Today in Feminist History: Protesters Demand End to Sex Discrimination in the Workforce (July 30, 1970)

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.

July 30, 1970: Pickets from the National Organization for Women were out early and in force today in seven of fourteen cities that were part of a closed-circuit television conference sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Industry Council.

Today’s protest outside the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, California. The picture was taken by Judith Meuli of Los Angeles N.O.W.

The purpose of the conference was to give employers around the country a chance to talk with representatives of the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance (O.F.C.C.) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.) about how those agencies will enforce guidelines barring discrimination. The reason for the protest is the refusal of the O.F.C.C. to include bias against women in its campaign to end discrimination by companies doing business with the government.

The O.F.C.C. representative made it clear that racial discrimination is taken quite seriously, and that it intends to be very strict in regard to barring companies that are racially biased from having federal contracts. Its attitude regarding sex discrimination, however, is an open invitation to discriminate and an insult to women. Secretary of Labor Hodgson has previously said that failure to include women in affirmative action plans will not make government contracts “unrewardable.”

Today, things went from bad to worse when Director John Wilks illustrated the O.F.C.C.’s attitude toward sex discrimination. After the topic of affirmative action guidelines regarding sex came up, he said: “Guidelines for sex? It could be a best-seller. We’re looking forward to it.” The overwhelmingly male audience thought the remark was hilarious, but N.O.W.’s Shirley Bernard did not. She said:

“That’s what we’re protesting. They really haven’t said anything pertinent about women all morning … Effectively, what has happened is that our status as a minority group in the work force has not been reaffirmed. We’ve been excluded from the benefits of Order Four [which deals with affirmative action programs] especially when it covers recruitment. Directives concerning equal employment have been watered down, wording changed from ‘must’ to ‘should.’ There seems to be a lack of interest among government agencies to alleviate the discrimination problem for women.”

As noted by one N.O.W. member, the fact that 109 of 110 federal complaint officers are men might have something to do with the problem. “Perhaps the O.F.C.C. should investigate itself,” she suggested.

The protest got lots of media attention, and even those who put on the conference had to take note of it: “You can be sure those television cameras aren’t here because our program is big news,” said Donald E. Butler, who put together the Los Angeles conference. He then noted: “As the newsmen say, where there’s a picket line there’s a story.”

The media coverage here in Los Angeles was mixed, as is generally the case. A KFI radio reporter was quite supportive, and even asked for some N.O.W. literature for his wife. But KABC-TV focused on the marchers’ legs and commented on their “muscular calves.” KNBC-TV presumed the pickets were “secretaries and stenographers.”

Passersby gave both positive and negative comments ranging from “I go along with you” and the hope that “N.O.W. would change things for all women” to “Women should go back to their stoves.”

As previously arranged by N.O.W. President Aileen Hernandez and Ted Allan of N.A.M., two members of N.O.W. were permitted to register and attend the conference in each of the fourteen cities. In San Francisco one of the two was Hernandez, and in Los Angeles, Toni Carabillo, President of Los Angeles N.O.W., and Danica Henninger of N.O.W.’s Employment Task Force went in to represent the feminist view.

Apparently those who were admitted were quite effective, because during a question and answer session after a coffee break, six of thirteen questions were about sex discrimination. The answers indicated that though eliminating sex bias had not yet been given the same priority as banning racial discrimination, certain things are clearly illegal, such as discrimination based on sex in “Help Wanted” ads, treating a woman with children differently from a man with children, and pregnancy discrimination. It was also stated that when there was a conflict between a state’s “protective” (in reality “restrictive”) law regarding women’s employment and federal law requiring equal treatment, the federal law has priority.

There’s still a long way to go to attain total workplace equality, but the attention given the protests, as well as some meaningful interactions between government officials, employers, and N.O.W. members today gives hope that the government’s drive to eliminate employment discrimination will soon give sex bias the attention it deserves.


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.