The Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, an inveterate male chauvinist from Brooklyn named Emanuel Celler, was livid, warning that the language was “illogical, ill-timed, and improper,” that it would be an “entering wedge” to a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment (an idea he detested), and that it would lead, as indeed it eventually did, to the overturning of state laws aimed at protecting women with special, and lighter, working conditions and hours. (In fact, such an outcome would have pleased Howard Smith, because Virginia’s textile industry depended on cheap female labor). So worried were the bill’s supporters that Edith Green, an Oregon Democrat who nearly a decade earlier had proposed a bill to require that men and women be paid equally for equal work, now stood to read a letter from the American Association of University Women opposing the Smith amendment, and adding her own view, said, “I do not believe this is the time or the place.”
But soon a bipartisan coalition of five women took up the fight in support of Smith’s proposal. Katharine St. George, a New York Republican, was biting. “I can think of nothing more logical than this amendment at this point,” she told her male colleagues. “We outlast you. We outlive you, we nag you to death …We are entitled to this little crumb of equality. The addition of the little, terrifying word s-e-x will not hurt this legislation in any way.” In the end, the House agreed, and the measure passed, 168–133, with mostly southern and Republican support, as it happened. As the final tally was announced, one woman in the gallery shouted, “We’ve won! We’ve won!” while another cried out, “We made it! God bless America!” before male doorkeepers escorted them from the room. The Senate and House gave final passage to the whole bill that summer.
Would Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield, and the other legislative lions who shepherded the 1964 Civil Rights Act ever have imagined that the law might one day be invoked to safeguard the rights of LGBTQ people, a then-unheard-of abbreviation that they might have taken for a mashed-up mix of New York subway lines? Probably not. But neither would plenty of those legislators have imagined—or been pleased—that a law that most of them saw as a color-blind expression of faith in the American creed eventually led to color-conscious remedies such as affirmative action in education and hiring. As William McCulloch of Ohio, the bill’s staunchest GOP supporter in the House, told Smith at one point in the debate, quoting the poet James Russell Lowell, a founder of this magazine:
New occasions teach new duties
Time makes ancient good uncouth
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.
When Title VII was passed, just two states in the union—Hawaii and Wisconsin—had laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment. Today, 21 states expressly prohibit discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender employees in the workplace, and this week, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union told the Los Angeles Times that most Americans assume the federal government already does too.