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Sex and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, enacted 50 years ago July 2

Congress' leaders award Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, June 24, 2014
Congress' leaders award Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, June 24, 2014Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Was sex added as a poison pill to sink the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

President Johnson signs 1964 Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964
President Johnson signs 1964 Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964 Photo by Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office. LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives

Fifty years after its enactment, historians are still debating about the so-called "sex amendment".

The amendment added gender to the 1964 Civil Rights Act's Title VII, that outlawed employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

Then-Representative Howard W. Smith (D-Virginia) introduced the amendment "'as a joke,'" then-Representative Martha Griffiths (D-Michigan) quoted him as saying.

Rep. Griffiths and four other Congresswomen (among the 11 Congresswomen then) were resolved that Title VII should ban discrimination also on the basis of sex.

"Realizing that Smith could get more than 100 southern votes behind the amendment, Griffiths decided to let him introduce it, according to a House essay, "Legislative Interests". The essay is based on the official "Congressional Record", and on an extensive oral history interview with her in 1979, among other sources.

Smith, the powerful Rules Committee chairman agreed, as part of an attempt "to derail the entire Civil Rights Act," the essay noted.

When Smith introduced it on Feb. 8, 1964, "the men on the House Floor erupted into guffaws that grew louder as the women Members rose to speak on behalf of the bill."

Griffiths formally "scolded the raucous Members and said, 'I suppose that if there had been any necessity to have pointed out that women were a second-class sex, the laughter would have proved it,'" according to the essay. She admonished male Representatives that any vote against the amendment "is a vote against his wife, or his widow, or his daughter, or his sister."

The Michigan Congresswoman, a former judge, "worked feverishly behind the scenes to ensure that the amended version of Title VII was left intact."

The essay said, "Years later, after Smith had retired and was visiting the House Chamber, Griffiths greeted him with a hug, saying, 'We will always be known for our amendment!' Smith replied, 'Well, of course, you know, I offered it as a joke.'"

Senate Assistant Historian Kate Scott told me that reports of Smith's introducing the amendment as a joke, or to help defeat the bill, well, "Historians have realized that was ridiculous."

Scott said, "Smith was a longtime proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), he was a supporter of Alice Paul's National Women's Party (NWP), and was committed to women's equality."

Scott noted that the Senate "vastly expanded the reach of the bill" during a 60-day debate -- one of the longest debates in the U.S. Congress. (For the Senate's essay, "Civil Rights Act at 50", click here. For a video discussing the planned filibuster, click here.)

But "There was very little discussion about the amendment. We searched the 'Congressional Record' and found very little attention to it," she said.

The National Archives says that Rep. Smith "sponsored a 'killer' amendment to the bill adding the word 'sex'... But Smith’s tactic misfired. The bill cleared the House and Senate with 'sex' still included, and later, when a conference committee (of House and Senate Members who work out the final version of a bill) suggested removing the word, Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine insisted that it remain."

In "The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act" (Bloomsbury Press, 2014) Clay Risen writes that "the archsegregationist" Rep. Smith, the bill's "nemesis", introduced the amendment as "a move he hoped would turn off congressional male chauvinists..."

However, Risen, like Scott, adds that Smith "was also a longtime advocate for women's rights. He had sponsored repeated efforts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, and he was a close friend of Alice Paul, the founder of the National Women's Party (NWP)".

Risen quotes Smith as telling Congressman Emanuel Celler (D-New York), "'I think I will offer an amendment. The National Women's Party were serious about it." When a newswoman on "Meet the Press" asked Smith if he was serious about submitting the amendment, he said, "Well, maybe...I am always strong for the women, you know."

Finally, "despite a few minutes of wolfishly chauvinist joking by Celler, the amendment passed 168 to 133," writes Risen, an editor of "The New York Times" op-ed section.

"It remains a great irony of the civil rights story that one of the men most responsible for holding back the advancement of American blacks was also the man responsible for the single biggest advance in women's rights since the Nineteenth Amendment granted them suffrage" in 1920, Risen comments.

When I asked Todd Purdum, author of "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964" (Henry Holt and Co., 2014), about this at his National Press Club book talk July 8, he responded, "Whether it was intended as a poison pill or a good faith effort for women's equality, it is one of the critical parts of the law as much as African American provisions."

Purdum described Rep. Smith as a "Dickens curmudgeonly character who would've let the bill just die in his Rules Committee...He completely resisted it. In the final House debate on Feb. 8 1964, he maliciously got his revenge and added the 'sex amendment', to much laughter." (Purdum, like others, mentioned that the Virginia Congressman was "for many years a friend of the National Women's Party.")

The author noted that "Many thought it'd be a poison pill. But women in Congress rose up and supported the amendment...and said it cannot be taken out of the bill." Also, the provision was "very popular with women across the country" who lobbied their Members of Congress.

"It was a revolutionary part of the law. The initial wave of sex discrimination cases before the EEOC (the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) came from women," said Purdum, a contributing editor at "Vanity Fair" and senior writer at "Politico", and two-decade veteran of "The New York Times".

"We need to be careful not to say the work has been done," Purdum cautioned. "The lesson of history is, we have to keep fighting these battles in every generation."

(The Library of Congress will open a year-long exhibition "The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom" on Sept. 10. The free exhibition will highlight the legal and legislative challenges and victories leading to its passage, shedding light on the individuals, both prominent leaders and private citizens, who participated in the decades-long campaign for equality. It will feature more than 200 items, including correspondence and documents from civil-rights leaders and organizations, photographs, newspapers, legal briefs, drawings, and posters.)

For more info: The landmark legislation's signature page and first page are on display through Sept. 16 at the National Archives, David M. Rubenstein Gallery, Records of Rights, Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. 866-272-6272. "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964" by Todd S. Purdum (Henry Holt and Co.) "The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act" by Clay Risen (Bloomsbury Press).