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The Women's Rights Movement:
Where It's Been, Where It's At

Keynote Address by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
Women Lawyers of Utah
20th Anniversary Celebration/Retreat
The Chateaux at Silver Lake
Deer Valley, Utah
October 12, 2001

On October 12, 2001, Sonia Pressman Fuentes--one of the founders of NOW (National Organization for Women), WEAL (Women's Equity Action League), and FEW (Federally Employed Women)--gave the keynote address at the 20th anniversary celebration/retreat of the Women Lawyers of Utah in Deer Valley, Utah. Her talk was entitled "The Women's Rights Movement: Where It's Been, Where It's At." A former WMST-L member, she has made her talk available as part of the WMST-L File Collection in the hope that it may be of interest or useful to others.

Good evening. It's a pleasure to be here among my own--women lawyers.

I'd like to talk to you this evening about the second wave of the women's rights movement--its beginnings, my role in it, and where it's at today.

How It All Began

I date the start of the sexual revolution in this country to December 1961. On that date, President Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women, with Eleanor Roosevelt as chair, to review, and make recommendations for improving, the status of women. In 1963, that commission issued its report called American Women, which reviewed the status of women in this country and made recommendations for improving it. On November 1 of that year, three weeks before his assassination, President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and the Citizens' Advisory Council on the Status of Women to facilitate carrying out the recommendations of the President's Commission.

Nineteen sixty-three was also the year when Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which became effective in 1964. That law requires equal pay for equal or substantially equal work without regard to sex.

In 1964, Congress passed another act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which took effect on July 2, 1965, and was enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Originally, that law prohibited only discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin by employers, labor unions, and employment agencies. Later, age discrimination and discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities were added.

As originally drafted, Title VII did not prohibit sex discrimination, but on a wintry day in February 1964, 81-year-old Congressman Howard W. Smith introduced an amendment to do so. His motives in doing so were apparently mixed. He was a Virginia segregationist and the principal opponent of the civil rights bill. He may have viewed the amendment as a tactic to delay or forestall the bill's passage. On the other hand, he may have favored the amendment because he didn't want African Americans getting rights at the expense of white women. In any event, after some wrangling, the bill became law with the prohibition against sex discrimination in it.

Title VII was much broader than the Equal Pay Act. It prohibited discrimination not only in pay but in all terms and conditions of employment, including advertising for employees, pre-employment inquiries and testing, job qualifications, hiring and firing, promotions, and medical and pension benefits.

After I graduated from the University of Miami (Florida) School of Law in 1957, at a time when 3% of the nation's law school graduates were women, I went to work for the federal government in Washington, D.C., because at that time the government was hiring women lawyers, while private law firms and corporations generally were not. After working for the Department of Justice and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in October 1965, three months after it had commenced operations, I joined the EEOC as the first woman attorney in its Office of the General Counsel.

Thus I found myself in a brand new job at a brand new agency with responsibility for fighting employment discrimination, including that based on sex. At that time, few Americans were aware that there was such a thing as sex discrimination. When I mentioned "women's rights" in my early speeches, the response was laughter. Words like "sex discrimination" and "women's rights" hadn't yet entered the nation's vocabulary.

What was our country like in 1965? Basically, men and women lived in two different worlds. By and large, a woman's place was in the home. Her role was to marry and raise a family. If she was bright, common wisdom had it that she was to conceal that brightness. She was to be attractive--but not too attractive. She was not to have career ambitions, although she could work for a few years before marriage as a secretary, saleswoman, schoolteacher, telephone operator, social worker, librarian, or nurse. Hopefully, she would be a virgin when she married. When she had children, she was to raise them differently so that they, too, would continue in the modes of behavior appropriate to their sex. If she divorced, which would reflect poorly on her, she might receive an award of alimony and child support--although it was unlikely that she would actually receive the monies for more than a few years. If she failed to marry, she was an old maid, relegated to the periphery of life.

Married women could work outside the home only if dire household finances required it. Under no circumstances were they to earn more money than their husbands.

Women were not to be opinionated or assertive. They were expected to show an interest in fashion, books, ballet, cooking, sewing, knitting, and volunteer activities. Political activities were acceptable as long as they were conducted behind the scenes. Of course, not all women wanted or were able to fit into this pattern, and there were always exceptions. But most women did what they were told because society exacted a high price from deviants.

Men, on the other hand, were the decision-makers and activists. They were the ones who became presidents, legislators, generals, police chiefs, school principals, and corporate executives. They were the heads of their households, and their wives and children were expected to defer to their wishes. Men were expected to take the initiative in dating, to have sexual experiences before marriage, to propose marriage, to bear the financial burden for the entire family, and to have little or nothing to do with running their households or raising their children. It was assumed that they would be insensitive, uncaring, and inarticulate--and interested in activities such as sports, drinking, gambling, extramarital affairs, and making money.

Most men did what they were told, too.

This picture of our society was true for most of the population. There were, however, other dynamics at play in minority communities. Historically, for example, more African American women than men attended college. But for most Americans, this was the climate in which the Commission and I, as a staff member, were supposed to eliminate sex discrimination.

Not only was the country uninterested in sex discrimination, so were most of the commissioners, officials, and staff at the EEOC. At that time, there were one hundred permanent employees at the Commission and most were there to fight discrimination against African Americans. They didn't want the Commission's limited staff and resources diverted to issues of sex discrimination. After all, the agency had been created in response to the movement for civil rights for African Americans. There had been no similar movement immediately before 1965 for women's rights. There had, of course, been an earlier women's movement, which culminated in 1920 when women got the right to vote. After that, for about forty years, most women forgot about the struggle for women's rights. Perhaps they thought that the right to vote would bring with it all other rights. But that did not happen.

The country and the EEOC were, however, in for a shock. In the Commission's first fiscal year, about 37 percent of the complaints filed alleged sex discrimination. These complaints raised a host of new issues that were more difficult than those raised by the complaints of race discrimination. Could employers continue to advertise in classified advertising columns headed "Help Wanted--Male" and "Help Wanted--Female"? Did an employer have to hire women for jobs traditionally considered men's jobs? Could airlines continue to ground or fire stewardesses when they reached the age of thirty-two or thirty-five or married? What about state protective laws that prohibited the employment of women in certain occupations, limited the number of hours they could work and the amount of weight they could lift, and required special benefits for women, such as seats, restrooms, and rest and lunch breaks? Did school boards have to keep teachers on after they became pregnant? (What would students think if they saw pregnant schoolteachers? Wouldn't they know they'd had sexual intercourse?) Did employers have to provide the same benefits on retirement to men and women even though women as a class outlived men? Although the EEOC was responsible for issuing decisions, guidelines, and regulations that set forth what Title VII meant, neither I nor anyone else at the Commission knew how to resolve these issues.

The issues that were most fiercely fought involved classified advertising, airline stewardesses, and state protective legislation.

The maintenance of sex-segregated classified advertising columns was of great importance to newspapers and employers. Newspapers derived increased revenue from the double columns, and employers wanted to be able to continue to recruit based on sex.

The airlines waged a strenuous battle to maintain the policies of grounding or terminating stewardesses when they reached the age of thirty-two or thirty-five or married. They argued that since they hired only women for these jobs on domestic routes, Title VII was inapplicable and they could apply any conditions of employment they chose. Most airline passengers were men, and the airlines promoted the image of the young, unmarried stewardess to attract businessmen. These policies were financially advantageous for the airlines. They cut down on the expenses incurred for salary increases related to seniority and for pension and retirement benefits.

On another controversial issue, the question of whether Title VII superseded state protective legislation, women were divided. Starting in the early 1900s, states had passed laws restricting women's employment and requiring special benefits for women.These laws were passed for a number of reasons. Some proponents of such legislation had wanted to protect both male and female employees from sweatshop conditions but feared they wouldn't be able to get laws passed for both sexes; others wanted to limit women's competition for jobs with men.

In the area of sex discrimination, the EEOC moved very slowly and conservatively, or not at all. I found myself increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of most of the officials to come to grips with the issues, and to come to grips with them in ways that would expand employment opportunities for women which, after all, was one of the purposes of Title VII.

Because I was always raising the issue of sex discrimination, my boss, the General Counsel, called me a "sex maniac." I became the staff person who stood for aggressive enforcement of the sex discrimination prohibitions of the Act, and this caused me no end of grief. At the end of one day, after a particularly frustrating discussion with the executive director, I left the EEOC building with tears streaming down my face. I didn't know how I had gotten into this position--fighting for women's rights. No one had elected me to represent women. I didn't know why I was engaged in this battle against men who had power when I had none.

Through my work, I developed a network of support outside the EEOC. I came in contact at various government agencies with mid-level staffers like myself who were concerned with improving the rights of women. Together, we formed an informal network of support and information-sharing. I would pass on to this network information on women's rights cases that were developing at the EEOC, which the members of this network would then pass on to Marguerite Rawalt. Marguerite, a retired Internal Revenue Service attorney, was a former president of the National Federation of Business & Professional Women (BPW), the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), and the Federal Bar Association. She, in turn, would relay the information she received to her network of feminist attorneys. These attorneys would then represent the complaining parties in precedent-setting sex discrimination lawsuits.

In 1966, a writer came to the EEOC. She had become famous through writing a book published in 1963 called The Feminine Mystique, which dealt with the frustrations of women who were housewives and mothers and did not work outside the home. Now, she was interviewing EEOC officials and staff for a second book. Her name was Betty Friedan.

When we met, Betty asked me to reveal problems and conflicts at the Commission. During her first visit, I told her everything was fine since as an EEOC staff member, I did not feel I could publicly speak out about the Commission's derelictions. But when she came a second time, it was on a day when I was feeling particularly frustrated at the Commission's failure to implement the law for women. I invited her into the privacy of my office and this time I leveled with her. I told her that the country needed an organization to fight for women like the NAACP fought for African Americans.

Subsequent events reinforced this conclusion. In June 1966, at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in Washington, D.C., the attendees wanted to pass a resolution demanding the enforcement of Title VII for women and the reappointment of Commissioner Dick Graham, who was a feminist. They became enraged when the leadership told them that they did not have the authority to pass resolutions. As a result, at a luncheon at the conference, Betty Friedan and a small group planned an organization that subsequently became NOW. Its purpose, as written by Betty on a paper napkin, was "to take the actions needed to bring women into the mainstream of American society, now, full equality for women, in fully equal partnership with men." By the end of the day, everyone at the conference who wanted to join had tossed $5 into a war chest and NOW had twenty-eight members. Those twenty-eight were NOW's original founders.

Another twenty-six, of whom I was one, were added that October at an organizing conference in Washington, D.C. We met in the basement of the Washington Post and adopted a statement of purpose and skeletal bylaws. Most of us did not know each other. One of the realities of those days was that there was no national network whereby women and men interested in women's rights could come to know each other and work together. What we had in common was a frustration with the status of women and a determination to do something about it. The concept of women's rights was an idea whose time had come.

After its founding, NOW embarked upon an ambitious program of activities to get the EEOC to enforce Title VII for women. It filed lawsuits, petitioned the EEOC for public hearings, picketed the EEOC and the White House, and generally mobilized public opinion.

I became involved in an underground activity. I took to meeting privately at night in Washington with three other government lawyers devoted to women's rights. At those meetings, I discussed the inaction of the Commission that I had witnessed during that day or week with regard to women's rights, and then we drafted letters from NOW to the Commission demanding that action be taken in those areas. To my amazement, no one at the Commission ever questioned how NOW had become privy to the Commission's deliberations.

As a result of pressure by NOW, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate sex discrimination in employment. It conducted hearings and began to issue interpretations and decisions implementing women's rights.

It prohibited sex-segregated advertising columns and, with narrow exceptions, required that all jobs, including jobs as flight cabin attendants, had to be open to men and women alike. Furthermore, a woman could not be refused employment because of the preferences of her employer, co-workers, clients, or customers, or because she was pregnant or had children. A woman who needed time off in connection with pregnancy, childbirth, or after the birth of a child was entitled to the same benefits of sick pay, leave, and pay during leave that her employer provided for employees in general who requested time off for illness or other reasons.

Laws that restricted women's employment were superseded by Title VII. Laws that required benefits for women could be harmonized with Title VII by providing the same benefits to men.

Men and women doing substantially equal work were entitled to equality in pay and other benefits, including pension and retirement benefits. They also had the right to be free of sexual harassment on the job.

Men also used the remedies provided by Title VII, although to a much lesser extent. They complained when they were excluded from traditionally female jobs, such as nursing, or were prohibited from wearing beards, mustaches, or long hair on the job.

The EEOC for the first time in this country began the collection of statistics from employers on their employment of women and minorities in various categories of employment.

NOW was the first organization formed to fight for women's rights in the mid-'60s, but it was followed by many others. Traditional women's organizations, which had initially refused to join the struggle, did so later, and new organizations were formed. Unions, most of which were initially hostile to women's rights, became involved in the struggle. Unions have in fact been in the forefront of the pay equity struggle, the fight to secure equal pay for women for work of comparable worth or value to that of men. Various levels of government also became more active: executive orders were issued by Presidents, federal and state laws and municipal ordinances were passed, and court decisions issued.

New government agencies were created to fight discrimination, such as the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) in the Department of Labor. The OFCCP implements executive orders that require contractors and subcontractors of the federal government to take affirmative action to hire and promote women or risk the loss of millions of dollars in government contracts.

Discrimination based on sex or marital status in the sale and rental of housing and in the granting of credit was prohibited. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibited educational institutions, from preschools through colleges and universities, that received federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex against students and all employees, including administrative personnel and faculty members. One of the effects of Title IX has been the requirement for equality in expenditures for school athletic programs.

Legislation in 1972 gave the EEOC the power to enforce its orders in the courts. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 codified the EEOC's guidelines on pregnancy and leave in connection with pregnancy. In 1991, for the first time, women were given the right to secure limited monetary damages for sexual harassment and other intentional sex discrimination. About two weeks after taking office, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, requiring employers to provide their employees with up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year in connection with the birth or adoption of a child or the serious illness of a child, spouse, or parent.

Due to all this activity, the American public became aware that there was a new national priority: equal rights for women.

Where Are We Today?

Our society has undergone a massive change. Women are now found in large numbers in professional schools and in the professions, and, to a much lesser extent, in executive suites and legislatures. They work at a host of technical and blue collar jobs previously closed to them. In 1976, women were admitted to West Point and our other military academies, a development that was unthinkable before the women's movement. The percent of women in the military increased from 1.6 percent in 1972 to 13 percent by 1990, and, since the 1980s, the variety of their assignments has increased substantially. Women-owned businesses are now one-third of all businesses in the United States and employ one out of five American workers. Over six hundred colleges and universities have women's studies programs. Women are now being included in clinical research studies, and we are learning that women and men react differently to different medications, that there are sex differences in the vulnerability to disease, and that even where diseases strike both sexes, they often follow different courses.

The effects of Title VII have spilled over to every area of our society. Laws have changed women's rights with regard to abortion, divorce, alimony, child custody, child support, rape, jury service, appointments as administrators and executors of estates, sentencing for crimes, and admission to places of public accommodation, such as clubs, restaurants, and bars. Our spoken language has changed, and work continues on the development of gender-neutral written language in laws, textbooks, religious texts, and publications of all sorts.

Eighteen years after the founding of NOW, a woman ran for Vice President of the United States, and, nine years after that, a woman became Attorney General.

A little-known law, a relatively small organization, the developments in this country, and similar movements worldwide have completely changed the face of this country and are well on their way to changing the face of the world. The increase in the number and proportion of women who work has been called the single most outstanding phenomenon of the twentieth century. In August and September 1995, fifty thousand men and women attended the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.

We've achieved a lot, but much remains to be done--and new problems face us. Women are still subject not only to sex discrimination, but if they are older women, women of color, or have disabilities, they may be the victims of multiple forms of discrimination.

Based on 1999 figures, women earned $.72 or $.77 (depending on whose statistics you use) for every dollar earned by men. The wage gap is the result of a number of factors in addition to discrimination, such as the differences in women's education, their shorter time in the workforce, and their concentration in a narrow range of jobs that are underpaid because women are in them. Nonetheless, a significant portion is attributable to discrimination.

The wage gap varies from state to state. On the basis of 1996-1998 data, the gap was smallest in the District of Columbia, where women earned $.86 for every dollar earned by men. Wyoming had the largest wage gap, with women earning $.63 for every dollar earned by men, followed by Utah and Louisiana where women earned $.65 for every dollar earned by men. As of May 3 this year, eighty-one bills had been introduced in thirty-four states this year to enhance existing equal pay laws.

Women are still far from being equal in professional and political life. In law, for example, the New York Times reported this past August that while women increased their representation in the twelve highest-grossing law firms in the United States, they were still significantly underrepresented in partnerships. Catalyst recently conducted the first extensive survey of people working on Wall Street. Two-thirds of the women responding said they had to work harder than men for the same rewards, and a third reported a hostile environment where crude or sexist comments were tolerated and they were subjected to unwanted sexual attention. The survey also indicated that women in the securities industry were making significant sacrifices in their personal lives, similar to those made by women in law and other professions, in that, as compared with their male colleagues, fewer were married, living with a partner, or had children.

In the U.S. Congress, thirteen of our hundred senators are women; that's only 13 percent, but it's still the largest number of women senators in our history. We have 60 women representatives in the House of Representatives out of a total of 435, or 14 percent. When one includes delegates (non-voting members) as well as representatives, we have 62 women Members of Congress out of a total of 440, also 14 percent. These 14 percent figures are also records.

Only 13 percent of all federally elected offices are held by women. That means that about 87 percent of the time, men are drafting the bills, proposing legislation and making the laws.

No woman has ever served as President, Vice President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, or Majority Leader of the Senate. On the other hand, in the 107th Congress now in session, for the first time in our history, not only one woman but two are chairing congressional campaign committees. Patty Murray of Washington is heading the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and Nita Loewy of New York is heading the Democratic House of Representatives Campaign Committee. The two committees on the Republican side continue to be headed by men. I was delighted to learn that on October 10 Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco was selected as minority whip by the House Democrats. This makes her the highest-ranking woman in the history of the House. I worked for Nancy on Capitol Hill in 1988 and was very impressed with her graciousness and ability.

President Bush has appointed dramatically fewer women to executive branch political posts than President Clinton did early in his administration, reversing a trend toward increased representation of women at all levels of government over the past several decades. While this administration began with a number of high-profile appointments that appeared to be sensitive to the concerns of women, three-quarters of its later nominees have been men.

A new report and guide, Keys to the Governor's Office, by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, says that next to the U.S. presidency, the perceived seat of ultimate and singular national power--the State Governor's office--is the most difficult for women to capture. Only five women--10 percent--currently serve as governors.

Women remain underrepresented in corporate boardrooms and executive suites. Today there are five women--1 percent--among the Fortune 500 chief executives. Women also remain underrepresented in top positions in academia and unions.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to our Constitution has yet to be ratified by the requisite number of states.

The U.S. has not yet joined the overwhelming majority of the world's nations in ratifying the United Nation's Convention To Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Complaints of sexual harassment are one of the fastest-growing areas of employment discrimination cases at the EEOC. Student-to-student sexual harassment at all levels of education is on the increase.

Poverty is a woman's issue: women and children make up 75 percent of the poor in this country, and a majority of minimum wage workers are women. There are large numbers of women and children among the homeless, and we need more safe houses and services for battered women. A 1999 report from the CIA estimates that annually fifty thousand women and children are illegally smuggled across borders and brought to the U.S. to be used as restaurant workers, domestic servants, sweatshop laborers, prostitutes, and sex slaves. In October 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which increases the penalties against traffickers and provides benefits for the women involved. This new law authorized the government to spend up to $94 million in 2001 and 2002, but President Bush's budget earmarked only about $8.5 million. Furthermore, the law virtually ignores the problem of trafficking within U.S. borders. Unlike many other countries, the U.S. has failed to develop a national action plan to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children although there are as many as 400,000 prostituted children in the U.S.

Other issues affecting women involve the continuing battle for reproductive choice and the fact that over fifteen million women have no health care coverage. Over the last five years, the number of uninsured women has grown three times faster than the number of uninsured men and will surpass the number of uninsured men by 2005. Lack of insurance is a serious problem for women because women's health needs are greater than men's: women are more likely to have chronic illnesses, mental health problems, and to make regular use of prescription drugs.

Those women who do have health care coverage may not have coverage for prescription contraceptives. Forty-nine percent of all typical large group health plans do not cover any contraceptive methods. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) has launched a nationwide campaign to address contraceptive insurance inequities. Eleven NARAL affiliates are involved in contraceptive equity legislative campaigns. On the other hand, this year, ten states added anti-choice legislation to their laws, two of which contain language that gives a fetus the status of a living person.

Women have to deal with new realities, such as combining a demanding position with marriage and raising a family, and finding affordable, quality household help and child care. Women increasingly find themselves in the sandwich generation--having to be the caretaker both for their children and their parents. Hundreds of thousands of single women in their 60's, part of the surge of divorces that started a generation ago, as well as married older women whose husbands' retirement incomes have been whittled down for various reasons, now find themselves in a financial crunch. As a result, the labor force participation of women in their 60's has risen recently while that of men has fallen.

When we look beyond the U.S. to the rest of the world, the status of women is often shocking. In third world countries, culture, religion, and law often deprive women of basic human rights and sometimes relegate them to almost subhuman status. Recent events have brought home to us the horrific conditions of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Violence against women is a worldwide problem. Female genital mutilation continues, as do trafficking in women and girls, kidnapping women, child marriages, honor killings, testing girls for virginity, abortions of female fetuses, and female infanticide. In India and Asia, especially South Asia where women have the lowest status in the world, the poverty and powerlessness of women are combining to make them increasingly vulnerable to AIDS since they are no position to negotiate safe sex. As a result, some research groups are now calling AIDS a woman's disease.

Adequate food remains a problem. The UN Commission for Human Rights adopted a statement on April 20 this year decrying the state of world hunger and calling it "intolerable that 826 million people, most of them women and children, throughout the world and particularly in developing countries, did not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs."

Nonetheless, the changes we've seen in the past thirty-seven years have been breathtaking. In thinking about the progress that's been achieved, I can't say it any better than an anonymous African American woman Dr. Martin Luther King was fond of quoting:

     We ain't what we oughta be,
     We ain't what we wanna be,
     We ain't what we gonna be,
     But, thank God, we ain't what we was.


Copyright 2001 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes.

This talk is based on the chapter "Sex Maniac" in Ms. Fuentes' memoir, Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter. Information on the book, including how to order it, is contained on her website:
http://www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes .

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