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When a Chief Justice Declared That Women Make Better Secretaries

Chief Justice Warren Burger Swears in Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Warren Burger Swears in Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court.
Gillian Thomas,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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December 9, 2015

This piece originally appeared at The Atlantic.

In September 1966, a Florida woman named Ida Phillips drove to a missile plant in Orlando to apply for a job on the assembly line. It paid more than double what she was making as a waitress, and she had seven kids to support. But once the receptionist found out that Phillips had a child in preschool, she wouldn’t even give her an application. The company, Martin Marietta (now known as Lockheed Martin), didn’t hire women with kids that young, though men with children the same age were free to apply—between mothers and fathers, the company assumed it was mothers whose attendance would suffer because of a sick child or lack of childcare. And even if they made it to work, the thinking went, mothers would just be too distracted by thoughts of the home front to get the job done.

While those assumptions still bedevil working mothers, explicit bans like Martin Marietta’s are now against the law. That’s because 45 years ago today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Ida Phillips’s case. The law under which Phillips sued, Title VII of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act—the “title” outlawing employment discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex—had never been interpreted by the Court. That its first opportunity to do so arose in a case brought by a woman was ironic, given that Title VII’s ban on unequal treatment of women had been added to the legislation at the last minute. Many, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing the new law, were skeptical that it was meant to do much of anything. Indeed, not long after Title VII was enacted, the EEOC’s executive director derided the sex provision as a “fluke” that was “conceived out of wedlock.”

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