Today in Feminist History: Title VII Takes Aim at Sex Discrimination

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

February 8, 1964: In a stunning, but welcome, development, “sex” was added as a category of unlawful discrimination in Title VII of the proposed Civil Rights Bill today.

The amendment to the legislation originally designed to outlaw bias in regard to race, religion and national origin was proposed by Representative Howard W. Smith (D-VA), a leader of the opposition to the bill.

With filibusters not permitted in the House, and a fragile coalition of supporters appearing to have just enough votes for passage of a narrowly-focused measure, opponents have been trying to amend the bill to make it either fail in the House or be unacceptable to the more conservative Senate if it is passed by the House and sent there. Until now, opponents had been unsuccessful in making any meaningful changes. 

If today’s addition is left intact, and the bill is approved by both House and Senate, then signed by President Johnson, it would be by far the biggest victory for women’s rights since ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which banned sex discrimination in regard to voting rights.

The proposal to include a ban on sex bias in the Civil Rights Bill was made by a man who is both an outspoken opponent of racial equality and a long-time supporter of gender equality, so his motivations in offering the amendment are the subject of much speculation tonight. A sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment since 1943, and who has helped with other legislation benefiting women, some claim Representative Smith may have seen this as a chance to help women if the bill eventually passes, while others see hurting the bill’s chances of passage by vastly expanding its scope as his primary motivation.

Regardless of what Smith may have had in mind, the women of the House were quick to take up the fight for this amendment. When Representative Martha Griffiths (D-MI), and five other women gave impassioned speeches in favor of adding a ban on gender discrimination to Title VII, this seemed to cause a chain reaction of support among male House members. Apparently they did not care to face the unpleasant prospect of having to explain to female voters in the upcoming November elections why they had voted to exclude women from these new protections against bias. The vote of these men, plus those of liberal Republicans, and Democrats who had supported the bill all along, added to those of Southern Democrats who would vote for anything they thought had a chance of derailing the bill, combined to push the favorable vote to 168, with just 133 opposed. 

Not everyone is praising today’s surprise development, of course. The Justice Department expressed concern that a ban on sex bias would cause difficulties in administering Title VII, and require different enforcement provisions, but was “optimistic” that the amendment outlawing sex bias would be removed before a final vote on the bill.

Though a strong supporter of women’s rights, Representative Edith Green (D-OR), expressed concerns that the new provision might “dilute” the bill, as well as endanger its passage, and said that racial equality should have priority, with gender equality later.

“For every discrimination against women in this country there have been ten times as much against Negroes. Let us add nothing that would jeopardize in any way the purposes of this bill. I am willing to wait a few years.”

But Representative Green was alone among the 11 female members of the House in her “no” vote. Support among women spectators in the gallery was equally overwhelming, and one left no doubt about her feelings of unrestrained joy. When the vote tally was announced, she shouted: “We made it ! We made it ! God Bless America !” before being removed. Let’s hope that kind of enthusiasm on the part of these legislators’ constituents back home helps to carry the amended bill through to a final House and Senate vote, then a Presidential signing ceremony soon.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.