story in 1982 when  Barbara Kate Repa and I were doing the research for our book Sexual Harassment on the Job: What It Is and How to Stop it. However, the most complete version of this surprising tale can probably be found in Gail Collins’ wonderful book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.

The protagonist in this case was not a determined feminist like Lindy Boggs. Instead, the impetus came from one of the most fossilized, reactionary barons of the House of Representatives: Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia.

Congressman Smith, a legendary bigot, was the chair of the House Committee in charge of overseeing the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a bill that would bar racial discrimination in employment, and Smith was determined to kill it. In a move that he later characterized as a “joke,” he attached an amendment to the bill that would extend the ban to include sex discrimination as well. He reasoned that the idea of equal employment rights for women was so preposterous that the bill would be laughed out of the House chamber.FC9780316014045

He was almost right. The idea of laws against sex discrimination seemed to spawn endless jokes about the Playboy Club being required to hire male bunnies. When a group of airline stewardesses testified before Congress about sexist weight-restrictions by the airlines, one Congressman jovially asked them to “stand up, so we can see the dimensions of the problem.” At least one of the few women in Congress at the time wasn’t totally surprised by that kind of reaction. She had introduced an earlier bill, only to find that one of her male colleagues had filed it under the heading “B” – for “broads.”

But to Congressman’s Smith’s surprise, the Lyndon Johnson administration eventually signed on to the idea and decided to keep it in the bill. And then to the surprise of almost everyone else, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed with the crucial prohibition against sex discrimination in employment still intact.

Is there a pattern here? You have to hope not.

Martin Luther King may be right that “The Arc of the Moral Universe is long but it bends toward justice.” But you’d like to hope that it doesn’t always have to bend its way through words scribbled in the margin.