Today in Feminist History: SCOTUS Hears the First Sex Discrimination Case (March 2, 1970)

March 2, 1970: In what is hoped will be a major advance for women’s rights, the Supreme Court has for the first time agreed to hear a case alleging sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The plaintiff is Ida Phillips, who was denied a position as an assembly line trainee in 1966 because the Martin Marietta Corporation has a rule against hiring women—but not men—with pre-school-aged children. 

The initial trial court ruled for Martin Marietta against Phillips. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court also ruled in favor of Martin Marietta, on the grounds that Phillips wasn’t being discriminated against solely because she was a woman, but because she was a woman AND had young children—with bias in regard to the latter category not banned.  

The Circuit Court’s ruling gave an apparent “seal of approval” to the company’s assumption that mothers have greater family responsibilities than fathers, which could make them less reliable employees. As they put it, the judges did not believe Congress intended to “exclude absolutely any consideration of the differences between the normal relationships of working fathers and working mothers to their pre-school-age children, and require that an employer treat the two exactly alike in the administration of general hiring policies.”

When the entire Fifth Circuit Court was asked to hear the case, it refused to do so. One of the judges who voted not to hear the case was G. Harrold Carswell, nominated six weeks prior by President Nixon to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the resignation of Justice Abe Fortas.

As a result of Carswell’s opposition to hearing the Phillips case, National Organization for Women President Betty Friedan and Representative Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) appeared at his confirmation hearing on January 29th to oppose the nomination of someone who could not see that discrimination against mothers, but not fathers, was discrimination based on sex, and who was unwilling to even listen to the arguments in the Phillips case. 

There is good reason for optimism in the High Court’s eventual ruling in the Phillips case, because women have had some recent victories in sex bias cases in appeals courts. A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals—Judge Carswell not on the panel—ruled last March 4 in the case of “Weeks v. Southern Bell Telephone” (408 F.2d 228) that weight-lifting limitations on women, but not men, were illegal under Title VII.

On September 26, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in “Bowe v. Colgate Palmolive Company” (416 F.2d 711) that if there are weightlifting tests, they must apply to all employees, and that any employee must be allowed to “bid on and fill any job for which his or her seniority entitled him or her.”

There are other sex-bias cases working their way through the courts, so if the Supreme Court issues a clear and strong ruling in the Phillips case, it could make the battle for workplace equality a lot easier.


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.