Running parallel to the women who took positions of leadership in the civil rights movement, there were several stirrings of legislative action taking place that were specifically made with the social advancement of women in mind. In the late 1950s, the most common configuration for families featured a married man and woman with one or multiple children, generally described as the “nuclear family.” For women in this family configuration, they were largely relegated to motherhood and the domestic sphere, with notable exceptions branching out into the public and private sectors. In the field of pharmaceuticals, a newly-invented medicine would not only advance scientific research in the United States, but would also serve as a factor of change to the order of society and family in the country. Developed by Gregory Pincus from G.D. Searle & Company in Chicago, Illinois, Mestranol/norethynodrel was the first commercially-sold contraceptive pill in the history of the world. Sold under the trade name of Enovid in the United States, it was originally approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1957 as an oral treatment for women with menstrual disorders. Funding for the creation of Enovid was provided in-part by Katharine McCormick, a suffragist and philanthropist who was a co-heir to the McCormick family’s fortune, best known for its advancement of the grain harvesting industry in the United States. Upon recommendation from Margaret Sanger – the progenitor of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America – McCormick chose to supply Gregory Pincus with consistent funding to develop a menstrual disorder medication for women. Three years after its initial release to the market, Enovid was approved by the FDA to be sold as a contraceptive in 1960. The social impact of a commercially-available product for birth control had ramifications throughout American society. These growing changes for women in society were met with intervals of resistance and legal conflict. Married couples were only allowed to purchase contraceptive pills such as Enovid at any time after the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in 1965. Single women were furthermore forbidden from being prescribed contraceptive pills until the Eisenstadt v. Baird decision in 1972. With the advent of a readily-available contraceptive pill, more American women had the opportunity to choose when, or even if, they wanted to have children. With this increased degree of social independence, more women could pursue their own careers and aspirations, rather than being relegated to parenthood and the domestic sphere.
Although the advent of commercially-available birth control granted women the opportunity to pursue work in the public and private sectors, receiving equal compensation for the work they would do was a dispute that had not yet been addressed. In 1963, Senator Patrick McNamara (D-MI) reintroduced a previous bill introduced in 1944 that was designed to eliminate discrepancies in pay based on the sex of the employee. As the bill passed through both chambers of Congress, the federal government effectively confirmed that there still indeed was wage-based discrimination taking place in “industries engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.” In specific condemnation of wage discrimination, Congress formally declared the practice to be something that “depresses wages and living standards…prevents the maximum utilization of the available labor resources…tends to cause labor disputes,” and ultimately “constitutes an unfair method of competition.” This new bill was designed to amend the preexisting Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. With the new bill’s provisions installed, the Fair Labor Standards Act would specifically add the following to Section 6d:
“No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions…”
The bill was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in June 1963, as part of his series of progressive “New Frontier” proposals. After decades of little-to-no legal distinction by the federal government, wage discrimination based on sex was formally addressed by the federal government. While the rules against it have officially been in writing for sixty years, certain historians, political analysts, and activist groups have still argued over wage discrimination in the decades since then.
An additional element of legal protections extended to women in the workplace came about from the larger-scale civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress, and in so doing banned all forms of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, sex, and national origin. The Civil Rights Act as it was enacted in 1964 was not the conclusive end to the fight against discrimination, as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 addressed their own respective issues as they came along. For the Civil Rights Act on its own, Title VII specifically protects all Americans from employment discrimination against themselves and against people they associate with, such as employees in interracial marriages. The only exception that is authorized under Title VII is if a specific case of discrimination by the employer is required from the employee for the job to be done, legally entitled a “bona fide occupational qualification.” Bona fide occupational qualifications were later challenged by the 1991 Supreme Court decision of United Auto Workers v. Johnson Controls, Inc., which asserted that corporate policies that forbade women from knowingly working in potentially hazardous environments are in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. To specifically highlight wage discrimination, the Bennett Amendment in the Civil Rights Act defines sex discrimination claims regarding pay by the parameters of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. With this implemented in the Civil Rights Act, any form of differentiation in wages among employees is only allowed if “such discrimination is authorized” by the Equal Pay Act. Discrepancies in pay – as well as the larger issue of discrimination between the sexes – received further attention in the 1970s. President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments into law in 1972, which expanded the provisions of the previous Equal Pay Act to encompass executives, administrators, outside salespersons, and professionals. The most-popular element of the Education Amendments is Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational institutions that receive funding from the federal government. In addition to strengthening the Education Amendments, Title IX was created to address the lack of education coverage in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In the era before Title IX’s existence, discrimination in federally-supported institutions was prohibited by Executive Order 11375, passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. Academic and activist Bernice Sandler made use of Executive Order 11375 to retain his job at the University of Maryland, as the school received funding in-part by the federal government. Sandler was also an acting member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), and was soon invited to join the newly-assembled Subcommittee on Higher Education of the Education and Labor Committee, under the leadership of Edith Green (D-OR). With interjections by both Sandler and the sitting Congressmembers during the proceedings, the foundational elements of the future Title IX were conceived. Ultimately, it was Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN) who proposed Title IX to Congress in 1971. The proposal was his latest attempt to fight against sex discrimination by legislative action, as he had previously worked on a modified version of the Equal Rights Amendment. Senator Bayh expressed his awareness that Title IX would not bring about the total end to sex discrimination in American society, but he did remark that it would be an “important first step in the effort to provide for the women of America something that is rightfully theirs – an equal chance to attend the schools of their choice, to develop the skills they want, and to apply those skills with the knowledge that they will have a fair chance to secure the jobs of their choice with equal pay for equal work.” Title IX was formally activated in June 1972, with subsequent modifications addressing athletic programs in educational institutions, different grade levels in school, and more recently with the sexual orientation and gender identity of students and faculty. One year after the establishment of Title IX, the equally significant and controversial Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wadewas decided upon. After a series of arguments were heard and addressed, the Supreme Court interpreted in a seven-to-two ruling that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protected a “fundamental right to privacy,” which included the ability for individuals to make their own decisions regarding their reproductive health. The Roe v. Wade decision effectively neutralized many abortion laws and restrictions at the federal and state levels, and was met with near-constant debate, scrutiny, analysis, and subsequent Supreme Court decisions for forty-nine years. In 2022, Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court with the decision of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, as the judges argued by a six-to-three margin that the “substantive right to abortion” was not officially acknowledged in the Constitution, neither at the time of its original enactment in 1789, nor the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum