Linking Race and Sex: Forty Years of Muddle

(unpublished op-ed piece)

    In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the historic Civil Rights Act, putting race relations in America on a new footing. Although the legislation was otherwise wholly directed at securing the civil rights of black people, a Southern opponent of black civil rights named Howard Smith added women at the very last minute in an amendment to Title VII, which dealt with employment discrimination. His motives for this were mixed. In part he hoped to secure the defeat of the bill itself, or at least to throw sand in the wheels of its enforcement by adding a whole new protected class. He is said to have privately called it a joke, and indeed all but one of the men who spoke in favor of Smith’s amendment voted against the bill itself. But, on the more serious side, Smith, as a chivalrous Southern gentleman, thought it only fair that white women be accorded the same legal protection black men were. And he was friends with Alice Paul, head of the National Women’s Party (NWP), which was lobbying for the inclusion of women in Title VII, having met with obstacles in their pursuit of ERA.

  In part as a result of this historical accident, issues of racial and sexual discrimination have become linked in people’s minds The term “sexism” was deliberately modeled on “racism” and the way sex and race have become linked in American political rhetoric is unique. Politically active women in other countries do not think about the problems faced by women as analogous to those faced by black people or other racial minorities, and I believe that we would make more progress dealing with the problems of each group if we disentangled them.

  In 1964 women themselves were sharply divided about the advisability of adding women to Title VII. The most important division was along class lines. The NWP was a small group of affluent, business-oriented, politically conservative women, while opposition to Smith’s amendment and the ERA came from politically liberal, Democratic, union-oriented women, who worried that sweeping measures like the ERA or the Smith amendment would endanger women’s protective legislation, which they believed provided important protection to working class women. They therefore preferred the “specific bills for specific ills” approach to women’s problems, like the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Many women also opposed including women in Title VII because they believed the inclusion of women would divert attention and resources from the more pressing needs of black people. Employment discrimination law was a new and untried type of legislation that promised to be difficult to enforce, and adding half the population to the protected class was bound to worsen the problems. This concern was shared by many high ranking people in the NAACP, although they hesitated to say this too publicly. Other women believed that sexual discrimination, although real, involved sufficiently different problems from racial discrimination that it ought to be addressed separately.

  Adding women to Title VII did sweep away women’s protective legislation. And adding a whole new protected class resulted in the courts being so inundated that backlogs rapidly became unmanageable. Finally, muddling together race and sex has made it harder to see and address the problems of both groups. Black people face problems women don’t, such as the legacy of slavery. And the problems women face in trying to combine work and family have no analogue in the racial case. So if we conflate race and sex, issues of special importance to women such as maternity leaves, on-site child care, “mommy track” jobs or flexible hours, are overlooked.

  Finally, if we treat sex and race as analogous, we are likely to misconceive the ideal we should be aiming at. A race-blind society is desirable and perhaps even possible, but a society in which sexual differences had no social importance is, I would submit, neither.

Celia Wolf-Devine is the author of Diversity and Community in the Academy: Affirmative Action